Thatcher’s revolution: Making success fashionable again in Britain
The boundaries of British life were evident to my classmates. This was a time when many Cambridge students still seemed embarrassed about the idea of going into business. It was acceptable to be a professor, or a civil servant, or maybe at a stretch to take a financial job in the City of London. But, incredibly, a career in business was still regarded by most of my English friends as mere “trade.” If you couldn’t afford the country manor, better to live like a Bohemian.
The unions enforced the strict boundaries of life, too. When the coal strike of 1974 began, I journeyed to Wigan, the Lancashire mining town where George Orwell set his classic 1937 chronicle of class and society. I went down a mine, a mile underground, and saw the intense fraternity of the National Union of Mineworkers, which would brook no compromise in the strike. But I was even more struck by the townspeople of Wigan itself. There was no middle class to speak of; the very idea seemed like betrayal to the miners…
I returned to London in 1980 as a young journalist. Thatcher had been elected prime minister the year before, and already you began to hear the early rumblings of what came to be known as “the big bang” that opened the financial sector to competition. Making money (as opposed to inheriting it) became fashionable. The power of the trade unions slowly eroded; the upper classes became porous; the new money could afford the fancy Belgravia townhouses and the country estates; and pretty soon people stopped asking who your parents were. Life became a Ralph Lauren ad.