I was sat having lunch with 2 of my work colleagues when I heard the news about Margaret Thatcher. One of our other colleagues had bombarded us with missed calls and we, naturally, thought something at work had gone tits up. But no. When I checked my phone I noticed texts from 2 friends and my Mum. I saw in the subject the words, “Thatcher’s dead!”. It was a surreal moment. For years she has been ill and in and out of hospital, but you always think people like Maggie will live forever. It’s the same way I feel about the Queen. I wouldn’t be surprised if she outlived me.
My personal reaction to her death is mixed. I spent years at college and university criticising every single word and policy that came out of her and her government, and my anger then was spurred on by the many left-wingers I was surrounded by. My politics teacher at sixth-form was a left-wing Catholic Scouser with an Irish father, so you can just imagine what she thought of Mags. I hung on my teacher’s every word. That anger was young and naive. I have no love for Thatcher or her policies, but my anger and my critique is, I hope, more mature now.
It was interesting to see the reactions of my friends on Facebook and Twitter. So many were sad, and an equal number were either indifferent, angry or happy at her passing. For me, I felt odd. There will be no tears shed for Maggie in my family. We are staunchly anti-Conservative and my own father became a victim of Thatcher’s destruction of Britain’s manufacturing industry in the 1980s when he lost his job and briefly went on the dole. Having said that, it’s not in my nature to be happy to see someone die. I never wished ill or death on Maggie, and I won’t be attending any parties to celebrate her demise. This is not to say that I think those who are happy are despicable humans or unfeeling robots; merely that for me personally, I can’t live with that kind of hate inside of me and I don’t see how dancing on her grave will change so much of what has already been done by Thatcherism.
However, the media reaction has infuriated me and I’m not sure why I am so surprised. Thatcher is held up as the hero of the right by most of our major papers, including the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. But to watch the BBC yesterday and this morning, I was left feeling that so much of her history as a politician and leader of our country is being glossed over. Perhaps this is a premature assessment; the reactions to her death are still new and raw, and perhaps many media outlets are biding their time before they unleash their critiques of her time in power so as not to seem tasteless. I will wait and see. Yet Bill Turnbull still wound me up this morning on BBC Breakfast during an interview with left-wing Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire and some other right-leaning hack. He repeatedly lambasted Maguire and those who have expressed relief and/or gladness at Thatcher’s death, without really addressing the root causes of why some people in this country will not be sad she’s gone. The complexities of Thatcherism and the effects of those policies are too nuanced to paint this situation as black and white. If Turnbull can’t understand why not everyone is shedding tears and leaving flowers at Downing Street, then I wonder where he has been for the last 35 years.
Reactions on social media outlets were equally curious. Most of my friends had a similar reaction to me, one that expressed a respect for an old, sick woman who had died, but also a hope that her policies would die with her. Others launched into tirades against her and her government. Some praised her. It was the usual mix you would expect upon the death of such a divisive figure, an image that Maggie herself revelled in. But the constant posturing over her position as the “first female Prime Minister” left a bad taste in my mouth. It is truly remarkable that we elected our first woman Prime Minister in 1979 and I won’t take away from that fact. It is interesting that we have never elected another since. But to hold Thatcher up as a feminist icon is to insult her, her principles, and true feminism. Thatcher described feminism as a “poison” and she attributed none of her success as a politician and leader to her gender. It is telling that over the course of her 11 years in power, she only had one female member of Cabinet, Baroness Young. In 2011 I wrote of Maggie’s approach to politics and concluded that her appeal was due in large part to the traditionally male/masculine attitudes she displayed (that blog post can be found here: https://brightlightsandthebigcity.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/nostalgia-for-thatcher/). It is great that this country elected a woman to the highest office, and we should be proud of that. But let’s not pretend that she cared for this fact beyond any superficial meaning.
I am a huge Meryl Streep fan and I found her statement was one of the most honest of the day, perhaps because she is an American, perhaps because she played her and tried to understand her from all angles, perhaps because I am biased. Alas it is important to remember how such biases colour our perceptions. Would I care so much for Maggie’s death if I hadn’t seen her played by my favourite actress in an Oscar-winning performance less than 2 years ago? Would my reaction have been different if ‘The Iron Lady’ had not been made? These questions are difficult to answer. Ultimately this film was made, I did enjoy it, and I have been affected by it. She was portrayed as strong and ambitious and a woman who faced multiple struggles to be elected as an MP, leader and Prime Minister. She was also seen in her later years as suffering from possible dementia. She looked frail and old and a shadow of her former self. And even though I knew it was Meryl underneath all those layers of makeup, it still struck a chord. How much truth is in those movie interpretations, only few will know.
I also witnessed a few of my Meryl and non-Meryl friends engaged in heated debates on Facebook over what should be the appropriate response to Thatcher’s death. A comment that popped up a few times was “you weren’t there, so you don’t know”, a condescending statement put forth by some people who had lived the Thatcher years and were obviously dismayed to see young people expressing any notion of sympathy for Maggie. It’s a comment that throws up a lot of thoughts and I see it from both sides. If you study a particular part of history for any length of time, you have an evidence-based advantage over those who have not. History lessons at school, college, university etc, taking the time to research and learn about Thatcher – you have the right to an opinion whether you were there or not. Whether this opinion is informed or not is open to further debate, but you have the right to feel something, to react to an event, to hold a view.
Having said that, can we ever truly understand what the Thatcher years were like if we weren’t alive back then? Can we ever understand what it felt like to live through those strikes, the Falklands, the IRA bombings, the poll tax, the demise of hundreds of northern communities as a direct consequence of her decisions? I don’t think we can. We can have an idea. We can read about it, learn about it, and form a view. But I wasn’t there. I don’t hold a definitive opinion. I was born in 1987 and by definition I am a child of the Thatcher years, but I will never know what it was like to live in those times. Furthermore, whilst I sit here and lavish praise on the honest assessment provided by Meryl, she too couldn’t ever fully appreciate the Thatcher years for Britain. Of course, she was alive then but she lived in the States. She did not live here, in our streets, whilst miners went on strike, as the wealth gap widened, as poor families struggled and felt punished. Our views can’t be separated from our emotions and our personal and political biases. And the storm of opinion and thought will rage on for months, perhaps years.
Thatcher is a hero and icon on the right. She is held up on a pedestal for what she did. Few politicians exist in this day and age – in fact I’m not sure I can think of one – with the kind of conviction Maggie had. Her impact on Britain and the wider world is something few achieve. She knew her mind and she stuck to it. To us on the left, she is a villain. She destroyed lives and snatched away jobs. She cared not for the poor or the working class. She encouraged greed and the ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ attitude that we still see in society today (the society that doesn’t exist). But if I put aside my biases for just one moment, I can see she was also just a human. Hero, villain, pariah, devil-incarnate… but human all the same. A daughter, a mother, a wife, a Prime Minister. She lived, she worked, she suffered illness, and she died on April 8th 2013. The criticisms and tributes will continue to roll in, but she is gone. Whatever happens in the future, we cannot change what she did. To celebrate her death as some kind of victory is, in the long-term, futile. Look around you – even now, Thatcherism lives on.