1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
The coffin of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher rests in the Crypt Chapel of St Mary Undercroft beneath the Houses of Parliament on the eve of her funeral on April 16, 2013 in London, England. Dignitaries from around the world will join Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as the United Kingdom pays tribute to former Prime Minister Thatcher Baroness Thatcher during a Ceremonial funeral with military honours at St Pauls Cathedral. Lady Thatcher, who died last week, was the first British female Prime Minister and served from 1979 to 1990. (Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images) ***FREI FÜR SOCIAL MEDIA****
Image: Getty Images

'Thatcher's Children'

Emma Wallis
April 17, 2013

Beyond her political legacy, Thatcher also changed several generations who grew up during her long rule. Regardless of their own politics, they were influenced by her policies and ideology. Emma Wallis is one of those.


Margaret Thatcher was not just the first female prime minister in Britain, she was a figure who branded a generation, or generations. "Thatcherism" - her liberal free market capitalist policies and ideas about society and how it should be run - changed the UK and the people who live in the country.

When I was little, growing up in London, the poverty and divisive politics of the 1970s were all around me. Britain was paralyzed for much of that decade with national strikes, power cuts (from the global oil crisis) and unrest. This is the decade that saw punk music and anger grow out of the ashes of the hippy movement. The general strikes in the winter of 1978-79 (the so called "winter of discontent") were the straw that broke the weakened Labour government's back and brought Thatcher to power.

I don't remember much of those years, but I do recall the excitement and fear that power cuts brought as we scrabbled to the drawer where we kept candles and waited for the lights to come back on. Rubbish piled up on the streets some weeks when striking dustmen didn't take it away, and my parents discussed whether or not to leave a Christmas tip for the beleaguered workers.

Divisive politics

Dissatisfaction was growing in Britain during the 1970s, not just with the politicians but with the status quo. Thatcher promised to change all that, and she certainly did, although the changes she made brought strife, anger and dissatisfaction for many across the UK and changed the way successive generations approached work, life and society.

April 8, 2013 - Bristol, UK. A street party in Chelsea Road, Easton, on the day former prime minister Margaret Thatcher died. (Photo : Simon Chapman/LNP)
Thatcher took power during a divisive time in British politics, and created much anger in her wakeImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com

I don't remember much about the 1979 election, but by the early eighties the miners' strikes and London riots loomed large - on the news, in the newspapers and on the lips of my parents and their friends. On the way home from school, shops were boarded up all around me, their owners preparing to batten down for another night of violence. The summers seemed to stretch on and on and broken glass and scrawled slogans adorned the walls I walked past.

My mum, who was in the CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and the feminist movement, liked taking us on marches, much to my annoyance. It felt like we were forever being kitted out in rainbow colored jumpers and scarves, and marching through London to scream abuse at the government and Thatcher's latest policies.

'Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher'

I learned to chant "Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher" (because she was famous for trying to bring in a law which took away the free school milk for children that the state provided to make sure children got their daily dose of vitamins) and "Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out" with an army of mothers and children of various ages.

A well-wisher holds up a banner ahead of the funeral of Baroness Margaret Thatcher on April 17, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Thatcher was a divisive figure, you either loved or hated her.Image: Getty Images

Secretly, I was confused. I was too little to understand the ways she was trying to change society. All I knew was that I hated drinking the thick creamy topped little bottles of milk which were provided in every state school at the time. By the time we got to them, the cream would be unpleasantly warm and the sour smell of milk would infuse the whole classroom. I, for one, was quite glad at the prospect of the milk being taken away.

Under today's Conservative government, the idea that the state should provide anything for disadvantaged children is looked down upon. Those on state benefits are often vilified and even universal child benefit has been taken away.

I may understand now that it was important to chant, but the lesson that I took away from those times was that demonstrating in the new Britain rarely does any good and that, for the most part, it is still politicians and the old guard (Oxbridge-educated - like Thatcher - rich people) who rule. So perhaps it is not surprising that Britain is today, one of the most politically passive nations in Europe.

British opposition leader Margaret Thatcher visited the British Rhine Army at Herford and Guetersloh on Jan. 23, 1976. (Photo: AP Photo/Heinz Ducklau)
Thatcher tried to put the "Great" back in to Britain, years on the country is still good at selling nostalgiaImage: picture alliance/AP Images

Putting the 'Great' back into Britain

With ventures like the Falklands War, Thatcher wanted to put the "Great" back into Britain, as part of her search for national pride in the post colonial world. Thirty years on, the flag, British insignia and nostalgia for the “Great” in Britain has been commercialized and packaged up, and is now consumed happily by the masses.

