MARGARET THATCHER BECAME leader of the Opposition in Britain in 1975 —the year that I became a teenager— and before that as Education and Science Minister she had notoriously abolished the free third of a pint of milk that we all got as schoolchildren at morning break-time. This early episode with infamy perhaps earned her her first immortalization in ‘song,’ with all its nursery rhyming augury, as Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.
In the wake of Thatcher’s recent death there are whole radio shows filled with Margaret Thatcher songs being broadcast across the independent airwaves and the Internet. For those who did not live through the Thatcher Years growing in my case from teen, to angry young man, to anarchist adult; or for those who only got the Americanized Fox version of her; or for those associating her with Meryl Streep as a feminist icon, it will become clear in presenting this Power Trio (which is culled from a list of hundreds of songs about her) why none of the songs are complimentary. It will make sense why ordinary people in Britain and beyond have been dancing in the streets this past week singing Ding Dong The Witch is Dead.
May 4th 1979. Friday night in Burnley, Northern England, the town where I was born and grew up. I was a couple of months short of being done school (graduating) and with all my final exams still to do Friday nights were always going to be some kind of hormone-fueled release. Earlier on this particular Friday it had been announced that Margaret Thatcher had won the election to become Britain’s firs-ever woman Prime Minister.
Homegrown band Notsensibles, made up of mates from school and the older brothers of mates from school, had a gig at the Burnley Miners’ club. So as fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-old punks enjoying the leniency with the application of drinking laws and the traditionally ‘cheapest beer in town’ provided by working men’s clubs, it was no wonder the place erupted and we went totally ape-shit on the dance-floor when they played the song. The zanily anthemic, tongue in cheek “I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher.” They played it twice. At least!
The song became a John Peel favorite and went on to become an indie hit in the days when punk rock had made 7” vinyl the essential musical currency. It is also on the soundtrack in the Meryl Streep film. Margaret Thatcher went on to win two more elections and bring misery and death to millions.
Back in Burnley on that Friday night in 1979 we had no idea that our new Prime Minister would make it her political mission to launch a class war in an unbridled attempt to snatch back whatever small gains had been made by working people in twentieth-century Britain. That she would attempt to turn everything she touched back over to the robber baron raptors of miasma capitalism. That along with Ronald Reagan she would set in motion a train of deregulation which is still bringing ruin to the lives of ordinary working people around the world and decimating the life-support systems of the planet. That she would launch a war to win her next election and would support tyrants and despots across the globe, and with a little help from her friends, market it all in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.
The following year, 1980, Crass, the anarcho-punk pioneers, played in the neighboring town of Nelson, Lancashire at The Railway Workers’ Club, and then at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club just over the border in Yorkshire.
Working men’s clubs had begun life in the industrial towns and cities of nineteenth-century Britain as member-run social clubs to provide recreation and education for working men and their families. Like community centers, with discounted beer. By the 1980s, in tune with the changing times, they also included working women as members. Many such committee-run clubs realized the financial sense of having a punk gig on a Friday night in the concert room, which would be jammed packed with kids buying beer, whilst the regular members could still drink in the lounge. Technically speaking a club member would have to be on the door to sign us in as guests, but as long as we respected the place we were generally welcomed.
On the surface it was an unusual match of cultures, and the two seemingly-distinct species would gawk and wonder at each other each other whilst waiting in line at the connecting toilets, but it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. It worked.
As an eighteen year old punk, going to my first Crass gig was an unprecedented assault on the senses. The Railway Workers’ club’s cabaret-concert-room-homeliness had been transformed by backdrops, films projected on the wall, pamphlets, the aesthetic of stenciled graffiti agit-prop and the fact that the band would freely mingle and talk with their audience before and after the gig … like “a social club … providing recreation and education.” Crass were not my favorite music but it was hard to ignore or not be inspired by their offensive on the boundaries of what a gig could be.
In the burgeoning Burnley punk scene of 1979-1980 some of us, mates from school, had formed a short-lived band called Chimp Eats Banana. We used theater and were as much influenced by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah and The Fall as The Sex Pistols. We were kind of ‘out there,’ playing a handful of gigs supporting Notsensibles and other Burnley-ish punk bands, blossoming and breaking up when it came time to go to college, having had a natural life cycle of a little over a year.
Music in our teen years has an indelible stamp on our growing up, on who we are, on who we become and on our sense of community. From the ashes of Chimp Eats Banana three of us had the bug so bad that we dropped out of university in Leeds, Yorkshire and formed Chumbawamba. We played our first gig in January 1982 with clumsy but more serious Dadaist intent. As a band and as twenty- and twenty-one-year-olds when Thatcher went to war with Argentina in April 1982, we became politicized.
Pretty much alone at that time in having the will and the reach to be able to penetrate the fringes of the main-stream Crass released “How Does it Feel to be the Mother of A Thousand Dead?” as an immediate 7” punk vinyl response to Thatcher’s Falklands War. Questions were asked in Parliament about it and Conservative MP Timothy Eggar unsuccessfully tried to have the band prosecuted under The Obscene Publications Act.
We had marched against the war in our adopted home of Leeds, with a few other tens of people. There were actually more police than demonstrators, who were there to protect us from angry patriots. When the returning soldiers came to Burnley’s Market Square for their victory parade, we had demonstrated in front of them by daubing ourselves with red paint and offering the squaddies flowers to put in their gun barrels. We nearly got lynched, of course, such was the nationalistic sense of rekindled Empire that Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch had cooked up.
In that climate Crass inspired gigs and the anarcho-punk scene of bands that were springing up all over the country became our natural home, and it was in 1982 that Chumbawamba’s first-ever recordings appeared on the vinyl Crass Records compilation, Bullshit Detector 2.
Crass went on to anonymously circulate the so-called Thatchergate Tape, which purported to be a phone conversation between Thatcher and Reagan, but was in fact made up of edited snippets from TV interviews that had them talking of sacrificing Europe in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. That too raised questions in Parliament and the U.S. State Department, which is about as punk rock as you can get.
I really don’t get the feminist icon part of the Thatcher legacy. She had none of the nurturing intuitive strength that makes many women good leaders for a saner planet. She did nothing to advance women’s rights. Even her official biographer admitted that she “benefited from the emancipation of women without showing the slightest interest in it.”
Her modus was always to be more masculine in the exercise of power than her male counterparts in Britain, and she loved a ‘strong man,’ abroad meaning any dictator with anti-Soviet credentials, which were rated exponentially more important than their human rights records.
After the Falklands War Thatcher saw out the Cold War with Reagan and Bush the father, not least supporting the US’s secret proxy wars in South America, whilst fighting her own dirty backyard war in Ireland. She gave succor to the military government of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, who in the radical Islamization of that country was the blow-back of 7/7 to England, that Osama Bin Laden was in 9/11 to the U.S. Like the U.S., Thatcher funneled weapons to their cop on the beat in the Gulf, one Saddam Hussein.
Thatcher denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and expressed her support for the Aparthied regime in South Africa. Having befriended the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet during the Falklands War she remained a lifelong friend and defender of the CIA-installed mass murderer. Thatcher supported the Khymer Rouge in Cambodia by sending the SAS to give military training to its ousted generals. She advanced British arms sales to friendly dictators whenever and wherever she could, notably in Saudi Arabia.
In response to my then-limited knowledge of the true depth of this kind of foreign policy (as a sometime solo performer in the eighties) I have the dubious honor of authoring, and singing in public, the not so immortal lyric: Margaret Thatcher lives in Ronald Reagan’s underpants (not included in this Power Trio). It never caught on and later I realized I had underestimated the situation. Thatcher had her strong men, but she also along had another ‘boyfriend’ … Rupert Murdoch.
