Political Editor Chris Lloyd retraces Margaret Thatcher’s iconic walk in the Teesside wilderness in search of her legacy

A CAR alarm wailed continuously, carried on a bitterly chill wind out over the wide river where, despite yesterday’s cold, a couple of white swans thrashed amorously in the lead grey water.

It was up from the river that Margaret Thatcher walked on September 16, 1987, handbag in hand, head slightly bowed, across a postindustrial wasteland. The dead weeds were waist-high and the rubble was head-high as she picked her way in her shiny heels through the dust and debris of generations of labouring men’s hard work.

When she was shown the rusty rubbish poking out of the filthy river, she exclaimed: “Oh, my God!” Was it the horror of the enormity of the job ahead, or the horror of what her economic policies had done?

Because to some, her walk in the wilderness at Head Wrightson’s old Teesdale yard on the Thornaby bank of the Tees mirrored the apocalypse visited upon the North-East’s traditional industries.

In her 11 years as Prime Minister, 248,000 jobs were lost in the region – British Steel employed 33,000 in the late 1970s but that was down to 6,500 at the start of the 1990s; coalmining was down from 23,000 to 9,500; Teesside’s chemical industry had fallen from 22,500 to 9,000; the 27,000 jobs in shipbuilding had all but been erased with Smith’s Dock, the last yard on the Tees, closing a few months before she tripped across the wilderness of the workingman’s way of life.

The bald figures, though, cannot tell the whole story, the human story. There was a callousness about the way certainties and livelihoods were torn up. Her Chancellor, Norman Lamont, said unemployment was a price worth paying, yet after the closure of Consett steelworks, unemployment reached 35 per cent and youth unemployment touched 65 per cent – a whole town was irrevocably turned upside down.

Coalminers fought to keep the pay packets that had supported their forefathers and which now fed and clothed their own children, but Mrs Thatcher saw them not as individual people worried about their futures but as poisonous obstacles that had to be overcome.

Fresh from the Falklands victory which transformed her career, she said in July 1984: “Galtieri and the Argentines were the enemy without; Arthur Scargill and the miners are the enemy within.”

Even that day in the wilderness, she tried to hold out an olive branch, but is instead remembered for her hectoring. She said: “Some of the work being done up here is fantastically successful. Don’t you think that’s the way to persuade more firms to come. Not always standing there as moaning minnies.”

A legendary quote to go with an iconic image.

However, in the mind of the spin doctor who set up the iconic image, it was supposed to show Mrs Thatcher preparing the ground for a prosperous future. That day in 1987, she announced the creation of 12 urban development companies.

Northern Echo political editor Chris LLoyd retraces her steps yesterday

THEY were to be free of shackles and red tape, free of local government control and, free of the constraints of the planning system, they were to encourage the private sector to regenerate the wilderness, and they were to encourage private individuals to discover new aspirations of enterprise and ownership.

The Teesside Development Corporation (TDC), the largest of the 12, boasted that it would turn the wilderness into “the Venice of the North-East”.

And, despite the cold of yesterday, it is clear to see the waterfront has been transformed.

It isn’t quite Venetian splendour and there are plenty “to let” signs of our current economic woes, but yesterday’s chill wind had the wailing car alarm bouncing off all kinds of new buildings. There are private homes and apartments, there are office blocks providing computer- based jobs in small and large private firms, there’s the Tees Barrage for a new kind of leisure, there are university students working for better futures, and along the walkways, across the footbridges and among the supersize artworks, there is an attractive way of life – if you can avoid the large dollops of swan droppings on the riverside paths.

And on nearly every corner is a black marble monolith topped off with the initials of the corporation that wrought this change: TDC.

Lest we forget.

Yet the TDC was almost as controversial as the politician who had created it. It was wound up in 1998 with debts of £40m amid dark allegations of underhand deals.

It had been transformational, but at what cost? Its critics accused it, particularly at Teesside Park and Hartlepool Marina, of concentrating too heavily on retail rather than on real work and in doing so, they said it created a society without soul – just like Mrs Thatcher.

NEARLY exactly 16 years ago, on another chill April day, I shivered as Mrs Thatcher returned to the wilderness with John Major to plant a tree to symbolise the £500m rebirth.

It was their only joint photo opportunity of the 1997 election campaign, and the Conservative Party was in tatters – Mrs Thatcher was kept waiting a full hour at Teesside Airport (as it then was) while Mr Major struggled in London to keep his government together.

She was obviously ageing, but summoned up the spirit and the strength for a blast of stridency: “It’s good to be back to see all this. Good Conservative policies translated into practice.

Have you got the message?”

She was one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers.

She transformed the nation as surely and as profoundly – and often as positively – as she transformed the Head Wrightson wilderness, but in doing so, she left a divide as deep, as cold and as permanent as the lead grey Tees on a chill April day.