'Stand Down Margaret': English Beat's Dave Wakeling Reflects on Anti-Thatcher Anthem

English Beat Dave Wakefield L
Bryan Kremkau

Says the 80s ska band's guitarist and vocalist: "Most everything about Margaret Thatcher was pretend ... a way for the privileged to secure themselves at the expense of everybody else."

Guitarist Dave Wakeling was one of the scores of British musicians impacted and angered by Margaret Thatcher's policies in the 1980s. His band, The English Beat, were also among the most vocal, using their ska sound to illustrate the issues of the streets -- a "dispossessed people," as the Birmingham native, now living in Los Angeles, describes even the current state of affairs.

Indeed, more than two decades since the end of her reign, and in the wake of the former prime minister's death at age 87 on Monday, the wounds are still fresh. Wakeling explains why to The Hollywood Reporter.

The American perspective of Margaret Thatcher, certainly from a foreign policy point of view, was that she was a trusted ally -- of Ronald Reagan’s in particular -- and did a pretty good job at it. And there's an argument there. 

But what most Americans didn’t see was the complete dismantling of towns and villages, of people's lives being cut short and then cutting their own lives short because they thought, like the Sex Pistols said, that there was no future. That time signaled a breaking of the English spirit, where people who used to have each other's back, and used to talk to strangers -- Thatcher turned neighbors into competitors.

People misunderstand the socialism of the English after World War II. Soldiers like my father got back to England and there was nothing left -- there were no hospitals, land had been decimated, and that carried through our childhood. So everybody built stuff together and looked after each other. It was like, when push came to shove, although we had differences of opinion, we had each others’ backs. 

Mrs. Thatcher’s introduction of trickle-down economics, and we're still waiting for it to work, broke that mold. She broke the unions. She sold shares of companies that the people already owned, all of which flopped in value. A generation saw their parents give up on life as they saw their own opportunities stunted. They saw the town where they'd grown up dismantled. She was very divisive.

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It was obviously a very transformative time -- similar in some ways to what Americans have gone through in the last few years. A recession closing on depression, a sense of nihilism -- but it reached epic proportions in England where the scapegoats were anybody who seemed to be different …  “Your skin color is different? It must be your fault.” To divide people against each other, make them forget in their pain and common suffering, and conquer. Simple. Historic. It’s been done so many times, I don't even know how it works anymore. People go for the bait and get desperate, and if you can reach out with a bit of national pride, you can pump things up with a good war.

Then there was pretense. Something that I think the film Iron Lady missed was, not only how Mrs. Thatcher's accent was terribly affected -- she had a slightly D.H. Lawrence accent from Nottingham East Midlands, or Robin Hood country, and adopted a very proper Oxford English accent -- but her real voice would break out sometimes when she'd get angry. I wish they'd shown that in the film. Because most everything about Mrs. Thatcher was pretend -- it was a way for the privileged to secure themselves at the expense of everybody else, which continues to this day. 

The song “Stand Down Margaret” was as much about, “get off your soapbox!” as standing down in a political sense. It was: stop showing off to everybody; humble yourself a bit; stop pretending you’re posh -- we know you're from Nottingham.

In England, there’s a notion called “kippers and curtains,” where somebody buys expensive net curtains to hide the fact that they don't have any furniture at all and they're really inside eating smoked fish twice a day off an old packing case.

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It's a front. Acting posh and hoping that rich people would love her. Sure, she ended up as Lady Thatcher, but grew up as a grocer's daughter. Some say that’s terrific -- she broke the glass ceiling for women, but she didn’t. Pretending to be an aristocratic man that liked to bully people is not any essence of feminine power. It was just aping the worst of male power.

That’s not to say that change wasn't required. We understood England was in a pickle and needed to modernize, but we really didn't need to become a floating aircraft carrier for America and at the same time give up our own traditions. Every country and every decade has to deal with change, but it was done with cruelty and arrogantly. Because of that, it created more enemies than friends.

Still, we wanted to poke fun at it. We wanted the song to be happy. We were sick of her making people miserable and we were sick, frankly, of so many miserable sentiments and songs and attitudes in opposition to her. So we wanted a protest song that was full of life and word play. We didn’t want it to be insulting. We even asked please [the lyric: “Stand down Margaret / Stand down please”]. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to say thank you.

I disagree with Mrs. Thatcher absolutely and entirely. And I still feel sad and heartbroken at what she did to England. But beyond all that, we send comfort and solace to her family, because it’s always a sad and reflective time when a mom dies.

At the end of the day, the worst thing about Margaret Thatcher is not that she said in 1987, “There's no such thing as society -- there are individual men and women and there are families,” or that she was an ardent supporter of the Apartheid movement in South Africa who once called Nelson Mandela a “grubby little terrorist.” The worst thing is, she bloody won and we let her get away with it.

Twitter: @THRMusic