City MP’s take on the most divisive of Prime Ministers

Stoke-on-Trent North MP Joan Walley.

Stoke-on-Trent North MP Joan Walley.

Few figures are as inextricably linked to the 1980s as the former Prime Minister who passed away this week at the age of 87.

Her tenure covered the entire decade – beginning in 1979 when she inherited a country paralysed by industrial unrest and ending with the bitter Poll Tax riots and a Conservative party revolt which saw her forced from office.

In recent days millions of column inches have been written about this woman as those to the left and right, and those who were helped or hindered by her policies, seek to write her epitaph.

‘Divisive’ is the word most media outlets have settled for as commentators express admiration and condemnation in equal measure.

We’ve a ‘ceremonial’ funeral next week and doubtless amid the pomp there will be protests and questions as to why Margaret Thatcher deserves a multi-million pound send-off while so many across the country struggle in these austere times.

Someone who certainly doesn’t agree with this state-sponsored tribute is Joan Walley who was elected MP for the Stoke-on-Trent North constituency when the Iron Lady won a record third election in June 1987.

By then Mrs Thatcher was a towering political figure who had overseen the Falklands Conflict, defeated Arthur Scargill after the long-running Miners’ Strike and implemented many of the policies on which history will judge her.

Joan, who didn’t attend the tribute debate to the former Prime Minister, said: “When anyone dies, first and foremost you must be respectful of their family and friends and understand what they must be feeling at a time of loss and sadness.

“That said, my feelings towards Mrs Thatcher, I struggle to say Lady Thatcher, are of course coloured by the memories of what her destructive policies did to this country during the 1980s – the effects of which many communities are still feeling today.

“She dismantled much of the country’s manufacturing base, declared war on the trade unions, privatised the UK’s industries and utilities and sold off council homes without ensuring there was the social housing to replace it. We are now living with the consequences of these policies.”

In Joan’s eyes the fact that Margaret Thatcher was the country’s first and only woman Prime Minister is not significant in that it didn’t open doors for other women.

She said: “I don’t think she did anything for women, in all honesty. She certainly didn’t make a huge difference to the political landscape because during her time in office there were still many more men in Parliament than women.”

I asked Joan if it was too simplistic to say that Mrs Thatcher’s foreign policy was more successful than her domestic policy.

She said: “Even with regard to the Falklands War it is difficult to say whether or not she was right. She certainly went against the advice of colleagues and military commanders – we know that know from papers that have been released.

“It shows that she had the courage of her convictions but clearly the public confidence which she exuded at times was very much for the media because the success of the task force operation was far from guaranteed.

“Domestically, I would say she just got it terribly wrong. Yes she took over at a time of great industrial unrest but the way in which she set about changing the economy led to deep divisions which still exist.

“I remember leading the miners on marches at the Victoria Ground and Vale Park during the Miners’ Strike. Her policies, such as her war against the trade unions, left a very profound impression on me because I saw the suffering of families in our area.”

So how will Joan remember Margaret Thatcher as a Parliamentarian and a person?

“She was always immaculately turned-out. Her outfits were always striking and co-ordinated and she had those strings of pearls. There was never a hair out of place. I think image was very important to her.

“She was certainly an impressive performer in the House and when in front of the cameras – I think you have to say that. She was a good orator and had a very commanding aura.

“I think it also fair to say that she had more of an impact and a presence on the world stage than any of the Prime Ministers who have succeeded her.

“However, she has to be judged on the effect her policies had on the fabric of our society and, for many people, those policies were so destructive and caused hardship and misery.”

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Advertisements

RIP Maggie: She must have been doing something right

A lady not for turning: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

A lady not for turning: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


I was at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery a couple of years ago for the 25th anniversary debate on the Miners’ Strike.

Despite the best efforts of the organisers and the chairman of the panel on stage, it felt rather more like an ambush than a genuine debate.

Understandably, a good number of people in the room were from mining communities and the bile and vitriol reserved for a former Conservative Minister was there for all to see.

Suffice to say, Edwina Currie – a woman who doesn’t need me to defend her – deserved the utmost respect for turning up to be shot at here in a solid Labour, working class city.

My overwhelming thought as I left the lecture theatre was ‘thank goodness it wasn’t Margaret Thatcher’.

Thatcher ‘the milk snatcher’; Thatcher: Who came up with the Poll Tax; Thatcher: Whose government oversaw the closure of 150 coalmines which devastated communities across the UK; Thatcher: Who crushed the trade unions; Thatcher: Whose belief in the free-market economy and privatisation promoted greed and selfishness on a scale never seen before.

You’ll read all of the above and more in the coming days as the country comes to terms with the loss of a towering political figure.

In my opinion, this is a very selective and simplistic version of the Margaret Thatcher story – and a markedly biased one which panders to left-wing rhetoric.

Since the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death broke yesterday we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of people actually celebrating her passing.

‘Bing bong’ posted people on Facebook and Twitter – quoting ‘the witch is dead’ line from The Wizard of Oz.

I’m not sure which is worse – the fact that people are dancing on someone’s grave or that they can’t find a decent thing to say about one of only two leaders of note this country has seen since Churchill.