Her launching of the Falklands War did more than secure Port Stanley, it helped Britain maintain the illusion that it was still a world power. The flag is today not just the preserve of nationalists or the ruling classes - the 2012 Olympics delighted in showing multicultural Britain all decked out in our national colors. The irony is that we gaily plaster our flag on all sorts of products but, like the Falklands War, it rings a little hollow when you realize that behind the flag-waving our manufacturing sector has been decimated and the cool cultural currency that we sell in our gift shops is no match for the ravages of the financial crisis.

Did Thatcher sow the seeds of the financial crisis?

By the time I got to secondary school, the brutal "loadsamoney" culture of the eighties was in full swing, a time when bankers worked in temples to rampant capitalism. City boys swaggered around, red suspenders (what we Brits call braces) holding up their trousers over striped shirts. They carried huge mobile phones to do deals and waved their cash around.

The idea that the rich get rich and the weak are trampled underfoot was imprinting itself on our brains; not all of us followed that route of course but the out-of-control power of the city is partly what fueled the current financial crisis and Britain's move to financial services during that time has stayed as received wisdom ever since - it's still the first pillar of the economy today.

'No feminist'

Thatcher has been claimed by some as a beacon of feminism but she did little to advance the status of most women in Britain, save perhaps by setting almost impossible standards of "having it all" (job, family and husband) if you work hard enough.

People walk past the Bank of England in the City of London. (Photo: AFP PHOTO / CARL COURT GettyImages)
Under Thatcher the power of financial services in Britain boomed. But did this pave the way for today's currency crisis?Image: Carl Court/AFP/GettyImages

The fact that she was known as the "Iron lady" is perhaps key here: she was not made of the stuff of the rest of us. She herself was pushed out by her own party in 1990, her place quickly taken by John Major. Since then there has been no whisper of a female leader, at least in the UK. But nevertheless, her policies continued to be felt, not least in the slick marketing machine that was ‘New Labour'.

The general election of 1997 brought Tony Blair to power. It is hard to tell whether his rise was a result of the rebellion of "Thatcher's Children" against decades of Conservative rule, or whether, like me, we'd been so turned off politics that we just couldn't be bothered to vote at all. What is clear is that individualism continues to reign supreme.

Cool Britannia and selling nostalgia

New Labour picked up on many of the symbols of British pride that Thatcher was so keen to instill in us and reflected them back at us in a "cool Britannia" manner (a slogan beloved of New Labour). Musicians, celebrities and the media moguls of their day had all "made it rich" in Thatcher's Britain and so we carried on worshipping a cult of capitalism, now disguised as the cult of celebrity. Manufacturing, which had been battered and broken gradually during the eighties under the move to financial services in Britain, was all but forgotten. In post-Thatcherite Britain, just like today, cool was the thing that we manufactured and the bankers continued to generate the money out of nowhere, the marketing men spinning the tunes we all danced to.

'An Englishman's home is his castle'

Owning your own home, going on foreign holidays and aspiring to a metropolitan "middle class" lifestyle was what most of us wanted, just like Thatcher. Prime Time TV shows reflected it back at us, "A Place in the Sun," "Location, Location, Location," "Property Ladder" and "Homes under the Hammer" were what we consumed; "property porn" sun decks, and the "right to buy" sustained the economy into the new century.

Thatcher may have sold off council homes cheaply in the eighties and created thousands of new property owners but today our over-inflated housing sector means that most people in their twenties or thirties are unable to own their own home, at least in London, and thousands more, who are in need of social housing, are being moved around the city, pushed out, or put up in bed and breakfast accommodation as local governments admit they have run out of cheap housing stock.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, in front of property in London (Photo: AP Photo/Dear)
Thatcher helped create a nation of property ownersImage: picture alliance/AP Images

Today, Britain, back under Tory rule, feels like an unforgiving, uncaring place. Thatcher's Children make the decisions now. Charity fun runs and a mania for sponsoring, absent in many other European countries, try to paper over the gaps in social welfare, in a manner reminiscent of not just Thatcher, but the pre-welfare-state Victorians and their industrial philanthropy.

More bitter pills

With the financial crisis, we seem to be right back to taking the bitter pills of the early Thatcher era. We may privately rage against the excesses of the bankers, the politicians, and everyone else in charge, and worry about whether the welfare state will survive, but it's difficult to turn the clock back now. The unions seem to have very little power, and most people don't have an appetite to strike or protest, held as they are on "zero hour contracts", and with any jobs at all increasingly hard to find. So we buckle under, shut up and work hard, in the hope that at least us, we'll make it to that little place in the sun. The clock may have stopped for "Maggie" but her tentacles of influence reach far and wide and, like it or not, we are all her children now.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz

Ukraine updates: Scholz says tank agreement stops escalation

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage