Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Not One of Us: The Political and Cultural Legacy of Margaret Thatcher

‘She has always struck me as, on a personal level, a completely fucking shit human being, not at all one of those people of whom it is possible to say ‘I’m sure she’s a nice person, but…’, and an emphatic riposte to the popular notion that ‘there’s a little bit of good in everyone’.’ – Alex Niven, The Fantastic Hope (14/04/2008)

‘Thatcher is remembered as The Iron Lady only because she possessed completely negative traits such as persistent stubbornness and a determined refusal to listen to others. […] Iron? No. Barbaric? Yes.’ – Morrissey interview reposted (08/04/2013)

‘Any man who finds himself on a bus at the age of 26 can account himself a failure’ – Margaret Thatcher (1986)

‘There is too much Thatcherite ideology ingrained in our political culture to celebrate, even for one night.’ – Ben Sellers, The World Upside Down (08/04/2013)

‘From now on the electorate was to be led, not followed. What ‘I believe’ became what all were to believe, and remained so for twelve years.’ – Simon Jenkins, Accountable to None (Penguin, 1996, vii)

‘Perhaps if a Labour government had reduced the prosperous middle-classes of the Home Counties to mass unemployment and poverty, and stockbrokers desperate to save their livelihoods had been chased by police on horseback through the City of London, they would understand the bitterness’ – Owen Jones, The Independent (16/09/2012)

London became a city Hogarth would have recognized.’ - Glenda Jackson, parliament (10/04/2013)

Thatcher’s own attitudes are less important here than the political context she exploited. The broad base of support for the New Right in politics included an element of white English nationalism, which successively gave allegiance to the extra-parliamentary threat of the National Front in the 1970s, and to the relatively authoritarian and jingoistic government headed by Thatcher.’ – Joseph Brooker, Literature of the 1980s: After the Watershed (Edinburgh University Press, 2010, pp.144-5)

‘Her whole philosophy was that you measured the price of everything and the value of nothing – and we have to replace that… there is good and bad in everyone and for 10 years it has been the bad that has been… promoted and the good that has been denounced as lunatic, out-of-touch, cloud cuckoo land and extremist’ – Tony Benn, parliament (1990)

‘I’d vote Socialist. There was a documentary on Margaret Thatcher on ITV last night, and it’s enough to put anybody off.’ – Elton John, NME interview with Charles Shaar Murray (08/03/1975)

In January 2012, I was sat around a table with academic types in a Newcastle pub. One of them had been to see The Iron Lady. We had a measured discussion on the dangers of an ‘apolitical’ film about a decisive figure in our recent political history. The gent who’d seen the film, an affable PhD student at Warwick University, persuasively criticized the sentimental ‘humanizing’ of a woman who was driven by the protestant work ethic and was notable for her steely stoicism. In that social context, I didn’t think I needed to point out the lack of human empathy with the victims of her policies – or the doctrinaire certainty and zeal that genuinely made her more of a Maoist than a mainstream member of British society.

But then the complicated picture does need to be illuminated, as few people younger than I will possess any first-hand memories of Thatcher and often simply know nothing: 

Whether we are of a left, right, liberal or green persuasion, surely none of us are served by forgetting or misrepresenting her personality or politics. In August 2012, Thomas Byrne contributed to a debate regarding left-wing people preparing to celebrate Thatcher’s demise. Byrne is a rare breed – not just a thoughtful Tory, but a north-eastern one – and, unlike Nigel Lamont on Monday’s Newsnight, he clearly grasps at least some of the reasons behind the significant antipathy towards her. 

He counsels fellow Tories thus: ‘When you stop feigning outrage and ignoring the real emotional and social reactions of people who feel they were failed by Thatcher, I’ll stop feigning surprise that so many people still ignore us.’ (1) Indeed; the party’s continued adherence to Thatcherism holds them back from being a palatable option for a large number of voters. The party’s continued adherence to Thatcherism holds them back from any prospect of being a palatable option for a large number of voters, as Colin Kidd pointed out in an insightful recent LRB article.

Much of the mainstream media hagiography misses the fact that in her three election victories 56-58% of the voting electorate cast their ballots for non-Tory candidates. It was the divided opposition that enabled her to win.

