Home Page Haverhill is still living with the legacy of the blessed Margaret 12/04/13

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Hart of the Matter

Haverhill is not hugely different from any other community in Britain, so it is only reasonable that someone should take up the challenge and analyse the legacy of Margaret Thatcher here.


Long-time readers of this column and its predecessors might claim it is not a place where she is ever likely to get a fair hearing, but they would be mistaken.


To begin with, no one can deny the importance of someone who has left such a widespread legacy behind them that it can be specifically analysed in every city, town and village in Britain, like a layer in an ice core from Antarctica.


It is hard to name many others – William the Conqueror, the rat which brought the Black Death here, Queen Victoria, Adolf Hitler and Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (by dying when shot in the Balkans and precipitating World War I).


You might add those inventors who ushered in the industrial revolution, but that’s more a group than an individual. Perhaps history may wish to include Tim Berners-Lee. We’ll see, or our descendants will.


So Mrs Thatcher stands with a very elite group of people indeed. But most of them were figureheads for larger movements within their times. Only the Conqueror and Hitler were such forceful personalities that one might say the events they set in motion would never have happened without them. Mrs Thatcher could claim to be the third in a select trio.


The results of 1066 and of World War II have been far more widespread, but then history has had longer to see their ramifications played out. Those of Thatcherism are still in motion and we don’t yet know where they will lead.


The hardest thing is to disentangle what would have happened anyway from those things which she specifically generated. Was industrial decline inevitable anyway? Technology would surely have overtaken society just the same.


However, to get down to details, when I first began writing about Haverhill it was a busy manufacturing town with a strong identity, fighting to come to terms with having lost control of the decision-making process which would shape its future.


Mrs Thatcher had nothing to do with local government re-organisation of 1974, or the Beeching Axe of 1967, probably the two most disastrous events ever to overtake the town. But it was Haverhill’s misfortune to be labouring under the effects of that double whammy when she came to power.


I well remember the mid 1970s when every other call one took in the newsroom seemed to be someone phoning in anonymously to inform us of a walkout at such-and-such a factory. It was most commonly Haverhill Meat Products, which employed over 2,000, by far the largest job provider in the area.


But it happened at the other big manufacturers in the town – Project, Signpost etc, as well. It didn’t seem to happen in the American-owned companies. Maybe conditions were better, maybe there were no unions there or maybe workers were more frightened of their bosses. But strikes were a way of life and something had to be done.


When the Falklands War came along, as far as I am aware we were spared the loss of any Haverhill people or their sons or daughters. We had had a royal wedding and then a military victory so everyone seemed upbeat, despite the massive rise in unemployment to 15 per cent.


So far, so good. But if you were a socialist you could not be unaware of the way the wind was blowing when she achieved the election landslide of 1983. Maybe nuclear weapon protests and pitched battles at coalfields did not impinge on Haverhill directly, although our poor old local police were called away to things they didn’t want to do.


But there was a ‘loadsamoney’ boom going on and, for the first time perhaps, Haverhill began to notice how it had fallen behind the rest of the region. We didn’t get wine bars here. The biggest employer in the town was by now Axa Insurance.


What we got was dodgy speculative development which ended up losing a lot of people a lot of money, and council house sales. As so many on the left have had to admit in the last few days, I can’t say I didn’t benefit personally. We bought our council house at 50 per cent discount, even though we disagreed with the policy that enabled it.


Here was a prime minister who prided herself on her ‘domestic’ approach to economics, who continually told us we could not spend what we did not earn, but who then offered to millions of thrifty, sensible people who had never borrowed more than a little hire purchase agreement, the chance to get into debt beyond their wildest dreams. And they did.


The thought of being in debt for 25 years unsettled me and made me even more careful, but for many it was as if they had been given licence to spend and a new word came onto the lips of commentators – ‘aspirational’.


This meant people who now thought they had a right to have more than they could afford. We reap the benefit of that now in spades. Many still think ‘austerity’ means still having the same or better things than before, but finding a way, through internet shopping, through ebay, or through borrowing, of paying less for them. And then they wonder why economic growth remains stagnant.


Those chickens have not come home to roost yet, and they are Thatcher’s legacy, as much as the loss of the town’s manufacturing base, the two decades of educational deprivation which we have only recently emerged from, the destruction of public services which is still going on, the privatisation of vital industries and facilities making them no longer democratically accountable and therefore directed at making money rather than providing a service, and so on and so on.


When she left office Haverhill was in the depths of a horrendous recession, with empty shops everywhere. It climbed out, mostly by its own efforts, several years behind the rest of the region and is still running to catch up. Now our biggest employer in town is Sainsbury’s.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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