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Margaret and Me: reflections from my Thatcher years / 17 April 2013

Gabriel Pepper at March for the Alternative

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The Thatcher funeral pontificates in the background as I write. I feel a weary resignation to a day of eulogy, of history revised, though if nothing else, this event provokes me to be reflective on my own past.

I was in my late teens when Thatcher came to power. I remember those years with an emotional resonance, the deja vu feeling that comes with recalling tough times.

I had a passing interest that she was a woman. I was new to feminism and embraced it into my strange, sheltered life as I devoured books by Germaine Greer, Simon De Beauvoir and Marge Peircy.  Let us not forget this quote from Thatcher:

For I hate feminism. It is poison.

I look up. A black woman reverend speaks at MT’s funeral service…

I was never politically sophisticated. I’m an idealist, a soft socialist with neo-anarchist leanings. I was a member of CND back then and to quote from an hilarious song I wrote at that time about the idea we all had 4 tons of weapons grade plutonium or some such:

‘No Mon amour, mon amour Cruise Missile

Take away my four tons

They deal in death

I don’t want it’

I was a punk, after all, I was and remain, working class. The very marrow of my being rebelled instinctively against Thatcherism; with responses of teenage moral outrage, rather than one from a party political perspective. All parties seemed full of dull old men and had nothing to say to me at 19, a young disabled woman.

My realisation was swift; my family, my friends and myself were under attack from Thatcher’s preaching of small-minded, self-interested individualism. I lived in the south, in Green Belt country – on several sprawling council estates that were always built away from the posh people, like an embarrassment that had to be dealt with. There were knife fights, stray dogs, mattresses in the road, a chronic, scabby, rural-tinged poverty. Thatcher did not give us hope.

There’s singing in St Pauls. I Google: Thatcher and disability. Thatcher and the welfare state.  Thatcherism and the NHS. The responses are scattered; academics and political journos can enjoy scratching through that if they wish. What strikes me is that Thatcher not only perpetuated the Charity model of disability – in which we are the dependent and helpless individual – she also spread some rotten little spores that brought the weeds of rampant capitalism large and thriving into our lives today. It was all about perfect family values and voluntary practice, market forces, the non-society; an ideology that undercut universal health and social care.

If disabled people are mentioned it was usually as an afterthought. I did find this little nugget from some event about the launch of a ‘voluntary’ Code of Good Practice for the employment of disabled people. Charity and Triumph Over Tragedy models rule:

I believe that most of us get a special satisfaction from helping them [disabled people] to find new hope and a new sense of achievement. We have so little to complain about, and so much to learn from them. We are grateful for their example.

So now we know. We made Maggie feel better and grateful.

I remember those miserable employment schemes with a tired anger. I was put on them and they failed because there was never an attempt to change the outside wrongs; the inaccessible environments, the lack of accessible transport and no personal care support to do anything. Let us not forget; Thatcher did not support any civil rights based anti-discrimination law for disabled people, and the weak, medical-model scrag that is the Disability Discrimination Act scraped through as a begrudging apology – and around 10 years behind other anti-discrimination law.

I lived a bizarre half-life in those Thatcher days, as did many disabled people. No Independent Living, no Personal (care) Assistants. No accessible buses. No access to buildings. Scant information, accessible or otherwise. No sense of belonging in society. In those days we really were hidden; within struggling families, within care homes. A pre-social media age; no mobiles, no computers. I had no social life and few friends; we communicated by post – hand-written letters - and used a landline telephone thriftily. I do remember the fear that ripped through communities – yes, even in my soft southern council estate enclave – as jobs went. And went. I remember putting money in buckets collecting for miners’ families and the Greenham Common women. My clothes from jumble sales and Mum buying cheap stale bread as the shops closed is another memory burnt into me from those times.

It was after a four-year battle with social services, and some advice from Ken Livingstone (yes, Red Ken) that I managed to move to London with a best friend to live in a tiny flat in Leyton. This coincided with the first nervous beginnings of disability activism and our arts movement. We were fiery and committed. Maggie was certainly not going to be an ally to our liberation. She believed in ‘helping’, not empowering, not ensuring our equality. But then, she didn’t seem to believe in that for anyone.

We fought tooth and nail. Soon we had Direct Action Network. Artsline, the Disability Arts Forums and BCODP, to name a few. We fought and achieved, evolved and grew, each in our own way clawing a new little freedom that disabled people have since enjoyed.

I’m struck that some of my gloomy reminiscing rings with a frightening familiarity. No surprise; Thatcher was a key progenitor of the capitalist ideology held by Cameron and his cronies. Blair was a successor and a worthy one, as MT herself once remarked. The snake in faux red with pants of pale blue.

I look up as the funeral drones on and see Boris with his deranged hair. Jeremy Clarkson. Shirley Bassey.

I pause to think about more recent times. How disabled people are under attack as scroungers, fraudsters, responsible for the recession. Victims of increased hate crime, and facing savage attacks on our very personal independence as Independent Living Fund closes along with DLA. Yet how we are mobilised, having grasped the opportunities of social media to connect and protest. We are often overlooked by the mainstream media, yet no one can deny we have a new presence which is unparalleled – and we must not let the pressure up for one second.

But now, sick of the TV coverage I’ve made my writer-self watch, I shall end on the observation that on the day Margaret Thatcher died, so did Disability Living Allowance. Which means, after 30 odd years, for me, the fight must go on – and on. Protecting what we have, and battling, hard and determined, to go further for the dream of full equality.

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This is taken from my wordpress blog:

I wanted to share it to DAO for obvious reasons. Thank you!