Before I go further, it is worth highlighting a few things in her favour: she did – rhetorically at least – stand up to Reagan on the USA’s imperialist invasion of Grenada, taking a pro-self-determination position. However, she did not show quite such principled concern about US abuses in other non-Commonwealth countries. She must take some credit for moving towards diplomacy with the USSR and some nuclear arms reduction. Thatcher was shrewd enough to utilize her knowledge as an Oxford-educated Chemist to make a significant speech to the UN in November 1989 regarding the dangers to the environment relating to climate change. However, in later years, she recanted this constructive stance, falling into line with the right-wing orthodoxy of George W. Bush and Fox News.

When it comes to us being failed by Thatcher, her deregulation of the City of London in 1986 looms large; this led to an exceptionally irresponsible Boom culminating in the following year’s Bust. This more broadly freed up unscrupulous spivs to acquire riches through absurd means like betting on which companies would fail next. Caryl Churchill’s play Serious Money (1987) is the key contemporary depiction, as Brooker notes in his excellent book on 1980s literature. Fry and Laurie also displayed a righteous anger at what she was doing to the culture; they knew that ‘choice’ did not equal quality in broadcasting and that believing unquestioningly in ‘market forces’ is a negation of humanity itself:

All of which makes this pronouncement in her 1987 Smash Hits interview all the more disingenuous: ‘You know, some of the rules are coming back and life is much better when you have rules to live by.’ She preached orderliness, yet life for many in the UK became substantially more unsettled and uncertain during her tenure.

Yes, a large number of us in the North shiver at the thought of what was done. This was apparent during Sam West’s April 2012 Northern Stage production of Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door - a lively ‘epic history’ of north-east working class culture including songs by Alex Glasgow and inspired by Sid Chaplin’s County Durham coalfield writings. (2) On the stage prior to the performance there stood a large billboard film poster of Meryl Streep as Thatcher. Scary, harsh eyes staring you out – belying the supposed Hollywood woolliness of the film. The play’s conclusion was heartrending: it was originally staged in 1968 with the prospects for socialism still – broadly – on course.

This version of the play included a brief coda with a wistful song regarding the historical progress the working class had clearly achieved by 1968 via the likes of Thomas Hepburn: “It’s only a story / a fanciful tale”. The Thatcher-turn in history has rendered this all merely a story to tell the bairns today, albeit with tantalizing if threatened remnants of the Attlee world just about visible. It isn't clear-cut, but by 1968 safety and working hours and conditions had been vastly improved out of all recognition compared to previous eras. As Ken Loach stated in his recent documentary film, the Spirit of '45 had won significant advances for society. Plater’s original ending was upbeat and dryly jovial in his best style; the 2012 staging was shattering in its evocation of a backwards movement. ‘Community’ is too broad a word to evoke the collective memory and experience that Plater’s text conveyed when enacted on stage. This was the essence of socialism in practice, intrinsically social.

The sort of pride in work and companionship shown in the play is anathema to Thatcher. Long hours are a badge of honour to a City banker or grocer’s daughter wanting to change the country – not, apparently, a backward Victorian horror. She incarnated the ludicrous idea that we work better when working longer, and that there is some intrinsic nobility in ‘working hard’: toiling so absurdly hard destroyed her personally and influenced her later hubris. Some form of self-sacrifice for the ‘good of the country’? The strong-willed individual: battling for ‘The Individual’? It all takes on a creepy, barking mad, Ayn Rand complexion.

Where ‘hard-work’ was extolled, being on benefits was denounced, with Tebbit attack-polecat subtlety. There is a strident body of opinion in this land that ‘benefit dependency’ is a problem. Whether you concur with the swivel-eyed, blanket-condemnations of the Daily Mail or possess a humane perspective on diverse people’s circumstances, you must acknowledge this ironic truth: that Mrs Thatcher actually presided over the colossal expansion of welfare provision that resulted from her policies. In the political calculus, she preferred former industrial and manufacturing workers pacified and on the dole rather than in unionized employment and part of the ‘enemy within’.

I'm over 26 and I sometimes use a bus. What a failure I am!
It is, of course, inconceivable, that heavy-industry could have remained as it was indefinitely; yet, as Byrne acknowledges, there were other alternative options: liberal, social democratic and ‘wet’ Tory as well as Old Labour – more ameliorative policies and humane methods could have been used.

In her Smash Hits interview, Thatcher tries to be relatively amicable, though comes across as patronising: ‘most young people rebel and then gradually they become more realistic’. She speaks of her youthful liking for the 1940s Hollywood cinema of Carmen Miranda and Jean Arthur but even here she is drawn back to a characteristic emphasis on toil: ‘But I suppose things turn out to be less glamorous the closer you get to them: they were jolly hard working, jolly hard working.’ She speaks of the escapism in enjoying South of the Border and The Plainsman and also that young people shouldn’t be persuaded ‘into a direction into which they don’t want to go’.

