The View from Mullion Cove: Mrs Thatcher and My Diary

by Pat Dodd Racher

May 3rd 1979. The date of the late Baroness Thatcher’s entry to No. 10 Downing Street prompted me to look up the diary I kept at the time. Flicking through the pages, I came to August 28th 1980:

“At home (the UK) more than 2,000,000 people are registered as unemployed. Mrs T says she will not alter policy. I think MLR (minimum lending rate) must come down, and incomes must be subject to a policy – i.e. maximum increase of 10% for 1981, with concessions for the lower paid. An increase in child benefit and long-term social security, also in retraining schemes and investment aids for ventures with long-term potential for increasing employment –

  • Recycling plants
  • Repair shops
  • Manufacturing from organic renewables (wood, fibres, leather, etc)

We have to rediscover pre-Industrial Revolution technology and update that. The emphasis must be on cutting the cost of living and educating the public to accept that much spending is merely conspicuous waste. “It keeps people in jobs,” they will counter.” I didn’t have an answer to this accusation at the time. It’s not that logical to complain about high unemployment and then argue for lower consumption. Looking back, Thatcherism might have worked better if programmes for sustainable industries had been introduced during the 1980s, but all we got was Big Bang, and unregulated, very unsustainable greed in the financial sector.

Other topics to hit the diary in June, July and August 1980, just over a year into Mrs T’s premiership and when I had two small children and a full time job on British Farmer & Stockbreeder, were the shipyard strikes in Gdansk, Poland, by workers intent upon setting up independent trades unions, which led to the rise of shipyard electrician Lech Walesa and the Solidarity union. Today, it is hard to reconcile Mrs T’s support for Walesa – she visited him in 1988, shortly before the ‘Iron Curtain’ dissolved into holes and then rusted away – with the damage she deliberately inflicted on British trades unions, but Solidarity was a weapon against Communism, which for her was the death of Enterprise.

Nearer to home, at Reed International where British Farmer was based, there were union troubles aplenty. The National Union of Journalists demanded a 26% pay rise, a closed shop, a 30-hour week, longer holidays, jobs kept open during prison sentences, time off for ‘trade union training’…. “Completely unrealistic,” I wrote. This over-the-top demand probably marked the end of the good times for employees, because for the rest of the 1980s there was more fear than enthusiasm, fear of redundancy, of demotion, and of numbers, of the numbers in the monthly trading accounts which were used to make journalists very well aware that they did not bring in the money, but were costs. It was the rise of the Audit Culture.

Before that set of NUJ demands, we enjoyed good pay and were given the expenses to get out and about to do our jobs. We did not regurgitate press releases, but in later years that was often the default option.

Elsewhere, President Tito of Yugoslavia died, setting in train the events leading to the break-up of this amalgam of Balkan territories. Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington state in the USA “with the force of 100 Hiroshimas”. That’s what I heard then, anyway. The Russians were bombing Afghanistan, American hostages in Iran reached eight months in captivity, US cruise missiles were coming to Berkshire. At home, “strict monetarism is forcing firms into liquidation. The strong £ restricts exports, inflation damps home demand, stocks of goods accumulate, interest rates are too high for safe borrowing. Short time, closures, lay-offs – the spiral intensifies”.

On July 10th, I wrote that “more than 1,100 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Britain this week – every week of this year, according to the TV programme I am watching, about companies going bust. This year about 6,000 firms are likely to have to close.” I went back to the refrain I have been uttering ever since: “We need people trained in repairs, adaptation, recycling…. We are on a small planet and have to make our resources last.”

Events even indirectly associated with trade unionism were discouraged. In July I went to the Tolpuddle rally in Dorset, to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs, farmworkers who were transported to Australia in 1834 for daring to form a friendly society and worker’s union.

“The main issue at the rally seemed to be Dorset Council’s plan to completely scrap school meals. Jim Callaghan (the former Labour prime minister) and a bevy of secret service men were there. The police directing traffic were positively discouraging about us attending the rally. We weren’t allowed to park by the road, even though it had been closed to through traffic. A policeman on a motor bike kept whizzing up and down just to make sure. We had to park two miles away, in Athelhampton.”

One individual event I have remembered ever since was a brush with possible death in Mullion Cove at the end of July. I was down in Cornwall, visiting farms, and one evening headed for Mullion Cove to take some photographs. “The tide was right in, the sea a churning cauldron. I wanted to photograph some spray, so walked out onto the jetty – unwisely. A vast wave was sweeping towards me. I clung on to the railings as it broke over me. Open sea on one side, swirling harbour on the other – both dangerous. Mullion Cove is a tiny harbour between craggy, cave-ridden cliffs. The rollers were booming against the cliff base, an awesome sound.”

Well, I did not drown in Mullion Cove, but the destructive power of the sea strikes me as a metaphor for the philosophy of Thatcherism: wave after wave of demolition, a free-for-all which flattened the flood defences of community solidarity. ‘New Labour’ softened the impact between 1997 and 2010 but with borrowed money, and now the poor are being forced to pick up the tab.

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