LONDON – Much of Eileen Jeffrey’s adult life has been shaped by a woman she never met and a prime minister she never voted for.
“I remember Margaret Thatcher, of course I do,” Jeffrey says, standing in the shadow of the South Quay Docklands Light Railway station. “I didn’t agree with some of the things she did.”
Jeffrey, 69, has lived on the Isle of Dogs in east London for 31 years. When she first moved here, she lived in a council house with her three young daughters and worked at the McDougalls flour mill on Millwall Dock. At that time, there was a community feel and Jeffrey knew all her neighbors’ names but the transport links were bad: “There was only one bus and no shops at all until they built Asda,” she says.
When Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979, she declared her intention to drag Britain’s ailing industries into a new age of economic prosperity. A year later, the McDougalls flour mill closed and Jeffrey lost her job.
In the mid-1980s, after the introduction of new trade union legislation enabled much of the newspaper industry to shift its printing operations to Wapping, Jeffrey worked in the canteen at West Ferry Printers. All around her, the landscape was changing: In 1981, Thatcher’s government established the London Docklands Development Corporation to rebuild derelict dockside. The site was designated an Enterprise Zone — planning restrictions were eased and financial incentives were offered to developers with the aim of attracting big business to the area. Tall buildings sprouted up around Jeffrey’s old neighborhood; the horizon disappeared behind a sweep of steel and glass.
There was an influx of new residents — bankers and businessmen who could afford the hiked-up property rates — and Jeffrey found that she no longer knew the names of the people who lived next door. By 1990, when Thatcher stepped down, the Isle of Dogs Jeffrey had once known was unrecognizable.
What does she feel, now that Thatcher has died, about the legacy of this powerful woman who did so much to shape the course of Jeffrey’s own life?
There is a resigned shrug of the shoulders: “Sometimes, it made me angry, the things she used to come out with. She might have thought what she was doing was right, but a lot of people didn’t.”
Jeffrey never voted for Thatcher and yet, for 11 years, she lived out the consequences of the Iron Lady’s political and personal ideology. Across the country, there are people just like Eileen Jeffrey who continue to feel the same kind of resonating impact.
In the days following Thatcher’s death, it has become almost a cliche to talk about how divisive she was. In the media, there has been a near-constant clamor of noise. There are those who argue that she was the champion of the self-starting entrepreneur, a friend of aspiration who enabled council tenants to buy their own homes and a conviction politician who faced down the trade unions that had threatened to bring the country to its knees.
“She did what had to be done,” says Rory Scott Russell, 34, who works in the oil and gas industry in Canary Wharf offices only a few hundred yards from Eileen Jeffrey’s home. “She absolutely did more good than bad for business.”
And there are those who call her a witch, who celebrate her death by dancing in the street, who view her as the enemy of community spirit and self-sacrifice, who can never forgive her vicious treatment of the miners or the way she drove ailing British industries into the ground and put the working classes out of a job.
Even those who are too young to remember her have strong opinions. “Honestly?” asks 26-year-old Andrew Nicholl, catching a bus home after a day’s work manufacturing shells for high-tech casts near Sheffield. “She’s a c-nt.”
In Grantham, the town where Thatcher was born, there is, by contrast, a quiet pride among its residents. “I think she was wonderful,” says Susanne Fletcher, 52, a former business studies teacher. “What she’s done for women in particular — she helped us get into the hierarchies.”
The grocer’s shop on North Parade where Thatcher was raised is now an alternative health center offering chiropractic and holistic treatments. Outside, there is a small pile of flowers and messages. One bunch, wrapped in damp paper, says simply: “Girl Power.” Walking past the shop front is Tony Mason, 77, a former miner who retired to Grantham 15 years ago with his wife, Josephine. Mason became a miner after doing his national service because “it was the best-paid job available” and came with tied housing. He worked for 19 years underground doing back-breaking work. You were often working in very confined spaces,” he says. “There were no toilets down there. You’d take a bottle of water, a few sandwiches in a tin and clip it on your belt.” “Not ham sandwiches though,” adds his wife. “The meat would go off in the heat.”
The majority of Nottingham miners refused to join the 1984-85 strike without the approval of a national ballot. Mason, who by then had a job in the wages office, sometimes had to travel to different mines as part of his job. When he crossed picket lines, he was sworn at, called a scab and dodged stones. He kept his head down and was promoted to a colliery official before being made redundant at the age of 55.
As lifelong Conservatives, the Masons voted for Thatcher. Mason says it was partly because, having experienced the indescribable harshness of going down the mines to earn a living, he felt that in a just society no one else should ever have to do the same. He wasn’t sorry to see the back of coal mining. But it was also because, having worked hard all their lives and raised two children, Thatcher’s belief in individual liberty, thrift and enterprise chimed with their own personal outlook.
