My Thatcher story

T.A. Barnhart

I experienced the first few years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule in the UK. While I did not suffer from her policies in the way that those who were stuck there did, she did have an impact on me. My story is illustrative of why her passing, for me, is no cause for mourning.

In 1976, I was assigned to a small Air Force unit in Cornwall, the “boot” at the southwest end of England. It was my first Air Force assignment, and it would be my last. I was allowed to remain at RAF St Mawgan until I was discharged in October 1979. It was a great place to be: we had no officers (an E-7 was my boss), no facilities other than the small compound where we worked at the west end of the base and right above the pig farm (fortunately, down hill and downwind of us). We were given extra money to find our own housing and food “on the economy”. I moved into Newquay, made friends, even got engaged for a while. I loved it.

I loved England. I loved soccer and cricket, darts, tea, real milk with cream in it, Sunday tea, bangers, the diversity of styles and fashions (I grew up in Billings, MT, so diversity of anything was rare), and, most of all, the people. I was treated with warmth and kindness wherever I went. I was anything but an ugly American, so folks there were happy to welcome me into the fold.

So when my four years in the service were coming to an end, I decided I wanted to stay in England. Forever. Of course, it’s not that simple. I went back to Billings after I was discharged, spent some time with my family, then went back to Newquay, staying with friends, working in a confectioners shop (weighing out small bags of candy from 1-gallon jars and selling folks their papers and fags), and figuring out how to get myself to college. After all, the whole reason I’d joined the Air Force was to get my G.I. Bill. An English university was not my plan at the time, needless to say, but you gotta be flexible in life.

When I learned I wasn’t qualified for adimission to an English university, I took a year of classes at Bath Technical College (mascot was TC, Top Cat, in a bath). For those who know what such things mean, in one year I earned an A level in English and an O level in Communications (a 2-year course done in one). That was enough to get me accepted at Warwick University, in Coventry, a beautiful city in the Midlands. Everything was coming together beautifully.

Some English history. One of the relics of the British Empire is that citizens of the Commonwealth were to be accorded the same rights and privileges as English citizens. As they were all subjects of Her Majesty the Queen, they were deemed to be of equal standing before the law. This meant, among other things, that a Canadian or Aussie or Jamacian or Kenyan could come to England and attend an English university, if accepted, at the same tuition as an British national. So, too, it turns out, could an American. Huzzah.

And then came Thatcher.

While I was attending Bath TC, the Thatcher government introduced new rules regarding tuition. Henceforth, those not from the British Isles would pay a different tuition. For those pursuing a basic liberal arts degree, that tuition was $5,000 a year.

In 1981. For comparison sake, tuition and fees at UO were $969 ($3,282 for a non-resident) and did not pass $5,000 until 2003 (1989 for non-residents). Students in advanced and medical programs were charged even more. Thatcher and her minions called this paying your “fair share” but the student unions across the nation weren’t buying it. We knew it had but one purpose: keep out non-wealthy, non-white students from Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Racism, pure and simple.

We held a march in London, in the midst of a horrible sleet storm, and although turnout was huge, Thatcher did not give a rat’s ass about protests or opposition. She ignored plenty of those, and worse, during the years of her premiership. She did what she wanted, and the rest of the nation could sod off. She had an agenda, and by god, the lady was not for turning. No matter the cost to the nation, she was going to stay her course.

I could not pay $5,000 in tuition. My G.I. Bill was about $200 a month. In addition to tuition, I also had to pay for food and lodging, books, clothes, beer, frivolity, etc. You know: life. Sadly, I was a stupid person back then and didn’t even explore my options. I saw $5,000 in tuition, half that in G.I. Bill, and decided it wasn’t going to be possible. Which is probably true; I don’t know that I could have worked enough to make up the difference and be able to do well in school. So I folded up my tent, returned to the States, and set up shop in Portland, Oregon.

I did not suffer from Thatcher as such. Her policies made staying in England extremely difficult for me, so I chose another path, one that has turned out to be pretty good for me. But to say I “chose” that path isn’t accurate: the choice of my heart was effectively eliminated because Margaret Thatcher instituted one particular policy amongst a host of others that were designed to hammer down on people of color, the working class, labor, immigrants, students of lower means, and just about anyone who didn’t fit in with her narrow view of what was supposed to be England. Thatcher ruled on the base of class and race oppression, and I got caught in the middle. I may have been white, but I was lower middle-class at best. I was collateral damage in Maggie’s war on the people of the Commonwealth, but I was lucky to be able to relocate to a place where I had a fighting chance.

Today, as Lady Thatcher’s funeral costs the British taxpayers $15.4 million, there will be those who mourn her passing and the greatness they revered in her rule. Many more, me among them, will recall the horrible years of her rule with disgust and anger. I’ll see a life I did not have, in a country I loved so much. I am fortunate that my life in Oregon has given me two wonderful sons and their families, so I have no regrets. But for the generation of people from whom Thatcher stole hope and even a decent life; for the people of Argentina who had sons taken in a stupid war; for the glbtq people who were demonized almost as viciously in the UK as in the US; for all those who did not fit, who were not wanted, who were the subjects and victims of brutal policies aimed at building a new Empire on their broken lives and dreams, the passing of Thatcher is summed up in the #1 song on the British charts since her passing:

Ding dong, the witch is dead.

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