It was Tony Benn no less, that most respected of Labour heavyweights, who often held Margaret Thatcher up as an example of how a great political party should be led.

She came to power in 1979 as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and, in doing so, sent shockwaves through the old boys’ club that was the Houses of Parliament.

Surely that ticks a box with everyone? Go on, admit it.

Let’s also not forget that Mrs Thatcher inherited a country in turmoil, paralysed by industrial unrest and half as productive and prosperous as it could have been.

Trade unions were trotting in and out of Downing Street with their demands, rubbish littered the streets, the dead lay un-buried and the IMF was banging on Britain’s door because ‘the sick man of Europe’ was bankrupt.

She set about transforming Britain’s economy – something she did at questionable social cost – and was vilified for her crusade against the very unions who had held previous Labour administrations to ransom.

Mrs Thatcher will be forever remembered as the Prime Minister who destroyed the UK’s mining industry. Few, however, are brave enough to concede that large parts of the industry were loss-making and that coal mines were also closing all over Europe.

Maggie’s government introduced the Right To Buy scheme for council homes – one of the most important pieces of empowering social legislation this country has ever seen.

She was despised by the IRA for her hard-line stance on terrorism and almost paid for it with her life. Even that didn’t cow her.

It was Mrs Thatcher’s deep-held sense of belief in standing up to aggressors and defending Britain, forged during the dark days of the Second World War, which shaped her response to the Falklands Crisis.

The resulting improbable victory was spectacular and owed much to Maggie’s unshakeable belief in the importance of defending ‘her people’.

The woman dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ by her enemies in Moscow needed no spin doctors – unlike those who have succeeded her at Number 10. She was talked-about, respected and, crucially, listened to on the world stage and was certainly the equal of any statesman across the globe.

I dare say George W. Bush wouldn’t have got away with talking to Maggie the way he did the political poodle that was Tony Blair.

The very fact that she was the first Prime Minister to win three elections in a row tells me that Margaret Thatcher must have being doing something right in the eyes of the majority of those who could be bothered to vote.

The end of an era for working class heroes down the pits

When I started work as a cub reporter in the late Eighties I caught the tail end of one of the industries on which our city made its reputation.

In the 1930s there had been more than 20 mines operating across the North Staffordshire coalfield.

They stretched from Victoria at Biddulph in the north to Hem Heath in the south and from Madeley in the west to Parkhall in the east.

Looking across the relatively refined landscape of the Potteries nowadays, it is hard to believe that at one time tens of thousands of men earned a crust below ground in miles of shafts, passageways and tunnels which criss-crossed the area.

Indeed, there is very little in terms of commemoration for the generations of men who spent their working lives at places such as the Racecourse Colliery in Cobridge, Sneyd Colliery at Hanley, Norton Colliery, Apedale Colliery and many more.

For decades these mines were the engines of industry but from the 1960s a succession of pits were closed during a period of innovation and mechanisation – including Berry Hill at Fenton, the Deep Pit at Hanley, Parkhouse at Chesterton and Mossfield in Longton.

Then, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government swept to power and, although no-one realised it at the time, the writing was on the wall for coal mining in the UK.

Here in North Staffordshire only a few pits remained open into the period of the Miners’ Strike (1984-1985).

But at the time Hem Heath, Florence, Holditch, Silverdale and Wolstanton still employed almost 6,000 between them.

I was there on the day that some of them closed but to give me a sense of what life was like for the men who grafted underground I spoke to former miner and local historian Keith Meeson.

Keith, aged 66, who lives in Stanley, founded the Apedale Heritage Centre and has perhaps done more than anyone to keep the memory of North Staffordshire’s mining heritage alive.

He was just 15 when he began work in the lamp house at Holditch Colliery in 1960. Generations of his mother’s family had been miners and his dad worked down the pit for 50 years.

Keith said: “Originally my dad had tried to get me a job as an electrician at Shelton Bar.

“To be honest, he didn’t want his son having to do what he did.

“However, my uncle – Winston Rowley – was the under manager at Holditch and he came for Christmas dinner just after I had left school.

“He asked if I had been fixed up with a job and sort of overruled my dad.”

Soon after Keith began work at Holditch.

He said: “I think it was seeing my dad in his rags and clogs which left a real impression on me. I look back on my time at Holditch with real fondness.

“I also used to sit there in the dark at times and wonder what was going on in the fresh air a mile above us.

“They were great men, the miners. Real working class heroes because it was a dirty, difficult and dangerous job.

“They had their scraps and fall-outs but 10 minutes later they would be the best of friends again. They would do anything for you.

“The only thing I can compare the camaraderie to would be the Army. I would say it was like being in the forces.

“Miners had a very special bond.”

By the time the Eighties drew to a close, only Florence, Hem Heath and Silverdale collieries remained open. Florence merged with Hem Heath in 1990 and the renamed ‘Trentham Superpit’ ceased production in May 1993.

Silverdale was the last to go in 1998, bring the curtain down on a crucial, at times grim, and forever proud chapter in the history of the Potteries.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia