The passing of Margaret Thatcher last week has had me reflecting on my youth.
Memories of Thatcher’s Britain
I think I was 20 years old when she got kicked out of Downing Street and I was studying politics at university. I’d studied it at A Level before that (exams you take at 18 years old), and before that I’d been interested in politics for a few years. So even though I was young, I was fairly aware of her impact on the country, and what I thought about it.
I grew up in Sheffield in the north of England. I watched the factories that my family worked in close down and turn to rubble. I saw desperate people collecting for the miners in town. I saw lots of pain and depression and anger and bitterness in the faces of the many unemployed on the streets.
It wasn’t a fun environment to grow up in.
The suburb of Sheffield I actually grew up in though was fairly affluent in comparison. An aspiring middle class. Neat gardens, manners, one car parked on the driveway and the other in the garage. Two point four children. Trying to be the family in the adverts.
That wasn’t a fun environment to grow up in either.
Both of these worlds are depicted quite well in Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. I was grateful when those films came out – I felt they were stories that needed to be told. Before that those worlds had no voice. Suffering must be acknowledged before people can heal.
The personal drama on the streets around me was lived within, and because of, the political discourse of Thatcherism.
Individualism, greed, materialism. Everyone for themselves. The state should not help the weak. The state should not help the vulnerable. The state should simply get out of the way of business and let it do what it likes. The ‘invisible hand of the market’ will make everything OK.
We know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that this experiment failed. Many people at the time knew that it would.
It failed on a massive scale over decades, causing untold suffering to many, many people. The recent global financial collapse, shored up only by massive state intervention, is (hopefully) the last chapter of a story that’s been going on for many years.
I hope at least that we’ve learned something from all this.
A young man choosing a path
At the time, I knew that celebrating human craving and greed wasn’t the answer. I knew that being able to own newer, bigger, more expensive things was not the path to happiness.
The people in the suburb where I lived put on their suits everyday, got in their cars and went to work. They bought shares in the privatised companies and made a few quid. They went abroad on holiday.
Their parents never got to do that. Going abroad was something only rich people could do.
On the weekend they mowed the lawn, washed the car, ironed the shirts, and prepared to do it all again.
They lived the Thatcherite dream, as far as was possible in the north of England.
But they looked confused to me. And they didn’t look happy. And they looked ugly in some fundamental way that I couldn’t put my finger on.
There was also a strange and unsettling disconnect between that and the suffering of the millions of people who lost their jobs during that time. Many of whom would never work again.
Proud people who’d worked hard all their lives, cast off by their own government, because they wouldn’t work for 50p a week like the people in countries without trade unions.
So we imported goods from there instead. Cheaper cutlery was apparently good for Britain.
This disconnect between rich and poor was bizarre to me. The idea that there was ‘no society’ (one of the well known claims made by Thatcher) seemed to me perverse. You can deny your connection with others, but it’s clearly there. When you try to live like that, you cause pain to yourself and to others.
I could see it around me. It was ugly, distasteful, wrong.
As a young man looking for a way to live, I couldn’t be a part of it.
A lotus grows out of the gunk at the bottom of the pond
I think my interest in Buddhism grew out of my attempt to find a way to live that made some sense of the conditions I grew up in.
Buddhism says that we’re not discreet entities – we are fundamentally interconnected. That made sense to me straight away.
Buddhism says that craving causes suffering. That too resonated with my experience completely.
And Buddhism gave me a framework for living that was apparently the way to an end to suffering (the Noble Eightfold Path).
So I figured I’d give it a go. I’m still giving it a go, 20 years on.
Thatcher is dead. And I’m slowly becoming an elder. It’s easy for a young man to point at the older generations and say “That’s wrong. My life will be different.”
As the pressures of adulthood kick in, it’s not so easy to walk the talk. I’m trying. I hope you are too.