The Guardian, 07/02/1986
However, the hectoring impulse is never far away, overwhelming these accommodating words which had no doubt been given her by cynically youth-conscious PR advisers. The moralistic matriarch comes into view: ‘On the other hand if they want to do terribly glamorous things which aren’t going to give them a living, you’ve got to say ‘now, look dear, don’t you think it would be worthwhile taking some training which will give you a much better chance of earning a basic living?’ She was a cultural philistine; in the interview, her most enthusiastic cultural endorsement is of a Nanette Newman-featuring Fairy Liquid advertisement on the telly.

Thatcher’s ideal New Year’s Eve party at Chequers would have included Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, Jeffrey Archer, Paul Daniels, General Pinochet and Jimmy Savile – with Brotherhood of Man playing on the sound system, as the Smash Hits interview indicates. It is not without irony then that she spoke of the importance of friends; she clearly knew how to pick them...

While she clearly galvanized a rich oppositional counterculture, she ultimately made the terrain much less fertile for any future such sub-cultures. This has left mainstream culture a mean, bland and barren ‘business friendly’ zone. In music, from the Specials to Sudden Sway to Elvis Costello to Roger Waters to Morrissey to Kirsty MacColl to Crass to The Housemartins, there was articulate and implacable opposition to her anti-humanism. Red Wedge saw not just Weller and Bragg, but Prefab Sprout and The Smiths appearing on stage in necessary union.

On Monday, David Stubbs wrote in The Quietus of the earlier 1980s post-punk response: ‘Everything about the new music of the 1980s – forward-looking, racially diverse, permissive, insolent, gleefully engaged in the “promotion of homosexuality”, to use one of the more vile phrases of the Tories – flew in the face of the tetchy, small-minded, prudish, selfish flight behind the net curtains of pre-Beatles mores represented by Thatcher and her ilk’.

The progressive culture was vanquished, even if some of its values became accommodated in the mainstream from the 1990s on. Ultimately, the repellent cash-till market dogma of Mick Jagger’s ‘Let’s Work’ won out over The Human League’s ‘Open Your Heart’, whatever those songs' chart placings when released.

An eminent literary man of her and our time, Ian McEwan, has produced a tepid, ineffectually ‘balanced’ ode to her in The Guardian. He wasn’t personally affected for the worse by Thatcherism in the 1980s, unlike working-class people in the north, Scotland or Wales. This fact explains, but does not excuse, the lack of empathy in this liberal individualist novelist’s words – as well as his unconvincing explanation of why the 1970s were so bad.

Right-wing pundits’ attacks on the 1970s ring hollow besides the Thatcher-inspired disaster zone we are now living in. Harold Wilson, flawed PM though he clearly was, has an increasingly impressive legacy in comparison to hers, on all of the important measures. He did less harm to human beings and society.

A society one of the most equal in Western Europe by 1979 now stands as one of the most unequal and divided.

‘NO. NO. NO.’

The Guardian, 15/11/1990

Ah yes… that ‘last term’. From 1979-87, she had been a dangerous but clearly formidable political force. Whatever clever judgement she had once possessed completely deserted her following her third victory. She started using the royal ‘we’ – “we are a grandmother” – becoming an irrational, ranting little Englander, with her attacks on Europe.  In this twilight of her ‘reign’, she was utterly obstinate, self-righteous and messianic. Other than the current coalition, surely no three years of any other government has ever produced quite so much pernicious, culturally degrading legislation as the following:

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988
The Football Spectators Act 1989
The Broadcasting Act 1990
The Community Charge (poll tax) 1989-90

‘Think for a Minute’, as the Housemartins urged. What is her actual legacy? A coarser public discourse. The lexis is more News International, rather than Chaucer. No, we don’t have Alan Plater doing a modern-day northern adaptation of The Canterbury Tales on ITV now. We’ve had The Sun dominating. Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney freeloading. Richard Littlejohn. A newly licensed yobbery: whether on the council estates or the City of London stock-market. Lives, working or otherwise, were sacrificed for an economic experiment dreamed up by marginal think tanks and that despicable crank Sir Keith Joseph. She paraded an inverse-snobbery regarding the arts and public services, reducing everything to its monetary price. The old nineteenth-century ‘cash nexus’.  He’s not Yosser Hughes, he’s nobody.

The Guardian, 07/06/1983
She took sociopathic delight in dividing communities and attacking ‘the enemy within’, who were largely workers concerned for their jobs and localities, not a uniform bloc of Stalinist revolutionaries.

