I suspect it is hard for people in Japan to understand why Margaret Thatcher’s death has aroused such strong feelings of hatred and adulation amongst British people, even 23 years after she ceased to be prime minister.
My generation (people born in the 1960s) is sometimes labelled “Thatcher’s children” – because we grew up under her. We remember 1971, when she was education minister and abolished free school milk for seven to eleven year old school children. Actually many children, myself included, really disliked the free school milk, which was lukewarm and smelly by the time we were given it to drink at morning break each day.
We had already moved to Japan by the time I was seven. I did not escape, however, as we had to drink milk at my Japanese school too, which was even worse tasting, in my opinion, because it was homogenised rather than pasteurised.
People thought we were crazy to move to somewhere as foreign as Japan, but England in 1972 did not feel like a comfortable place to be either – there had been miners’ and dockers’ strikes, followed by declarations of a state of emergency. Wage and price freezes had been announced and unemployment went over 1 million for the first time since the 1930s.
There were economic problems in Japan too – I remember the toilet paper panic buying because of the oil crisis – but as is now well known, the crisis was the trigger for Japan to start innovating in car manufacturing. Just before we left the UK, Honda had started importing cars to the UK, and when we returned to the UK in 1977, we decided to buy a Datsun Sunny 120Y.
My grandparents were horrified. They still had strong memories of the war and had opposed us moving to Japan. They could not understand why we did not buy a British car, like the Triumph Dolomite they owned. It was manufactured by British Leyland, which was then being crippled by a series of strikes.
Margaret Thatcher was extremely patriotic too – but she was happy to welcome any foreign investor who shared her ethic of hard work. While my generation was busy hating her for destroying mining communities, cutting education spending and warmongering, her government encouraged Nissan to open its first factory, in Sunderland, an area in desperate need of jobs thanks to the closure of mines and shipyards.
Thirty years later, there are no British owned volume car producers, but nearly 1.5 million vehicles were produced in the UK last year, closing in on the 2 million peak of 1970, and 86% of production is exported. Only 195,000 people are directly employed by the car industry, however, compared to 850,000 in 1970. The North of England remains a high unemployment, depressed region. This explains the depth of feelings about Mrs Thatcher’s legacy – she was right, from a business perspective, but there was a human cost which was not addressed.
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in Japanese in the May 15th edition of the Teikoku Databank News
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