9 April 2013
Some thoughts on the life and legacy of Margaret Thatcher – the scourge of the liberal left and the champion of right-wing conservatism – who died yesterday.
Yesterday afternoon I texted a friend to tell him of the death of Margaret Thatcher – a politician who I know he has no love for. His wonderfully concise response followed in three messages of Wildean acuity:
“I’ve just had ginger sponge and custard.”
“I’m going to have to impose a complete news black out. I just want her to go away.”
Therein lies what I think is the quintessentially English response to Mrs Thatcher and her ambiguous legacy – including the love of custard. Sadly for my friend, a news black out seems impossible, as there’s now wall-to-wall media coverage of Thatcher, with innumerable pundits from the left and right wing sparring for dominance about how best to assess her political career and reputation.
What’s most interesting to me about the debate is how easily and naturally most locals have an opinion about her, how extreme most of those opinions are, and how uncharacteristically self confident everyone’s being about where they stand. There’s very little of the foot shuffling, embarrassed, conflict-avoiding conciliation that characterises most English public opinion, and no apparent need to take the middle road for fear of offending someone’s sensibilities.
In yesterday’s Guardian, Glenn Greenwald wrote a fantastic piece, “Margaret Thatcher and misapplied death etiquette”, in which he takes issue with the very (although not uniquely) British custom of not speaking ill of the dead. “That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies”, he argues, “but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power”, dismissing the Tories’ “demand for respectful silence” in the wake of Thatcher’s death as “not just misguided but dangerous”. Clearly no fan of Thatcherism, Greenwald lists a very long catalogue of her objectionable policies (more on them in a minute) and concludes with a battle cry that’s been cited approvingly by many of Thatcher’s critics:
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with loathing Margaret Thatcher or any other person with political influence and power based upon perceived bad acts, and that doesn’t change simply because they die. If anything, it becomes more compelling to commemorate those bad acts upon death as the only antidote against a society erecting a false and jingoistically self-serving history.”
It seems that everyone has taken Greenwald’s mantra to heart. On the left, the Guardian-reading lefty liberals are happy to condemn Thatcher as an insane idealogue who launched the free market economy on an unwillingly Socialist Britain, destroyed working class industries and communities, and popularised aggressive capitalism and a take-no-prisoners negotiating style. As we speak, champagne corks are being popped and renditions of “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” are being played all over the country. On the right, there are just as many pundits who hail her as the saviour of 1970s Britain, a feminist role model, a pioneer for empowered individualism, and a relentless patriot on the world stage, and who are, as Greenwald points out, horrified that the lefties are dancing on Maggie’s grave.
What’s most fascinating is that, for once, there seems to be very little space in between for a measured or ambivalent response. It’s understandable, I suppose: the extremity of Thatcher’s politics and her unwillingness to conciliate or compromise has, somewhat inevitably, resulted in people having extreme points of view about her reign. However, it it’s this point of ambivalence towards her life and legacy where I find myself. To some extent, I have much less personally invested in a personal opinion of Thatcher. I didn’t grow up in this country, and she was gone from public office by the time I was a teenager. That being said, the world that Thatcher created – the free market economy, the reconfiguring of political debate towards the centre, the shrinking role of the State in British life, the continued dominance of Anglo-American politics on world life – is still with us. The area that I currently work in – social housing – was decimated by Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy in the early 1980s, and her anti-unionist tendencies and her campaign to close down traditional working class industries (mining, shipping, manufacturing) disenfranchised entire communities, especially in the working class North of England. The project of resuscitating social housing, which sometimes feels like trying to put out a fire by pissing on it, still stands in the long shadows cast by Thatcher’s years in power.
My response to Thatcher’s death is strangely akin to my response to The Iron Lady, the entertaining but deeply strange biopic starring Meryl Streep that I saw last year with my friend the Custard King. The film seemed to exemplify the contemporary feminist ambivalence about how to assess her legacy. Director Phyllida Law, screenwriter Abi Morgan and Streep seemed intent on celebrating Thatcher as a working class woman who achieved great success in a male-dominated, class-bound political shark pit. But, like the good hand-wringing liberals that they are, they also appeared to struggle with commending Thatcher’s hard-nosed right wing policies, and wanted to flag what they considered to be the dangers of Thatcher’s unrestrained capitalist agenda. The resulting strategy was to show Thatcher as a delusional lonely old women, enslaved by dementia and largely condescended to and forgotten by the public – a kind of King Lear for girls. This was, depending on your point of view, either an ingenious way to humanise a woman who many of her critics were quite happy to describe as a monster, or an equally ingenious way to undermine her accomplishments and reassure left-wing audiences that all evil dictators will eventually decline and fall given enough time. While Streep did an eerily brilliant impersonation of Thatcher, her performance, like the screenplay, struggled to find its moral centre – was Streep’s Maggie a homage, a pastiche, or sabre-toothed Spitting Image style satire? This ambivalence was, I think inevitable for a film that couldn’t make up its mind whether it was on the side of the angels or had sympathy for the devil.
