For my fiftieth birthday, in 1990, our children took us out to dinner. They chose an excellent country restaurant in the Northants/North Bucks borderland, popular with the county set, with stock brokers flush from the City Big Bang, and even with a few newly enriched entrepreneurs. Some years before, we had all eaten here to celebrate with my late father the eve of his 70th birthday.
This evening, we were having a great time. Now that the kids were adults, and living away from home, the chances of being all together were fewer than before, so it was good being reunited. We were in good health; the food was perfect; the wine, excellent. All was going well.
Then, somewhere between the fish and the main, there was a commotion from the kitchen, noisy shouting, followed by cheering so loud it silenced all conversation in the dining room. After a while, the wife of the owner came rushing in, very excited.
“She’s gone! She’s gone!” she shouted.
Seeing her guest’s puzzled looks, she added:
“The Thatcher woman, she’s resigned!”
There was a long silence, and then almost everyone in the restaurant stood and applauded. Champagne was produced on the house and a quiet evening out became a sort of victory celebration.
But it was a bizarre celebration.
The people around us were of the kind who had greatly benefitted from the lady’s ill-advised reforms. They were part of the minority that had voted her into power in 1979, and kept her there for 11 long and confrontational years. They were very much part of the much smaller minority who benefitted most from the Thatcher years and would continue to benefit as her successors of all parties kept her inequitable policies alive. Yet here they were, almost savagely rejoicing at her downfall. A bit like the hunt celebrating the death of a fox.
In the middle of this noisy celebration, one table remained relatively quiet – ours. As a family we had in our various ways always opposed the Iron Lady – as Labour party activists: canvassing and leafleting, paying our dues, attending meetings even as the party drifted to the centre-right and the wonderful world of New Labour. We should have been overjoyed, yet among this bloodthirsty, ungrateful lot, we were subdued. Somehow the happiness we should have felt for this unexpected birthday present was wiped away by the rather unseemly display of schadenfreude around us. In the end we did celebrate, but what we celebrated was only my birthday.
Is there anything to learn from this? I don’t know why we couldn’t celebrate her political end, although we were pleased it happened. Perhaps we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe that she had indeed gone. Or maybe, we were just too worn down by opposing to enjoy the moment. It’s not that we felt any sympathy for her.
In some darker moods, I wonder if it was just that we could not bring ourselves to join in common cause with a bunch of people with whom we had nothing in common and whom maybe we, deep down, despised.