Thatcher’s legacies

CC Image courtesy of roberthuffstutter on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of roberthuffstutter on Flickr

In a week that has seen a number of events to discuss the legacy of Thatcher it seems timely to offer my own reflection. This year marks the 30th anniversary of my participation in the Greenham Common protests against Trident. It was a moment in time in which the threat of nuclear devastation was portrayed as imminent and real. Public health broadcasts told us to ‘duck and cover’ in the event of nuclear attack (apparently all we needed was a table to hide under and a stockpile of tins and we could survive the fallout and ensuing nuclear winter). As incredible as this seems now, at the time the fear of nuclear war felt very real. While perhaps today that threat is as real as it was then, societal fear has been refocused away from an identifiable and external threat to unknown and unidentified perceived threats within our own communities.

From a feminist perspective the legacy of Thatcher is a paradoxical one. Even for those that reject her political ideology, becoming the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister could be seen as a cause for celebration. No matter that in order to do so she adopted intrinsically ‘male’ characteristics (notably the dropping of her voice an octave) while clutching a handbag to demonstrate that she really was a ‘lady’ (all be it one made of iron).

During the late 1970s and 1980s the alliance of Thatcher and the right wing press worked to undermine a movement that was built on the collective spirit of women working for peace. Derided as ‘dykes in dungarees’ the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham, and by extension the feminist movement, was relegated to the ‘loony left’ fringes of political and social debate. It seemed not to matter that those who devoted themselves to this cause were an eclectic mix of women, from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, ages and sexualities, whose collective endeavour was to secure a peaceful world for future generations and move away from the (in)security of bi-polar ‘realpolitik’. The attack on the women’s movement from the right relegated it, and feminism with it, to the outer reaches of political debate. This paved the way for the tawdry reconstruction of feminism as ‘girl power’ a decade later, where liberation was to be achieved via a celebrity wedding and a push up bra. So much for Thatcher’s feminist legacy. Even for those who contest the idea that patriarchy is quantifiable, the fact that of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons only 147 of them are women is an important empirical argument. Perhaps this is something that will be reflected on by the (all male) panel that discusses Thatcher’s legacy today.

Three decades after Thatcher procured Trident II, to replace Trident I, it still exists. Only the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party are opposed to its replacement by a new system, with debate centred on opportunity costs in relation to social spending (running to tens of billions of pounds). However a strong argument still exists in relation to the notion of security through nuclear deterrence. Our seas are constantly patrolled by Trident submarines. “Each submarine carries an estimated eight nuclear missiles, each of which can carry up to five warheads – 40 in total. Each warhead has an explosive power of up to 100 kilotons of conventional high explosive. This is 8 times the power of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, killing an estimated 240,000 people from blast and radiation.” (CND 2013) The potential for ‘mishap’ should make us stop and think, let alone that the idea that the world is made secure by the threat to annihilate millions of children, women and men and to destroy the planet.

The Women of Greenham Common understood the contradictions inherent in this conceptualisation of security. I was part of that demonstration and of a broader network of radical activist students that resided in UK universities and schools in the 1980s, but are much less visible now. Universities have seen a change in their character, led by restructuring on a national and global scale, and with that much of the terrain and spirit of student politics has changed. This is but one of many regrettable legacies of Thatcher.