One hundred kilometers north of Grantham, it is a different story. On the outskirts of Sheffield, a £100 million business park and a new Barratt Homes development have sprouted up on what was the site of one of the fiercest confrontations of Thatcher’s time in office. In 1984, tensions flared between South Yorkshire police and striking miners at the Orgreave coking plant. Violence ensued. Fifty-one pickets were injured and 93 arrests made — but all charges were later dropped amid allegations of unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. South Yorkshire police later agreed to pay £425,000 in compensation.
There is little sign, now, of that fractious time. The pit has closed. The village has disappeared. Today, the site is bisected by a wide, busy road with roundabouts leading to the Advanced Manufacturing Park, a series of angular modern industrial buildings, built in the shadow of a giant wind turbine. The park’s unapologetic modernity cuts a swath through the surrounding countryside. The effect is strangely eerie: the passions of the past built over but not quite forgotten.
“Every little bush and brick — it’s all gone now,” says Michael McColgan, a lawyer and member of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, which wants an independent inquiry into what happened. “I can think of nothing but negatives about Thatcher. Listening to the Conservatives in Parliament was like listening to a bunch of prep-school boys lamenting the demise of their matron. She was a narrow-minded woman.”
The impact of Orgreave continues to be felt. “Most of the people arrested that day had no former convictions,” says McColgan. “The trauma of being arrested, kept in custody for quite some time and then waiting for a year for the trial date to come up and all the time knowing their pit was going to be closed — that had a terrible effect on them and their families. Several of the miners say they don’t want to talk about it anymore because it’s just too painful. I can’t forgive Thatcher for that.”
Not everyone viewed the Iron Lady as an enemy of the working classes, however. David Steel, an engineer from northeast England, was born two years before Thatcher came to power. He recalls his factory-worker parents buying their semi-detached council house under Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme for £7,000 in 1989. Twelve years later, they sold it for £75,000.
“A lot of the working-class people who hate Margaret Thatcher with a passion forget these things,” Steel says. “Most people on the housing estate bought their house. My point is that it wasn’t as bad as people make out.”
Steel’s two uncles were miners who were involved in the strike. When the mines closed, he says, “they got huge payouts and helped into new jobs which they refused. Before Thatcher, there was rubbish in the streets, the unions would have had everyone working a three-day week if they could. People would go on strike if they couldn’t have a tea break. Something had to be done.” Still, he admits: “If you say Thatcher where I come from, it’s like saying the F-word.”
In Liverpool, feelings run even higher. Here, the 1980s was not a decade of fat wallets, Flaming Ferraris and Filofaxes but a time of high unemployment and social deprivation. There were inner-city riots in Toxteth in 1981. Public-sector cuts combined with further job losses encouraged the sense that Thatcher and her government didn’t care about saving Liverpool from decline and led to the rise of the Militant Tendency in the local council. In 1989 came the Hillsborough stadium crush and subsequent police coverup.
“She was a bitch,” says Matthew Parry, a 26-year-old market trader. Hanging from his stall is a bunch of football scarves in the red-and-white colors of Liverpool FC emblazoned with the single word “Justice.”
“She helped cover up what happened at Hillsborough,” Parry says. “She stole my milk when I was at school so we had to start paying for it. My grandad worked on the docks and he lost his job because of her. She was a witch wasn’t she?”
Support for Thatcher is in short supply here. The least vitriolic comments come from people like Brenda Chong, a mother of four who feels disillusioned by the entire political system rather than reserving her ire for one individual.
“I don’t vote because it doesn’t matter,” says Chong, 41. “Whoever you put in power, they still mess everything up.”
Today the Liverpool docks have been smartened up and rebuilt. There is a Maritime Museum and a visitor attraction dedicated to the Beatles. Families and tourists wander round with cameras, taking pictures of the smooth expanse of the river Mersey and the familiar outline of the Royal Liver Building. But while the buildings have changed, the emotions remain.
“When I think about that woman and what she did to this city …” says musician Ned Murphy, 46, trailing off with a wordless shake of the head. “I’m gutted they’re not doing a minute’s silence [at football matches] because then everyone could cheer.
“I remember what it was like [when Thatcher was in power]. It was devastating. There were zero jobs. My father was a docker and he lost his job. We didn’t have two pennies to rub together. She was no friend at all to the working class. She only cared about the rich.”
Back at the South Quay Docklands Light Railway station, the drizzle has turned to rain. Eileen Jeffrey has a train to catch. Before she leaves, she tells me that although she disagreed with some of the things Thatcher did, she nevertheless feels sad that the former prime minister has died. She can’t explain it to herself. But perhaps, after a life lived in a city and a country transformed by one of the century’s most controversial political figures, it will be a little odd knowing that she has finally gone.