Margaret Thatcher's Spilt Milk

For socially-conscious Jews growing up in Britain in the 1980s, the Iron Lady's dismantling of the welfare state was far more important than her pro-Israel stance.

With our pudding bowl haircuts and socks pulled up to our knees, we would stand in line every morning and wait for our little bottles of milk. Not just in the Victorian-era corridor of my local primary school on the edge of London, but in primary schools across Britain. This daily third-of-a-pint was once given free to all British school children. The postwar Labor government introduced this measure – a badge of honor for the welfare state, aimed at closing the educational gaps among children caused by poverty and poor nutrition.

But by the time I started school in 1976, and Margaret Thatcher had served as the Conservative government’s education minister, we had to pay for our daily dose of calcium. Every Monday morning, we would hand over pennies in brown envelopes to the ‘milk monitor’ – only too aware of the few children in the class whose families couldn’t afford it.

The shame this brought on those children introduced a new generation to the stark divide between the haves and the have-nots; a divide which only widened when Thatcher took the helm in 1979 and the dismantling of the welfare state picked up speed.

To socially-conscious teenagers in Thatcher’s Britain of the eighties, the Iron Lady came to represent all that was wrong with our get-rich-quick and look-after-number-one society. There was no one we despised more. We campaigned against her: against her privatization of our ‘crown jewels’ – British Gas, British Telecom, the railways, social housing; and against her crushing of the workers’ unions; against her education cuts and her failure to address youth unemployment or curb racism within the police force.

We sang along to songs which ridiculed her in the pop charts – to The The, Paul Weller, Elvis Costello (most notably, "Tramp the Dirt Down"), Billy Bragg, The Housemartins and The Smiths. Morrissey’s first solo album included a track called ‘Margaret on the Guillotine.’ For us, it was a palpable and searing hatred; one which, I suspect, would take most Israelis aback.

Yes, she was a supporter of Israel and she filled her cabinet with Jews, but in my household, each senior Jewish appointment was a terrible embarrassment. How could Jews follow and propagate her heartless policies? But when our rabbi gave a sermon along these lines in synagogue one Shabbat, several Conservative voters in the congregation stormed out. On this, the community was divided.

Now, far away from my primary school, when slightly warm milk in small bottles are not an especially pleasant memory and when it is clear that many of the values that Thatcher embodied are deeply embedded into societies way beyond the British Isles, it seems the milk she snatched from us was the least of it.