Robert Leitch is a secondary schoolteacher. Follow him on Twitter.
Just last week I attended the funeral of my own grandmother – she had become very frail after a number of health difficulties and so her death was not a surprise, although it remained tremendously saddening nonetheless. It is through this grandparent-like perspective that people of the so-called ‘younger generation’ will view the late Baroness Thatcher, herself born just a few years before my own grandmother.
In contrast, I was born in 1988 and am still (rather generously perhaps!) categorised as being part of the ‘younger generation’ – although as a secondary school teacher, I am already suffering from the onset of premature grey hair! Needless to say, for those of us under the age of thirty, most of our earliest memories, schooling and general life experiences would have started in earnest not under Thatcher, but first the premiership of John Major, followed by the long years of Blair.
The interesting question is whether young people can relate to this clearly powerful yet divisive figure. When Baroness Thatcher left office in 1990, there was no such thing as an iPad or a text message, although it was possible to watch Luton Town FC in the top flight of English football! Having grown up and adapted to a new technological world, does the younger generation really take sides in the Thatcher legacy squabble?
On a personal note, I pen this article with two hats on. On the one hand, I am writing as a politically interested, fully paid-up Tory who has long been reading about Thatcher the person and Thatcher the politician. My own reaction to Baroness Thatcher’s death, therefore, will chime with the majority of those in our Party and wider afield who feel genuinely moved and saddened by the news. For me, Thatcherism represents the principle that you get out what you put in – that those who work hard for themselves, their families and their communities will succeed in life.
However, my own interest in politics – and thus gut reaction to the life and work of Baroness Thatcher – is quite unusual. As the Economic and Social Research Council reported last year just 13% of young people felt able to influence the political scene. Likewise, the Ipsos MORI analysis of the last General Election confirmed that the 18-24 voting category saw the lowest turnout (below 50%). None of this is a surprise, of course, and political apathy amongst the young has long been debated. For what it’s worth, I subscribe to the view that young people are actually very political, just not at all interested in politicians – this in itself is not a bad thing.
Nevertheless, it is abundantly obvious that the vast majority of young people do not have the attachment to political parties or the interest in the daily workings of government that other generations do, or at least once had. It would be wrong, however, to simply suggest that younger people will not care for the news of Baroness Thatcher’s passing. Rather, to many she represents an intriguing historical figure. For many of the students that I teach (albeit in an all-girls school at present), her status as being the first female Prime Minister is a source of genuine interest. Likewise, for many of my peers, her name and face is immediately recognisable.
When writing this piece, I decided to contact a small number of non-political friends aged between 19-27, to see what they made of Thatcher. This snapshot provided an insight into what I suspect is a relatively common view in the younger age groups. She was described to me as ‘powerful’, ‘strong’, ‘brutal’, ‘harsh’, and ‘Iron Lady’. Whilst an array of similar words and phrases were conjured up, when pressed to give examples to back up their impression of Thatcher, few were able to do so. Amongst many of the young, Baroness Thatcher’s reputation seems to be little more than a game of Chinese whispers.
As a result, Thatcher’s policies do not provoke the furious debate among the young that they do with other age groups. A brief glance at Twitter yesterday was enough to confirm that older generations are utterly polarised on the former Prime Minister, ranging from steadfast adoration to venomous loathing. This is an alien perspective for younger people, amongst the majority of whom her principles and battles as Prime Minister are simply not well known. Yet the fact that she is almost universally known by name and appearance to every generation is in itself a grand tribute to her legacy.
As the Mayor of London put it in his own tweet yesterday, ‘Her memory will live long after the world has forgotten the grey suits of today’s politics’. It is simply because Baroness Thatcher was not another dull, bland and politically correct politician that the younger generation do at least recognise and remember her. Indeed, such simple recognition is actually quite profound, given that our current crop of politicians largely fail to attract even the slightest bit of attention from the young.