Thatcher and 1980s Musicians

Former prime minister handled criticism with aplomb

The 1980s were a heady time for political and cultural junkies. If the 1960s were an era where the distinctions between the two were blurred, the 1980s obliterated them completely.

Perhaps no public figure prior to President George W. Bush was vilified more by pop musicians than Margaret Thatcher. British musician piled on mercilessly from Elvis Costello and Billy Bragg to The Style Council, Genesis and Robert Wyatt.

Let’s hope the Iron Lady rests finally in well-deserved peace. She, most assuredly, suffered more than her fair share of the brickbats hurled by Britain’s youth in her day.

What did this woman do to incur the three-chord wrath and adenoidal snarling of Britain’s youth? There was the British invasion of the Falkland Islands certainly. But there was also the pervasiveness of her economic message, which asserted that government could not and should not be all things to all people.

Messages such as that have a tendency to rankle the kids, especially those who live on the dole at least until their musical abilities bump them into an exorbitant tax bracket. Any student of culture observing the Britain of the 1970s and 1980s could understand that the former empire was choking on its adoption of big-government solutions.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

Threatening the status quo that had depleted individual industriousness by reining in spending and striking coal miners was a necessary if unpopular decision. And yet Prime Minister Thatcher did just that without maligning her detractors in Parliament or the music industry.

For example, when told by Tom Hibbert in a 1987 “Smash Hits” interview that Live Aid organizer and erstwhile Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof was rude to her, Thatcher demurred: "Was he rude to me? I met him. He wasn’t rude to me. We did talk. Obviously he came up and talked to me about the things that most interested him. But what fascinated me was this: it was not ‘why doesn’t the government give more?’ but ‘what can I do as a person?’ That was his approach.”

What a wonderful lesson for Sir Bob and everyone else! Thatcher reminded him that it’s better for individuals to select their charitable causes, including drought and starvation in Ethiopia. The Prime Minister continued:

And after all, if government took so much away from young people that they hadn’t anything left to give, that wouldn’t be much of a life. That would be government substituting their judgment for what people want to do with their own money and that’s always been my point. If you want to take everything away from people in taxes, it’s because you don’t trust them. Well, I do, and I think they should have some say. Of course we have to have enough for defence, for law and order, for social services, but it’s people’s earnings and if you left them with nothing with which to give themselves, you’d have a very dull society. And a wrong society. Yes, wrong. Wrong! If government says the money you earn is first mine and I’ll decide only what you should have left, I would say that would be… wrong.

Responding to Hibbert’s question about her reaction to the nickname “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for a suggestion she made as Britain’s Education Minister that households purchase their own milk, she responded:

Yes, I remember that, too, and it seemed to me one thing that people could purchase — milk for their own children. The important thing is for the state to do things which the state can do but to leave people with money to do things themselves.

Another issue Thatcher understood perhaps even greater than her musical detractors was the importance of freedom for entertainers, their art and commerce in general. She told Hibbert:

If people’s talents are to develop to their fullest ability, they must have the freedom to do that, so good luck to your pop groups. They do very well for us in exports — they do a fantastic job and if some of them want to have yellow hair, punk hair, short hair, long hair, blue jeans, yellow jeans or, these days, my goodness me we’ve got some smart ones. Marvellous! When I go and look at some of the clothes for young people, gosh they are pricey but, really, I think that the sort of informal period has gone. You know, some of the rules are coming back and life is much better when you have rules to live by. I mean, it’s really like playing football, isn’t it? If you didn’t have any rules, you wouldn’t be able to play the game. Of course you’ll have the whistle blown sometimes but freedom requires some set of rules to live by to respect other people’s freedom, so if we’re remembered that way, I think we’ll have done a reasonable job for people the world over.

I’ll leave it to others better qualified to discuss the details of Margaret Thatcher’s prodigious efforts to benefit Great Britain, pull down the Iron Curtain, and advance economic freedom at home and abroad. Her tremendous achievements in the aforementioned areas cannot be overstated.

Thatcher and her American counterpart, President Ronald Reagan, were perhaps the greatest proponents for freedom during the latter half of the 20th century.

Perhaps more noteworthy is the ability of Prime Minister Thatcher to defend the freedoms and best interests of the musicians and entertainer philanthropists so eager to disparage her as well as her efforts on their behalf.

Bruce Edward Walker is an editor-at-large with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the former managing editor of MichiganScience.