Margaret Thatcher & Ronald Reagan – A Requiem for the People –The 1980’s
In 1979 Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected. Two years later, Ronald Reagan’s Republican government also took office. What happened during their simultaneous reign was an extraordinary confluence of political ideology and friendship that rebuilt the special relationship between the countries. At the same time their polices had a major economic impact on black and poor communities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both PM Thatcher and President Reagan were supporters of the deregulation of public institutions and they reformed the role of government and became champions of privatisation. The military played a big role in their popularity in actual conflict or in the cold war with Communism. They both believed in personal responsibility to rise above adversity and knew how to play this message to their political base.
Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female premier and had swept to power by promising economic stability and trade union reform. Britain had ground to a halt following strike action in protest to Callaghan’s Labour government in 1978 called the Winter of Discontent and PM Thatcher was intent and succeeded in crushing the power of the trade-unions. Her policies would affect a generation of people’s lives for richer or for poorer. She privatised the natural monopolies of gas, electric and water as well public institutions such as British Telecom and British Rail. She removed many of the restrictions on the financial markets to free the economic markets, which led to the financial powerbase in the former industrial wasteland of East London which is now Canary Wharf. She began a programme of selling off council housing allowing thousands to own their own home for the first time and fuelling a housing boom. However fewer new houses were built creating a housing shortage on local authority waiting lists. Many manufacturing jobs were lost in the industrial centres of Britain, which meant those who did not take the academic route out of poverty found their escape route blocked.
Thatcher’s government introduced tougher law and order measures and curbs on immigration. This reflected her concerns of Britain being ‘swamped’ by immigrants during her election campaign, which but was eerily reminiscent of Enoch Powell’s inflammatory speech. [Source No? http://www.youtube.comwatch?v=sHhKI5ijnxQ%5D.
The Iron Lady emerged victorious after a war with Argentina in the disputed seas of the South Atlantic called the Falklands Islands. A domestic war continued with the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) who had received financial backing for their bombing campaign from Irish-Americans through Noraid. The IRA attempted to assassinate her and her cabinet at the Conservative Party Conference at Brighton in 1984, which left five dead. As well as the military and special forces there was The Police Force who were directly in the frontline of violent disturbances such as the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the poll tax riot of 1990 and a number of inner-city riots throughout the early-1980’s. (See Chapter 9)
Her political soul-mate President Reagan’s revelled in his role as leader of the nation. He was determined to give Americans confidence in themselves, something that had been eroded after the presidencies of Nixon, Ford and Carter.
Reagan’s economic programmes dubbed Reaganomics, introduced several polices that meant America’s poor were worse off and reduced welfare spending. Tax cuts were given to the richest with the theory that they would use their wealth in spending that would trickle-down to the poorer communities. Their deregulation of the financial system to free the markets also made huge financial gains for the private sector. Some commentators argue that in these heady days lies the portent of the 2008 banking crisis and current economic decline. There was not enough financial control by successive governments and it has been the public sector through its local governments that have had to pay the bill for private gain from the public purse.
Maggie, Ronnie and Me
Black people on both sides of the Atlantic were statistically to be found at the bottom of the economic ladder PM Thatcher and President Reagan’s policies had affected them directly. Basic services worsened and unemployment, poverty rates, poorer health and education outcomes and crime increased leaving rising black numbers in prison. The use of and selling of drugs increased, especially when the highly addictive cocaine derivative crack reached Britain after devastating black communities in America. Relations with the police deteriorated especially amongst the young and increasingly a generation became cut-off from the wider society, with their own life-style, culture and codes of living in gangs. Many refused to reap the sacrifices of the civil-rights era and simply did not use their hard-fought right to vote. Poverty was colour-blind and many people were dropping out and tuning into crime, drugs or both to become socially excluded.
New words were used by the media to summarise the dis-enfranchised. Dole scroungers, welfare cheats and the Underclass for the underserving poor. Welfare queens were used to castigate the growing number of single mothers. Some got rich on the nation’s assets with the selling off of the Post Office creating British Telecom and selling off of the railways which my family had worked in. Those who were (or escaped across the social divide had their own media branding, with words such as Yuppies (Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals) and Buppies their black equivalent. With their flash cars, sharp, Miami Vice styled outfits and use of brick-size mobile phones there were plenty of winners as well as losers from these new social and employment conditions.
It was into this environment that I emerged as another statistic. Failed comprehensive education, living in sub-standard housing, unemployed, a teenage father, no money, in debt and worst of all I felt I had little control over my bleak future. Of the country I lived in, it felt like I was watching a family at Christmas, unwrapping their presents and carving a turkey whilst I watched with my face pressed against the glass, my stomach and rage growling. There was too higher price to pay for the prosperity of the rich, and fast-emerging new rich that made up Thatcher’s Britain which was adopting the American system of winners and losers. Enterprise appeared to be valued over welfare at any price; it was a fresh war on the same narrative of the struggles of rich and poor class warfare that have been highlighted since the writings of Karl Marx.
From America I was hearing similar tales the in rap music of social poets like Public Enemy. Both countries appeared to be becoming more divided between the haves and the have -nots fuelled by the words of PM Thatcher who once said ‘there is no society only individuals.’ Reagan’s ended the cold war with the Soviet Union which led to a global rejoicing at the fall of the Berlin wall and communism but his spending on the military, began the spiral of huge government debt. His policy of reducing the role of federal government however has become the Tea-party’s key single issue.
The Iron Lady and the Great Communicator continue to divide opinion, but both have enduring legacies. For their supporters it evokes a time of enterprise and strength, where their leaders commanded the world’s attention proud of their nation’s values they espoused. But many in Britain and America’s poorer communities never got to share in the wealth they created and are still feeling the scars and the impact of their actions.
Extract From my book ‘My American Odyssey – From the Windrush to the White House’ Revised 11th April 2013 following the death of Margaret Thatcher 8th April 2013