Saturday, April 13, 2013

The passing of 2 contrasting figures in my life

This week past was a strange week.  The big events were the passing of two people I have known extremely well, one personally and one not so, but two people whose views I understood, and two people whose views have had profoundly different impacts on my own life.

So let's start with Joshua Sherman.  Joshua was a mentor to me when I was at Middlebury College going through some pretty difficult times.  He was intellectually as sharp as a knife, but had compassion for people and valued people for what they were, taking a lively interest in the world around him.  One of the things that I remember he and his partner did within the community was to have an annual party ( - a barbeque as I recall), inviting everyone from the neighborhood and also all their friends.  In other words, they valued the small Vermont community they came from and took a definite interest in the people that were part of this community.  

Joshua was the embodiment of the renaissance man. He was interested in just about everything and everyone and was a writer ( - good example of his work is here and a book review from the NYT here), a lawyer, a musician, an historian, a financier, a teacher and both a great talker and a good listener.  His background was unique - the son of a Jewish and British parents who was born in British Palestine (which is now Israel) but won a scholarship to be educated in history at Oxford, and then went into investment banking in the City of London. Having such a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary background allowed him to appreciate that people can have different perspectives on things, and can approach things differently. As an illustration of this, one of the things he showed me was that sometimes to understand other people you have to imagine how it must feel to be in their shoes. Obviously in terms of negotiations and also climbing the corporate (or in this case educational) ladder, such insights can be extremely valuable.

Perhaps one of the things that Joshua will likely be best remembered for is his book "Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948."  In this book Joshua documented the lives of the British occupiers of Palestine during the first part of the last century.  The book is fascinating, and a review of it is available here.

Unfortunately another book which happen to be shortlisted for the Orange book Prize in the UK stole various pieces of Joshua's research and wove them into the fabric of a novel without acknowledging the source of the material.  Joshua rightly sued and won.  

In more recent years our communications became more sporadic, but Joshua was an optimistic soul, and encouraged me to try and do all I could to further my own research and career, as well as continue my musical diversions.  I shall miss him.

To link with the other figure that passed this week, I remember in one conversation that Joshua and I had, that the subject matter turned to Thatcherism and the Thatcherites.  Joshua simply frowned and said "but my dear Patrick, these people were simply delusional".  On one level I had to agree, but although I loathed the woman on a personal level ( - where did that plummy accent come from?), on other levels Thatcher did change everything in the UK.

I remember growing up in the UK when Trade Unions were incredibly strong, particularly in the north of the UK where I am originally from.  When we went through the "winter of discontent" after the period of "prices and incomes controls" which limited the amounts that prices and incomes could rise as the form of a "social pact" between the government and the Trade Unions broke down, it was clear that something had to change.  Thatcher, in my view, happened to be in the right place at the right time, because when you look her career, she certainly did not excel in any of her previous cabinet posts. No, a tipping point had come, where it was recognized that change had to come, and so she achieved an overwhelming electoral victory in 1979.  

Everyone I knew voted for her, just simply because the alternative was just too horrible to contemplate.  
My own relationship with Mrs. Thatcher was ambivalent to say the least.  I admired her honesty as a politician.  One has to remember that the UK had just been through an era where governments just didn't seem to be able to execute policy properly, and there was no real direction in terms of ideology - it was literally made up as they went along.  I think she was a disaster economically in the early years, but her government was rescued by an upturn in the global economy in the mid-1980s, and then the focus started shifting the Europe, where the single market and single currency were being formulated.  The UK could have been a much more central figure in these initiatives, but Thatcher's clear ideological division with nearly all other European nations meant that the country was usually not in sync with what was happening over on the continent.  The divisions within Thatcher's own party in relation to Europe was the real reason that she was eventually deposed.  

Economically though during these years, Thatcher immediately thrust a group of unconventional economists to the fore ("monetarists"), who inflicted immense damage on the economy, pushing up interest rates to unprecedented levels which pushed the UK pound up to dizzying heights as well, decimating the manufacturing export sector. The economy reeled, but luckily for her the Argentinians decided to invade the Falkland Islands, giving her campaign a jingoistic tone, leading her to another electoral victory in 1983.  Once inflation was down to reasonable levels, her privatisation program proceeded at a blistering pace.  Many of the industries which she privatised or deregulated (the City for example) needed an injection of competition to shake them up a little (or a lot), but some industries were just not good candidates for privatisation (water, railways, coal, for example) - mostly because these industries were already natural monopolies, so more effective regulation would have been a better approach.  

The industrial North, Scotland and south Wales suffered tremendously under Thatcher's policies, but because they were Labour strongholds, she really didn't have to worry about this.  It led to a deeply divided country, with the South being rich and prosperous, and the north and industrial regions turning into  wastelands in many places.  Her policies with regard to London were also spiteful.  The Mayor of London at the time, Ken Livingstone, happened to be from the Labour party, and with the setup of Boroughs in London, there was little chance that the Mayor change hands to the Conservatives, so she simply abolished the position and a whole layer of government.  For her, compromise was weakness.

Those years were a mess in London, with little coordination of transport services, warring borough councils and massive cuts to Social services.  The last straw was the poll tax which her government proposed for payment of local and municipal taxes.  She advocated a per head charge which did not relate to the value of property or income. Riots ensued.

So how did Thatcher affect my life?  Well, I decided in the 1980s that I really didn't want to live in such a divided country where greed and money were celebrated and the existence of society and by extension community were irrelevant.  The cult of the individual was just not for me.  So I made the momentous decision to leave the UK, with some sadness but also happy to get to a country that seemed to value social policy as something that mattered to some extent.  And while I didn't have a drink when I heard that Thatcher had passed ( - I think all that celebrating in the north of the UK was rather tasteless), I recall that I did have a drink the day she was deposed from power.  

In summary, although I admired Thatcher because she had the gall to do what others didn't dare to suggest, I  do think she went too far with a lot of her policies. As I have stated already, compromise was failure.  So unlike most politicians when she said something, you'd better believe it, because once it was stated as an objective, the wheels started turning to achieve that objective.  And in hindsight, I don't necessarily have quibbles with everything she did, but rather more the manner in which she did them.  In the UK, what came after, in my opinion, was much better.  But perhaps there is some truth in claiming that what came after wouldn't have been possible without Thatcher coming before.  But that is a universal truth as the Reagan revolution in the US would have eventually cause a turn to the right in the UK, it was a question of how far right.  One thing is for certain though, Thatcher did make the UK into a country that resembles the US much more than it resembles a country like France.  

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