Hard edges and soft servings

Margaret_Thatcher_cropped2In the 1940s, a young chemist at the J Lyons Company developed a way of aerating creams such that they could be squirted through a nozzle. Modern soft-serve ice cream owes everything to this innovation. But chemistry bored her, so she became a trial lawyer and then a politician. Her ice-cream may have been served soft, but her politics never were.

Twenty-three years after leaving Downing Street the most popular policy of this controversial leader remains that of selling council houses. By a margin of almost three to one, the British public approves. Tenants in public housing were given a right to purchase their homes with a discount proportional to the length of their tenancy. Houses were sold and apartment blocks became condominiums in which some apartments were privately owned and others remained the property of the council.

Tenants who purchased council homes could sell them (though some of the discount was refundable if they did so immediately), continue to live there, rent them out, or leave them to their children.  

The first advantage of this is that hard-working but low-paid people with no family money behind them could afford to own their own homes, even in large, and very expensive, cities such as London. The second was the complete breakdown of class barriers based on where people lived. No Briton would ever speak with contempt, as Americans sometimes do, of public housing estates or projects. There are no public housing estates, and haven’t been for decades. There is still public housing: but it is not ghettoized any more.

This writer recently discovered, completely by chance, that the apartment he rents in central London used to be owned by the council and the one downstairs still is. The stigma once associated with public housing areas no longer exists. Council tenants, private tenants, and owner occupiers live side by side on the same streets and in the same buildings.

This battling shopkeeper’s daughter – who studied chemistry at Oxford when science careers for women were almost unheard of – did more to shred divisions of class than anyone else in British history. That she also shattered the glass ceiling of sex was merely incidental. 

Matthew Parris, who served as her correspondence secretary before becoming a Conservative MP, once described how, on resigning from the House of Commons, he finally told her that he was gay. She laughed and said “Oh, Matthew, I have always known that,” as if to say “why ever would you think that I minded?” Her mentors and intellectual heroes were mostly Jewish.

So why is this woman, who trampled on barriers of sex, race, class and sexual orientation in pursuit of her meritocratic ideal not a hero to the political left? Why do left-leaning Britons, even at her death, spit poison at her name?

Probably because she was the opposite of what they expected: immune to the racism and homophobia they associated with Conservatives; giving opportunities to factory workers; blazing a trail for ambitious women. 

Perhaps also because the left was still enamored of Marxism, which despised home-ownership, and lauded the Soviet Union. Perhaps because the Soviets labeled her the “Iron Lady,” and because she loved it, and because Soviet Communism collapsed in the face Western resolve.

With your next ice-cream cone, contemplate the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the remarkable woman who connects the two.


Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com




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