The Lonely Grave of Margaret Thatcher

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.


6 Responses to “The Lonely Grave of Margaret Thatcher”

  1. paul murdoch Says:

    I liked this. I was very much a victim of Thatcher, as were my very large extended family. But the idea that her legacy could have ever scarred me to the extent that I’d be rejoicing at the news that a doddery old alzheimers’s sufferer had finally kicked the bucket is absolute anathema to me. People know me, and my politics…and I am quite forceful in expounding my views. They’re shocked when I look at them in genuine disgust when they tell me how they’d love to dance on her grave. And you’re right, it’s often those middle-class pseudo-lefties, more at home with ‘affirming identities’, empowering minorities and the minutiae of PC terminology who seem most vicious in their denunciations of a bewildered old woman. It’s a fuckin pity they didn’t show a bit more of this ‘fighting spirit’ at the time; they sure a hell weren’t that high profile on any picket line I attended.

    Don’t get me wrong, at the time I…well you can probably guess the rest

    “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?”

    erm..don’t be too sure…mind you the absence of the ‘make money’ component of that formula, in my own case, might have something to do with the ongoing ferocity of my own socialism…I like to think otherwise, but I guess I’ll never know, eh?

    “Even the firebrands went to Oxbridge.”…you’ve finally seen through the flimsy radical veneer of Laurie Penny then?…I believe she’s a confederate of that “that idiot who flung a pie at him”…who was in the Guardian magazine this weekend. He was explaining how he did it to raise awareness of Rupert Murdoch’s unscrupulous activities…the fact that, at the time, Murdoch was at an enquiry facing questions on precisely that in front of the world’s media seemed to have escaped the daft self-publicising prick…I believe he’s a bit of a Twitter legend.

    And that is Thatcher’s real legacy, for me…just as Blair and New Labour were the logical follow-up:the end of real politics. We live in an apolitical or anti-political age; where morons like him stage stunts, strike poses and are idolised as heroic political activists; written up by whiny public school-girls in combat fatigues and Doc Martens.

    5, 10 years from now, you’ll have had enough…you’ll get converted. You’ll write a piece on here calling for a raising of class consciousness, you’ll be reading Gramsci et al and demanding real Socialist policies. Reading this piece, it seems to me you’ve taken the first couple of tentative steps. And don’t worry when you do, I’ll be there to say I told you so 😉

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Yeah, Johnnie Marbles is on Twitter, I’m sure he’s a mate of Penny’s. I think that stupid clownish form of protest has had its day, no matter how much these idiots try to intellectualise it, and make it meaningful. Far better to challenge the mighty with a pithy epigram or satirical quatrain.

  2. paul murdoch Says:

    “Far better to challenge the mighty with a pithy epigram or satirical quatrain.”

    amen to that…or there’s always the dictatorship of the proletariat

  3. Pete Says:

    Thatcher’s dark legacy would not be so great had Blair not chosen to carry on her ideology in the disguise of a new form of socialism. Big business was allowed to do whatever it wanted in the mistaken belief that ‘market forces’ would benefit all society by creating a more equal society, a vibrant economy and a trickle down of wealth. It has done nothing of the sort. A large section of society, the working and lower middle classes, has seen this mantra benefit a small section of society whilst they are forced to pick up the bill in terms of reduced job opportunities, increased taxes and lower opportunities to improve one’s lot in life through university fees which discourage social mobility whilst MPs and bankers carry on as normal and wonder what all the fuss is about.
    The point about people like Louise Mensch (although I don’t know her individual circumstances) is well made and illustrates the difference between the elite and the majority. It is not that privately educated people don’t work hard and take risks. They do work hard and often, they believe, succeed on their own merit. But behind them, at each junction, is the invisible hand of Mum and Dad or their own friends and their parents; an introduction here, an opportunity there, a little loan here should it all go wrong. A little touch on the tiller of life, so subtle it is hardly noticed by those involved.
    All this is denied to the majority of people where the idea of a favour from a family friend might be the loan of a transit van for a day or a bit of help with DIY not an internship with a fashion house or an investment bank which pushes them up the career ladder.
    It is this lack of acknowledgement of privilege that leads to ridiculous statements such as ‘we’re all in this together’ which has switched off the working class voters who dared to hope that Blair’s Government offered an alternative to the social breakdown caused by Thatcherism.
    Thatcher may be an eighty six year old woman beset by health problems, and for that I’m sorry, but her relatives will not be faced with the difficult care decisions faced by the majority of the population with elderly relatives. She said famously that there was no such thing as society and in her death, the divisions she created will be only too apparent.

  4. George Szirtes Says:

    People are attached to the passions that defined them, and if that was hating Thatcher, then they will carry on hating her.

    Does anyone have any idea what would have happened had Callaghan or Michael Foot won? Would British heavy industry have survived and prospered? Would the docks, the mines, steel, fishing, public transport all be thriving? Would the cast of The Full Monty still be employed?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions and I suspect they are not even the real questions. The real question might involve a jumped up middle-class woman talking posh and pious, preaching virtues the most successful of her time would not have to exercise.

  5. mike burns Says:

    Hi Max, just doodling about this morning and wondering if Thatcher had destroyed working class communities, so i posed the question on the net. Your point is well made about middle class “radicals” who make all the right noises, but generally quietly acquiesce in the destruction of working class communiies. I became aware after becoming a mature student in my thirties, how every political and social discourse was dominated by the middle class, and how even unconsciously to them they patronised my opinions. I encountered middle class prejudices from university lecturers, who were pissed off by the influx of black and mature working class students. We came to university with views of the world which were forged in struggles with abusive and bullying managers in factories, corrupt union officials only looking to feather their own nests by cosying up to the managerial class. The ironic context of this is that it was under Thatcher that I became “educated”, and was able to see at last how rotten the policies of Thatcher were. The old saying ignorance is bliss, and a little education is a dangerous thing, applied to me and no doubt to all my mates and people I knew on my outer city council estate. I saw with my own eyes my community slowly and inexorably decline and stagnate, the shops closed, and we all began to resemble something from a george romero movie. I have to say trhat when I became aware of social class, and that there was a world outside my estate I became very bitter and began to really hate middle class people as liars and double dealing charlatans.I saw that all the best jobs went to them that they had there own support structure in teh universities and commerce. I noticed that they all owned their own houses and thei socia mobility meant that they very rarely stayed in one place very much. After graduating I thought Wow I have got a degree now I can wave low paid manual jobs goodbye. Boy did I get a shock, when I applied to work in my own working class communities, who should I be up against but middle class people who had never lived on an estate and knew nothing about them except what they read in a book, on on some patronizing student field trip. Anyway I have travelled off the point somewhat, but what made me write was your sentence” The British Working Class is now lost in a wasteland of sentimentality, hatred, and self pity”. I have to believe that this is a temporary thing and that we can overcome this defeatism, I know it won’t be easy, but we have to try.

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