Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013

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. 

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Nostalgia for Thatcher

You need look no further than the online messageboards of the Daily Mail or Telegraph to find a wealth of support and admiration that still exists for Margaret Thatcher.  “How we do need her now” says one poster (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1230319/Margaret-Thatcher-returns-10-Downing-Street-official-unveiling-new-portrait.html#comments).  This sentiment is something I have come across many times on right-leaning websites, but it is not just restricted to these portals.  I have had many conversations with friends and acquaintances, many of whom are not Conservative voters, and experienced this same nostalgia for Maggie.  With a new high-profile Thatcher biopic, ‘The Iron Lady’, coming out in a month, Thatcher is once more back in the limelight.

Regardless of my opinion of her politics, few would argue Maggie was not a strong leader.  I am currently reading part one of her autobiography, ‘The Path To Power’, and her conviction is consistent throughout.  She believed in the free market, she resented the big state, and, as a corollary, she loathed socialism.  As someone who leans to the left, I find myself regularly frustrated as I read her book.  She throws the ‘s’ word out so generously, you’d think every policy ever concocted by the Labour party had had mandatory approval by Karl Marx.

But her ideas and her beliefs were clear.  This lady really wasn’t for turning and at a time when Britain was in economic and industrial turmoil, this Iron Lady was an attractive prospect to many.  We think one day of strikes is inconvenient; try living in the 1970s.  What I find interesting about Thatcher – as the first female Prime Minister – is that she was actually rather masculine.  Not in appearance, no.   Gordon Reece understood that her appeal lay not in just her passion for traditional conservatism, but in this ‘Iron Lady’ image itself.  He helped ‘polish’ this image – the deep voice, the hairstyle, the suits.  This wife and mother of two could also mix with the big boys in the Tory party and she would not flip flop her beliefs to suit the changing political times.  These were her beliefs – freedom, laissez-faire capitalism, British Empire – and you can either like them or lump them.  She smashed the stereotype of woman as homemaker – indeed she juggled family life with political life – and in doing so, appealed to men.  And not just men of the middle and upper classes, but also to working class men too.   Maybe not a large proportion of working class men, no, but a significant number regardless.  Deference still had much influence back then.

And so this country elected Maggie three consecutive times, which surely speaks for something.  Her leadership during the Falklands War of 1982 reinforced this image of strength… a protector of Britain and its empire.  A woman willing to send our boys thousands of miles away to defend what is ours.  Yes, this woman had strength.  And in 2011, many in this country are looking back through rose-tinted glasses at those years.  But why?

It has been a turbulent few years for people in this country.  We have emerged from the deepest recession since World War Two and still find ourselves on precarious economic ground.  In 2010, we couldn’t quite decide if we really did trust David Cameron to sort our problems out, and now we have a coalition government, the first full coalition since the war.  Our elected officials have used and abused our trust and swindled taxpayers out of thousands of pounds’ worth of money to fund their lavish lifestyles.  The austerity measures of the current administration have left many of us hurt and damaged, whilst we bemoan just another example of the “bankers getting away with it”.  Clearly we are a confused nation going through confused times.  We have lost trust in our Members of Parliament.  Whereas some take up arms against the current government and look to the future, many instead look back at a time when one woman would not back down in the face of adversity.  A time when we were ruled by a woman who would likely have banished the word ‘coalition’ from her lexicon.  In times of uncertainty and worry, some look for strength and comfort… and they find Maggie.

I believe such nostalgia is misplaced.  Well of course I do, I’m a bleeding heart liberal.  But whilst we may long for a leader made of iron, we overlook many of her flaws and mistakes.  Those looking back fondly need to take off those rose-tinted specs and realise that Maggie was not infallible – the manner in which her resignation played out in 1990 exemplifies that.  For every Thatcherite, there is a bitter Labourite.  For every yuppie, a demoralised miner.  For every family made wealthy by her tax cuts, a broken family struggling to rub two pennies together.

We may be nostalgic for Thatcher’s conviction, but let us not forget her errors and failures, some of which had devastating effects for many in our country, particularly in the northern regions.  Her unwillingness to compromise on Northern Ireland did little to stop the prolonged periods of terrorism that we experienced in British towns and cities.  Her unwavering support for the free market saw manufacturing shipped abroad on the cheap, leaving thousands of British workers unemployed.  Her intolerance for the Left resulted in many Labour-run councils stripped of funding, despite her calls for more localism and less state intervention.  Clearly this was only okay when she had a political point to make.

In essence, Thatcher embodies everything that is wrong with our political and economic system today.  The greed and me-me-me attitude of the banking industry in the past few years is a direct consequence of Thatcher’s lust for a world where “there is no such thing as society”.  It is, I believe, right to let people get on with their lives and pursue whatever career or life goals they wish.  But this only works if the correct regulation is in place so as to not damage other people’s prospects and opportunities.  Her hatred for regulation allowed big business and corporations to run amok and pile up the cash, whilst many low-income workers were left to suffer the consequences.  Any of this sound familiar?

On Monday, it was the 21st anniversary of Maggie’s resignation.  We may be two decades onwards from that point, and three from her initial election as Prime Minister, but some things have not changed.  I wish Thatcher no ill; I find those on the left who are ready to dance on her grave despicable – have you no basic humanity?  But the stark truth is that her legacy – good and bad – and the effects of Thatcherism will live on far beyond her passing.  We may crave strong leadership during these testing times of economic frailty and smug PR-politics, but let us think a little more thoroughly before we open our mouths and say, “I wish we had Maggie”.   Strength must not be confused for good leadership or a faultless premiership.   At its most extreme example, we can find strong leadership in fascism.  That’s an over exaggeration I think, but the principle is important.  We must be careful what we wish for, because history has taught us that we can easily fall down the slippery slope.