One of the curiosities of the recent Thatcher biopic and accompanying hype is that people write about Margaret Thatcher as if she were already dead. I wonder how the government and the media are going to handle it when the old girl finally does check out. How will the Telegraph and the Sun report on the inevitable street parties and celebrations in the Northern cities and many parts of the capital? What will a Conservative prime minister say about the mass protests that will accompany any state funeral? Where will she be buried, and what arrangements will be made to prevent the grave from being pissed on or defaced in some way? We are finally going to feel like the divided country we have always been.
This is all so ghoulish. I don’t care when bad people die. But I think that conservatives have a point when they say: ‘Look, this is an eighty-six year old woman with terrible health problems. I know you don’t like her, but, for Christ’s sake.’ For all the British right’s viciousness and nastiness, it doesn’t have a countdown clock for Tony Benn or Tony Blair. It’s striking though that middle-class leftists born in, say, 1987 hate Thatcher with the rage of older working-class men who saw their livelihoods and communities destroyed under her rule.
What gets people about Thatcher isn’t so much Orgreave or the Beanfield or the Belgrano. It is her worshippers’ rhetoric of freedom and opportunity, in what is becoming a static and closed society. Thatcher’s admirers say she launched a meritocratic capitalist revolution. It is a generational belief. John Rentoul describes the process:
A professor told me, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, that he had marked out in chalk on the pavement outside his house the steps of the jig he was going to dance when she left office. By the time she was brought down, however, he was on the way to becoming respectable, and, anyway, his attitude to her had started to change.
That happened to a lot of people who are now over the age of 35, for whom her government was the reference point of their politics.
This is the narrative of my parents’ generation. It’s a tale told in rueful self-satisfaction. You start off young, poor and ferocious in your socialism. You get older, make money, get married, find a home and – what do you know? – become a little more practical and conservative. I remember a dinner party scene, up in Leeds Hyde Park, when we were talking about politics and I questioned Thatcherite monetarism. I was immediately put in my place: ‘It had to happen, Max.’ Middle-aged suburbanites shake their heads and say, ‘What she did was painful, but necessary.’ These are rarely the people who actually have to feel the pain.
Today Britain is ruled by a government of aristocrats and Etonians. Many of the top professions are locked to people without the right connections. Even the firebrands went to Oxbridge. I think that is what underlies the fury – this apparent legacy of freedom and opportunity, in a country defined by exclusion, unfreedom and lack of opportunity. The rhetoric is get up and go. The reality is stay in your place, you.
I would guess that the twenty-year-old struggling radicals of this age will still be struggling at thirty-five, and probably still quite radical. Working and middle class people will find it increasingly hard to find a secure job and a secure home, never mind a meaningful career and the pursuit of ambitions. University provides a potential route up or at least a three-year breathing space, where you get to study interesting things, before the looming grind of the supermarket shelves or the call centre. But that door will be slammed soon.
What impacts is not planned policy but a subtle and insidious lowering of expectations. The right wing lament that ‘all the kids want to be pop stars these days’ gets it completely upside down. The reason Britain is in a mess is not that people have high expectations but that their expectations aren’t high enough. If you don’t have a future, a stake or a dream, then who cares if you go to prison, or make life hell for your neighbours, or have more and more children you cannot support. The bright lad from Longsight isn’t going to think: ‘I could get to Oxford if I had more money.’ The possibility just won’t enter his head.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Louise Mensch is probably the most intelligent, capable and pragmatic of the 2010 Conservative intake. Her hard questions hurt Rupert Murdoch far more than that idiot who flung a pie at him. She was admired too for her casual, devastating response to some prudish hack, who approached Mensch with a sly and insinuatory story about her recreational drug use in the nineties. Leftwing males slag her politics with real loathing while fantasising about what it would be like to sleep with her. She will engage with political opponents on Twitter, and often they come away with an altered view and a reluctant respect for her.
Mensch told Decca Aitkenhead that ‘I take the classic Reaganite view that if you want something, you have to do it yourself. You know, the more Thatcherite view that you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’
Isn’t that kind of easy for you to say, Aitkenhead wondered? Mensch came from a wealthy stockbroking family, who educated her privately. All due respect, but wasn’t success easier for you than it might be for others? No, Mensch said.
That only works if my father was subsidising me when I went out into the workplace – which he was not… I was educated privately for free because I was a scholarship girl, 100% scholarship girl. I got it on my own merits. I would never dispute that I am a privileged person. Nevertheless, when I started work I made 11 grand a year.
As Aitkenhead wrote: ‘There you have it. No amount of socially liberal opinions has altered the implacable conviction that the only difference between Mensch and some jobless loser on a council estate is a go-getting attitude.’
Thatcher may not have destroyed socialism, but she destroyed the British working class, which is now lost in a wasteland of sentimentality, hatred and self-pity. There is no working class movement for change, and many people in working class communities have no interest in the forces that shape their lives. I had a drink with a woman from Burnley, who told me that she hadn’t bothered to vote in the last election. ‘They just kept slagging each other off,’ she said. ‘It was stupid.’ I thought: how exactly am I going to convince this person to participate in the democratic process? How can I possibly argue that it will make a positive difference to her life, or be anything other than a waste of her time and energy? What am I supposed to say to her? That she failed us?
The thing is this. The people in charge right now do not believe that working class people can become great artists, scientists, doctors, businessmen or political leaders. The tuition fees vote was the clearest illustration of this. It’s not a conscious exclusion. The possibility just doesn’t enter their heads.
The Tory party may well end up destroyed by its hero. Their last election victory was twenty years ago. After so long out of office, David Cameron understood that Thatcher’s legacy was electoral poison. He worked hard to detoxify the Conservative brand. He even directly contradicted Thatcher’s idea that ‘there is no such thing as society’. Still he couldn’t win a full majority and probably never will.
As prime minister Thatcher got some things right – the Falklands, right to buy – but her record doesn’t justify the fervent psycho-sexual admiration. She wasn’t a statesman in the same way as Attlee or Churchill. Her belief that unregulated capitalism will make everything all right went smash in the fall of 2008. The idea that free markets guarantee free societies is just laughable. China combines a communist tyranny with roaring capitalist success.
Maybe, instead of being this great, defining force, Margaret Thatcher was just as much a prisoner of the verve and flow of history as the rest of us.