The mood is festive in the County pub in Rotherham, the South Yorkshire town that was once at the heart of the country’s vast steel and coal industries, a place where high unemployment and profound grudges mar the social landscape.
The McEwan’s lager and the John Smith bitter, at £1.70 a pint, are flowing and it is not even noon – the first patrons arrived three hours earlier. Rosy-faced men raise glass after glass in celebration of the death of Margaret Thatcher.
“I went ‘whoopee’ when I heard she died,” says Austin Davies, 64, a former coalface worker who joined the 1984-85 coal workers’ strike that ultimately wrecked his career and broke the country’s union power. “Bury her in a mine shaft.”
His friend, Barry McGowan, 68, who was an ambulance driver during the year-long strike, says the economic legacy of Lady Thatcher – a divisive topic anywhere in the country – still haunts the South Yorkshire towns that lost their mines and foundries. “There is still a lot of bitterness here,” he says. “The scabs – some of us still don’t speak to them after 30 years.”
Rotherman (population about 120,000) is an old steel town that has seen better days. A plethora of chain stores have brought some life back to the centre, but the outskirts are cluttered with the remains of dead steel and clothing plants. The County pub here is full of older men, like Mr. Davies and Mr. McGowan, and a few women. Most are in the late 50s or 60s and consider the standoff they lost to Lady Thatcher as the defining moment in their working, political and family lives.
Most of them failed to secure steady jobs after the steel and coal industries were gutted; many struggled to keep their families fed as the region went from relative wealth to poverty virtually overnight. Almost no one in the region has anything nice to say about Lady Thatcher, even if they profess grudging admiration for her sheer determination and recognize that her Falklands war victory restored Britain’s military prestige.
Many Britons in the north of England think her anti-union campaign was too fast and aggressive, leaving cities and towns without new development strategies after their heavy industries died. Many in London and other areas of the south think she delivered the jolt that Britain needed to emerge from its competitive funk, and that her financial deregulation campaign made London the world’s premier banking centre.
Still, even in the south, anti-Thatcher pockets exist. On Monday night, in the multi-ethnic London borough of Brixton, riot police were called out to break up anti-Thatcher street parties that turned unruly.
Some South Yorkshire newspapers launched blistering attacks on Lady Thatcher’s legacy after her death on Monday at the age of 87. The Star, of Sheffield, using a quotation from local MP David Blunkett, carried the headline “We Can Never Forgive Her” on its front page. Mr. Blunkett, who was home secretary in the Labour government of Tony Blair, has struggled for decades to restore local jobs, with decidedly mixed results, after the industrial collapse during early Thatcher years.
The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s biggest British newspaper, had a somewhat different interpretation Tuesday of Lady Thatcher’s relentless effort to break the unions: “Taming of the unions: She ended decades of strife and waste.”
Lady Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979. Within a year, she launched her campaign to make Britain more competitive by shutting down lethargic, tax-sucking state-subsidized industries, starting with steel, which was then Sheffield’s main industry. Her cleanup effort triggered a three-month strike at British Steel. It ended badly for the workers as dud plants were closed, with the surviving plants merged with stronger privately owned steel companies. Thousands of jobs were lost, though the industry in diminished form survived.
The coal strike was much uglier. It began in March, 1984, when the government’s National Coal Board shut Yorkshire’s Cortonwood Colliery. Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, went to war. Violent clashes between picketers and police became routine.
The violence peaked in May of that year, during the infamous “Battle of Orgreave” which saw pitched battle, resulting in hundreds of injuries and arrests, between mounted police and some 5,000 picketers. “Orgreaves was the big one,” says Mr. McGowan. “Police rode straight through the pickets with horses, straight into the crowds.”
John Baxter, 64, a lecturer at Hillsborough College in nearby Sheffield, raised money during the strike year to help buy food for strikers’ families. “It felt like a civil war here,” he says. “Then the communities disintegrated at the end of the strike.”
In spite of the violence, Mrs. Thatcher never backed down and the union’s strategy went down in flames. Just before the strike, Britain’s 130 or so coal mines had 140,000 employees. Today, there are fewer than 20 mines and 8,000 employees.
A small number of South Yorkshire residents think Lady Thatcher did the right thing. Arthur Hague, 74, a retired Royal Air Force engine fitter who was sitting in a Rotherham pool hall, said the coal pits were financially unsustainable and had to go. “She went to an election not long after the strike and won, so she wasn’t as despised as you might think,” he says.