By rolling back the tide of regulation in favor of corporations Thatcher and Reagan in effect gave Rupert Murdoch et al carte blanche to re-monopolize the media in Britain and the U.S. The reason why Thatcher and Reagan won second ‘landslide’ elections was in no small part because they fought and won wars of aggression against some of the weakest opponents on the planet, Argentina and Grenada respectively. To get away with this they had to pre-meditatively leap-frog diplomacy and real democracy in favor of war. Essential to that last part of the equation was Rupert Murdoch, who took the lead in manufacturing the requisite amounts of ‘popularity’ on their behalf to give those wars the necessary gloss of ‘legitimacy.’
Last week Murdoch’s flagship tabloid newspaper in Britain, The Sun, denounced “the warped revellers (who) celebrated the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher at sickening parties.” High morals indeed, coming from the same Murdoch-owned newspaper which in 1982 celebrated the sinking of the General Belgrano and the death of 323 Argentinians with the front page headline “Gotcha!”
They may not like each other, but Murdoch might as well have written Obama’s eulogy to Thatcher this past week as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty.” Nothing could be closer to the Fox News ‘truth’ but further from the historical and actual reality.
Living in England we came face to face with ‘free market’ Thatcherism, but let us call a spade a spade. Thatcherism was a crusade to return the means of production to corporations by any means necessary, regardless of the damage inflicted upon ordinary peoples’ lives and their abilities to make a decent living, and regardless of the damage to the environment in which they live.
It is the same malignant cancer capitalism which brought the financial crash of 2008 and rewarded those responsible for it; it is the same institutionalized abuse of political power that keeps the United States and its still-sidekick Britain on a permanent war footing; it is the same deregulation which means an endless transfer of wealth from poor to the obscenely wealthy; and it is the same systematic abuse of the planet’s resources that has set in motion feedback loops of environmental catastrophe, which threaten to overwhelm the life support systems of the host, the planet itself.
At the business end it is usually hidden from view: dirty wars abroad, skirmishes swept under the carpet at home. Thatcher systematically attempted to divide and rule any opposition by singling out and isolating sections of the working class, and counter-culture deemed ripe for attack. From the many examples I will pick one: her war against the coal miners of Britain.
1984. As members of Chumbawamba and a striking miners’ support group we were twinned with the Frickley pit in the mining town of South Elmsall, South Yorkshire. (Soon after this the new kitten at the Chumbawamba squat in Leeds was named Frickley in honor). It was not long before we found ourselves on a Sunday night in yet another working men’s club that serviced the Frickley pit. We were punks and working men and women together. If there had ever been any real doubt we were now firmly on the same side of the fence. In this, Thatcher’s divide-and-rule strategy had the exact opposite effect.
Miners’ and working men’s clubs in general exist in the heart of a community of said workers. The homes people lived in, in this case the pit where they worked, the club where they socialized were all part of that community. Thatcher knew this, and this is what she chose to attack.
Thatcher brought the Cold War home describing the striking coal miners as “the Enemy Within.” Summoning the ghost of McCarthy, Murdoch’s press corps were not slow to demonize the striking miners in any way they could. Today Murdoch et al would have labeled the miners terrorists, but in the 1980’s, labeling them ‘traitors,’ ‘reds’ ‘communists’ and ‘anarchists’ pretty much did the same job in dehumanizing that ‘enemy within’.
In her crusade to return whole industries to ‘free market privatization’ Thatcher took her war against the people into their own communities. It was not just that Thatcher was working to enable power corporations to outsource and buy cheaper foreign coal, throwing people in Britain out of work, it was that she took masculine pleasure in the battle to stamp out those who stood in the front line to oppose her.
In the early hours of a dark winter night in 1984 Chumbawamba were driving back north from a gig up the empty-ish M1 (the main north-south highway in England) through Southern Yorkshire. And then on the opposite carriageway a column of more than 100 police riot vans, meaning more than 1000 riot cops inside, appeared out of the blackness. It was thoroughly shocking to see government in the act of engaging in civil war against its own people. It was heart rending knowing what they had been ordered to do, but also knowing in that moment that we were powerless to stop them. The police phalanx had been deployed to drive into one of the mining communities to make noise, to wake up ‘the enemy’, to cause havoc, to raid houses, to make random arrests and to offer violence in the face of any opposition. It was a systematic campaign of pre-meditated intimidation.
