A Black Brit Reflects on Life Under Margaret Thatcher

I remember Margaret Thatcher. I remember her well. Growing up in England in the 1980s, she dominated the chats among my friends. We were living through a massive social war, thanks to Maggie Thatcher.

As university students, we were filled with ideas on how to change the world. Maggie Thatcher was our enemy. She mocked us. She blocked us. She attempted to smash us.

My friends and I were angry her. We knew we were the last generation to go to university for free. We were poor black kids. We were the first in our families to go beyond secondary school. Free university made the dream of a better life in the “mother country” a possibility.

That was why our parents left the Caribbean to labor in the factories and hospitals, and in transport jobs in England. Now, Maggie was threatening that dream.

Television broadcasted scenes of striking miners in bloody scuffles with the police. Or the miners fighting scabs – other miners who had crossed the picket lines.  Maggie refused to negotiate with the unions. She gave them a choice – bend to her iron will or starve.

Most of my friends were content to just discuss the strikes. A few went off to support the miners. They came back to campus with scratches and bruises from police truncheons. They were hailed as heroes. Most of us found we preferred planning battle tactics from a comfy chair in a cozy student lounge. We liked inflicting only verbal scars.

Racism fattened under Maggie Thatcher. It became open season for attacks on blacks and South Asians. The working-class skinheads and the neo-Nazi National Front political party were popular.

Many young black men were knifed in the streets or outside pubs and bars. Black and Asian families were roasted when their homes were fire-bombed at night. Police could never find the killers.

The police harassed black youth for “suspicious” activities such as walking by a shop, entering a bus, or chatting to a friend. Riots erupted across England when the black community declared they’d had enough. Each year the riots spread, until it seemed all of England was burning.

There were riots in Brixton, Toxteth and Broadwater Farm just to name a few. The annual carnival in Notting Hill was overshadowed by the annual riots on the same streets during the evenings.

Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah were the black heroes on campus. Their poetry and spoken word events captured the mood of black Britain. I loved their poetry, it was simply beautiful.

At university, we debated the need for the working class to stick together to defeat Maggie. The strikes and the race riots were caused by her. I fully supported this view.

Most of the other black students did not. Many had friends or family members who died or were mauled by the police or skinheads. It is hard to build solidarity, when you know are not wanted in England.

Growing up in rural and small-town England, I realized my ‘black experience’ was very different from most of the other African-Caribbean students. I grew up poor, surrounded by cows and fields of barley, cabbage and oats. They grew up poor in the inner-city, where dodging the skinheads with their fists and knives was a weekly part of life.

I was supposed to meet Maggie Thatcher at the Conservative Party political conference in Brighton. It was my first big job as a reporter for the student newspaper. Maggie never showed up. She was delayed by a bomb explosion. The IRA had set it off in an attempt to end British colonial rule in Ireland.

The conference went on. I was the only ethnic face in the place. I froze when speaker after speaker blamed all of Britain’s problems on the ethnics, immigrants and the blacks. I just never expected to hear such naked racism said to my face.

A few of the professional journalists tried to shield me from the tirades. They told me not to take it personally. It was too late by the next day; the same reporters had praised the speakers for their honesty and bravery.  The conference killed my interest in politics and journalism for the next three decades.

I did not like Maggie Thatcher. I do not have fond memories of her. But, I do admire her a tiny bit. As a woman, she had dared to challenge the old boy network in British politics. And she won.

She showed us that female leaders could be as bloodthirsty as males. She declared war on Argentina (The Falkland War) and on Iceland (The Cod War).  The blood lust was revolutionary. A woman in pearls, with a dainty handbag, had encouraged her troops to smash the enemy. Maggie Thatcher had smashed a whole set of gender stereotypes.

Maggie Thatcher convinced a generation of black British people that they would never find success in England.  So we left. We came to Canada and the U.S., where the welcome was more warm and friendly.

© Jacqueline L. Scott

Jacqueline L. Scott is a writer in Toronto, Canada. She writes on travel, race and culture.

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