What seemed like a failure in a piece of popular entertainment seems to me now like a thoroughly sensible way to consider Thatcher’s legacy, especially now that there’s no more of Thatcher herself and she’s no longer able to control the narrative of her life and times. While there’s little point in avoiding an extreme reaction just for the sake of balance (the BBC is attempting this in its news coverage, and failing miserably), I find that I can’t focus on a single and monolithic opinion about her life and legacy. Having lived in Britain for ten years, I’m acutely aware of how much of a straight white posh boy male controlled culture it still is, which makes my appreciation for Thatcher’s achievements as a thrice-elected political leader all the greater. I’ve always been very suspicious about the violence of the criticism surrounding her “toughness”, which derive in part from some rather tiresomely old school sexist assumptions about women being nurturing and conciliatory, and that Thatcher was some kind of freak of nature for transgressing those rules. Even now, there’s an enormous amount of sexist rhetoric circulating about Thatcher being like a man, which is revolting and totally unnecessary. And it’s arguable that the “harsh medicine” she dealt out to the welfare state, the fossil fuel mines and Britain’s ailing manufacturing industry was just the slap in the face the country needed to drag them out of the unsustainable fantasy they’d been living in since the days of E M Forster.
Then I think about the communities destroyed and left largely abandoned by the industry closures, and that are still languishing in poverty today (it wasn’t as if unemployed coal miners all went and retrained as IT engineers); the catastrophic effects of deregulating the financial industry; the rise and rise of Rupert Murdoch, whose power was made possible by Thatcher’s liberalisation of competition laws; the appalling prejudice and hatred created by the Section 28 policy that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools; her aggressively jingoistic foreign policy, including a pointless, bloody war in the Falklands and a dogged refusal to compromise over Northern Ireland; her disavowal of Nelson Mandela, who she described as a “terrorist”, while she invited her good friend Chilean dictator and mass murderer Augusto Pinochet around for afternoon tea; and the breathless lack of compunction with which she knocked back dissenters within her own party as easily as she set armed police against striking miners and Poll Tax protesters. With that kind of curriculum vitae, the zeal of her enterprise looks closer to a kind of psychopathology. Even Thatcher’s achievement as the first (and only) female Prime Minister to govern Britain seems like an empty victory: although she’s ceaselessly quoted as a role model for successful women, her bullying style of governance seems to have simply reiterated and amplified the worst aspects of patriarchal culture, and her policy record did very little to support the education of women or working mothers.
The only consensus that anyone seems to be able to make about Thatcher was that her reign was highly transformative of British culture, and just as highly divisive. This is true, although becomes somewhat banal through endless repetition. The next and more interesting stage of Thatcher’s story – something that can only happen after her death – is to watch subsequent generations grapple with the legacy she left, and assign to her the role of saviour or scourge of modern Britain. While The Lady herself may not have been for turning, her place in history is likely to bend and twist with whichever political discourses lead the way in the future.
The positions are deeply entrenched on both sides, and will to some degree be irreconciliable. Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement outside Downing Street today was a fumbled attempt to unite public response to Thatcher by calling her “the patriot Prime Minister” with a “lion-hearted love” of her country. This is the kind of sentimentality with which Tony Blair achieved immense popularity when he dubbed Diana “the Peoples’ Princess”, but it’s unlikely to work for a stateswoman as belligerent and immune to compromise as Thatcher. A retired coal miner from County Durham is unlikely to ever view Thatcher in the same way as a hedge fund gazillionaire from Chelsea, since their experiences of 1980s Thatcherism differed so vastly.
It’s my hope, or at least my cynical expectation, that hindsight and the passing of time will accord Thatcher some degree of equanimity. The strikers and protesters who felt the sting of her whip first-hand will, of course, never forgive her for the desacration of the welfare state and local industries, but their complaints will, as they age, eventually sound as creaky and obsolete as people who lament for the days of penny farthing bicycles. Left-leaning historians and economists are already pointing to Thatcher’s reign as the anthropological origins of the shortage of the financial crisis, welfare dependency culture, and the lack of affordable housing. And her many supporters are, for the most part, laughing all the way to the bank, and taking great glee in pointing out to lefties that Thatcher’s greatest political achievement was the reconfiguration of New Labour in the 1990s, in which the party abandoned the traditional policies of nationalisation in Clause IV of the original Labour manifesto (“the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”) and became sleek, spin-doctored and jauntily pro-free market. Even the left is more centre/centre-right than it’s ever been before, and capitalism is the only game in town. What still remains to be seen is whether the legacy of the Thatcher years will see an equally radical swing back towards the left.
Like all influential leaders who ploughed through with society-changing policies and refused to brook any opposition, she’ll be praised for her strength and determination, and lambasted for her arrogance, inflexibility and failure to compromise. For better or for worse, her life and career is an extraordinary example of what can be achieved by one person, a big can of hairspray and a sturdy collection of handbags. Like it or not, we are all Thatcher’s children now.