She should have taken a career as a scientist.

The Falklands War. A new friend I met recently, who was around 20 at the time, noted how the atmosphere in country seemed to tangibly shift in a matter of days; previously sensible, liberal or progressive people were swept along in a fundamentally distasteful jingoistic tide. Denis Healey’s description of Thatcher ‘glorying in slaughter’ does not seem unfair when considering the Belgrano episode and how she posed for the press in its aftermath. Military dictator General Galtieri was indeed hateful; but so was the act to sink a boat that was out of the designated exclusion zone and moving away from the HMS Conqueror. 323 Argentinian lives were ended. Whatever claims some have made regarding her understanding of the gravity of war and desire to reduce casualties, she gave credence to the mindless ‘GOTCHA’ mentality.

“NO. NO. NO.”

No: to thoughts of a work-life balance. No: to oppose the ‘yes’ of Molly Bloom. ‘No such thing as society’. No: to the post-WW2 political culture and the idea that organised labourers should have a say. See Joseph Strick’s 1966 film The Hecklers here if you don’t believe me: we had a mainstream culture thoroughly engaged with politics in a way that seems alien to us today. 

It is highly ironic that this conviction politician created and fostered attitudes that range from the apathetic or resigned to the poisonously ignorant. A year or so before 1979 election, she cynically spoke of immigrants ‘swamping’ the country; she introduced Section 28; she tried to introduce ID cards for footer fans; she ran down public services and infrastructure; she presided over mass unemployment and then directed blame towards those unlucky enough to be unemployed. We live with the after-effects: the horrible rhetoric of ‘skivers’, ‘shirkers’, ‘sponging asylum seekers’ and ‘immigrants taking our jobs’.

She presided over policies that abetted immigration – as global capitalism always will, yet she indulged the mean-spirited, who take the benefits of market liberalism but are averse to seeing immigrants taking jobs that are not necessarily a God-given right to anyone under such a system. Therefore, her legacy includes the risible UKIP, with their ‘three million Bulgarians are coming to Eastleigh’ and a daily avalanche of disgraceful tabloid falsehoods.

Her legacy is further dividing the society she claimed didn’t exist. She encouraged people to scapegoat trade unionists, immigrants, gay people or Osborne’s ‘shirkers’. All of which conceals a colossal transfer of resources away from the average working person and towards the City of London and Tory donors. That is History, that is what happened – an 'enemy within' was gleefully vanquished and power redistributed.

“NO. NO. NO.”

No: to the life of the many, ultimately. When I think of Thatcher's impact, her legacy is in the single file insularity I have seen around me. It is in that tendency among 'Thatcher’s children' to accept being atomised and cut off from other people; I have to fight this off, but it isn’t easy, as this way of life has had currency for decades now. Showing empathy for others is going against the grain today. A good deal of the pettiness, cruelty and entitlement I have been witness to can be laid at her door, directly or indirectly.

In the booklet to the BFI’s Miners’ Campaign Tapes DVD, is reprinted a New Statesman article from the novelist David Peace, composed twenty years on from the Strike and circa the publication of his acclaimed novel, GB84. He sets out what was at stake in 1984-5: ‘Sacrifice and selflessness versus brutality and bribery, fear and greed. And we all know who won. And we all know who lost – their jobs, their families, their communities, their culture, their heritage – 150 years of socialist heritage. British heritage, not nostalgia. Not romanticism. A heritage of sacrifice, of selflessness. A sacrifice and a selflessness born out of compassion and empathy – qualities that cannot be bought or stolen from you.’

I refuse to accept that we are, to quote Nye Bevan on Hugh Gaitskell, ‘desiccated calculating machines’. That it is in our nature and interests to relentlessly weigh up our interests in mere pecuniary, self-interested terms. Thatcher commandeered the language and enforced the cheerless ideas that now seem to hold the public in a vice-like grip. It is an urgent necessity, as Mark Fisher argues, for the many of us who despise her corrosive legacy to be pro-active in over-turning all this fundamentally evil, weird shit.

      (1)     Byrne is, however, wrong to primarily credit Thatcher with bringing Nissan to the North East; this was mainly the work of Sunderland’s Labour Council leader Charles Slater, and, to an extent, Thatcher’s arch-enemy in the Tory party, Michael Heseltine at the DTI. He has always been rare in modern Conservative circles for advocating that government cash should go into stimulating industry.

      (2)    This production was also adapted for BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Drama strand, TX: 29/09/2012.