Thus was the under-reported but true face of Thatcher’s crusade against trade unions. Meanwhile, M15 (like the FBI) ran surveillance and ‘counter-subversion’ operations against miners leaders. It was like the war the British Army and the paramilitary Royal Ulster Constabulary were fighting against Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, the only difference being these cops used truncheons instead of guns and road horses instead of driving armored cars.
In the early hours of the-morning-after-the-night-before in the miners’ club we arrived bleary eyed, to flecks of snow in the air on the picket line outside the Frickley pit. After huddling for human warmth for what seemed like an aeon, there came the sound of a distant engine and then the shout went up. The crowd surged as one seething mass, a scrummage of thousands of strikers and their supporters, jostling with the same amount of riot cops in the daily ritual of attempting to blockade the mine’s managers from bringing in non-unionized workers.
Pushed forward and pulled back in a series of human waves, the crowd saw the faces of Thatcher’s foot soldiers up close behind their riot shields with each surge. On this occasion the struggle was symbolic. A few snowballs were thrown instead of rocks. The scabs as they are called in the vernacular, made it into work. On other mornings the scabs were turned back. On other mornings still, full pitched battles erupted and during the course of the year-and-a-half long strike six miners were killed on picket line duty across the country.
The previous night we had stayed with a Frickley miner called Bill at his home. A home stripped of the daily luxuries we see as normal. TVs, couches, furniture sold in a survival attempt to prolong the ability to continue the strike. Bill told us that recently on the picket line, when they had held a minute’s silence for one of their work-mates who had died on the picket line, that, that was the moment the order was given for the riot cops to attack them. It was another of Thatcher’s dirty wars but it was here in England, in Yorkshire and only an hour from where we lived. So we wrote a song about it. More like a sound collage. We didn’t bother to ask Thatcher’s permission about her contribution.
Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher. Inextricably intertwined with our growing from children to adults. And so as all the pundits have been pontificating in recent days, to the Thatcher legacy?
We knew back then that coal was dirty energy. Thatcher as a trained chemist knew better than most that it was dirty energy. Instead of working towards a green economy and re-employing miners Thatcher tossed them out on to the slag heap and enabled the power companies to increase their profits by using cheaper foreign coal, mined by non-unionized labor.
Only days after addressing the United Nations with a shockingly well-informed speech in 1989 warning of the impending perils of global warming, Thatcher green-lighted “the biggest road-building programme since the Romans.” She entrusted in her own mantra that “nothing can stop the great car economy,” the actual means by which she would address global warming. At every turn she jettisoned the hard science of finite resources in favor of the pipe dream of endless economic growth and spoon-fed it to her heirs Blair and Cameron.
The official history records that Thatcher fell from power in 1990 because of an orchestrated campaign of back-stabbing by rivals in her own party. That explains the how, but not the why. In trying to impose a Poll Tax which penalized the poor, low and middle income families and rewarded the rich, she falsely believed in her own inflated idea of her self. That having spent ten years launching assaults one-by-one on the unions and the sections of the counter-culture that she could now take on the whole of the British working class and win. She over-reached herself and in uniting the people she had always tried to divide, she became a liability and she lost.
If you are reading this on Sunday, Judy Garland’s version of “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” will be number two on the British pop charts. Held at number two on purpose, like The Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen” before it in 1977 … only in England.
So yes Margaret Thatcher will go to her grave this week lauded by Presidents, Prime Ministers and CEOs as one of the ‘greats,’ but yes we raise a glass in her death to remember all the victims of her rule, and to remember that in the end it was we-the-people who took her out of the game. And if we take a moment to celebrate, it is in part to remind ourselves that we outlived her. And in outliving her we still have the means to usurp her legacy that is the unholy marriage of state and corporation. We live on and we can continue the struggle in favor of a saner means of cohabiting with our common people and the planet.