It would certainly be pushing it to say I felt sorry for Margaret Thatcher, but I think the relish at her passing has missed the key points: she lived to see her life’s work coming undone, her legacy represented by Tony Blair, David Cameron and George Osborne (men she almost certainly – and, if so, rightly – despised), with her own family disgraced and ‘abroad’ at the time of her death, with her opponents – and there are a lot more of them around than is often acknowledged – celebrating her death with street parties, and even her supporters so dementedly determined to whitewash her position in recent history that it’s a de facto admission that they know perfectly well where she stands in the national memory. You don’t have to spin this hard for credit if it’s deserved.
Churchill was a hugely divisive figure as a peacetime politician, but he’d won near-universal respect for one thing: his achievement in leading a united government between 1939 and 1945, a role he’d earned, in case we forget, by standing against a broad but now largely forgotten consensus among many in his own class and party during the mid to late 1930s: the newspaper proprietors, politicians and aristocrats, up to and including the heir to the throne, who’d thought his views of Nazi Germany misguided and ridiculous. The situation today is very unlike that surrounding the death of Clement Attlee, too, a man who could be laid to rest with an unassumingly quiet family funeral in the full knowledge that his actions in power had spoken for themselves and refuted the need for any further glorification or pomp.
The more the build up to Mrs Thatcher’s funeral continues, the more it becomes clear that the whole business (a state funeral in all but name) is less an unambiguous honour and, by itself, something of an admission by her supporters that a lot of ceremony – and how much security? – is required to even superficially suspend the toxic climate she helped to create thirty years ago. But, let’s be honest, Margaret Thatcher was never solely responsible for creating that poisonous atmosphere: she was the protege of men like Sir Keith Joseph, ideologues who simply couldn’t sell their own lunatic ideas to a public audience and seized on the presentational opportunity she offered them during the chaotic dog days of the Heath government with both hands. They were the Militant Tendency of the right, five years before the Left began its own wranglings, and they succeeded in the Conservative Party in 1975 as decisively as Militant failed in the Labour Party a few years later.
The evidence suggests that Mrs Thatcher lacked the kind of imagination and empathy, and certainly the self doubt, not to have meant every word of that prayer by St Francis of Assisi she recited on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in 1979. However hollow and bitterly ironic it now sounds to hear her voice intone: “where there is strife may we bring harmony…”, she believed rather abstractly in a natural and self-regulating social order, in the idea that money invariably found its way to the deserving, and in ‘charity’ of the Victorian sort instilled in her by a Grantham Methodist upbringing. She continued to believe in these things even as she saw her own policies prove all her instincts wrong, time after time, but didn’t have the resolve to change her mind, or reconsider her position in the light of anything so mundane as the evidence. Just occasionally she’d make a tactical shift, carry out some small re-positioning, but only to further the same prejudices, and such pragmatic turns were never admitted in public. The word for this refusal to rethink a position or policy in the light of its results is weakness, not conviction or strength, a weakness plainly shared by the current cabinet.
If there was much introspection, which isn’t certain, Mrs Thatcher must also have lived out her days in the knowledge that her public face had only ever rarely been what it seemed in the mirror of the tabloid press and media she had such a gift for exploiting where her own constituencies were concerned. The truth was that even as she gave vocal support to Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Union in Poland, and seemed to stand firm against Communist oppression on the global stage, her diplomats were being instructed to relay the message to the Communist leadership that there would be no opposition to Martial Law, which would be supported by the British government. When Martial Law was imposed in 1981, Polish coal, produced under that repressive regime, was cheap enough to be cited in support of the idea that UK pits were uneconomic, then imported and stockpiled during the 1984 strike. Poland’s coal also plugged the gaps in supply caused by the closures of pits once the NUM had been defeated: small wonder that Mrs Thatcher defended General Jaruzelski, the architect of Martial Law, long after the fall of his regime in 1989.
But the myths all prove largely false on close examination: she increased public spending, enormously, but created the illusion of thrift by letting public services decline while squandering the money elsewhere: on tax cuts, subsidies to fatten public assets for privatisation, to underwrite fire-sale prices on strategic infrastructure. She increased the size and reach of the state and centralised its powers, but directed it not towards the public interest, but to re-shaping private behaviours and directing personal choices into their present market-led ruts. She linked freedom of choice to income, excoriated Europe, demanded sovereignty, but her governments negotiated the terms of entry to the Single European Market defined by the Maastricht Treaty and signed it, and, via the purchase of Trident Missiles, made Britain largely subservient to US interests in most significant matters of foreign policy.
She was, it’s emerging as the years pass and ever more of her government’s early papers are declassified, neither the resolute national saviour of right wing myth making, nor the implacable evil of left wing nightmare – just another grubby politician who happened to be very lucky electorally and gifted tactically (if we consider winning elections an end in itself) but who – like her successor, Tony Blair – achieved little of real value for the long term (if a week is a long time in politics, thirty years is a mere blip in history). Recently, it’s felt like another transitional point is on its way, and when that change arrives, the seemingly implacable state of things today will be overturned like a rowing boat on a tidal wave: whether any impending change will be for the better or worse remains to be worked for and is up to us.
The truth is, I don’t think we need to hate her, not now, and the last thing we should be doing is letting her win a final victory over us, turning us, in the end, into her own mirror image: it was her taste for enmity and conflict that carried her ideology to its own fleeting ascendency in the first place. And I did say fleeting: what Clement Attlee and his colleagues built will outlive her legacy because it’s still valued by the vast majority of the citizens of this country, and her successors’ sabotage and barely-veiled, entirely un-mandated, privatisations can and will be reversed – their own hubristic setting of legislative precedents may ironically help to make this easier. What Thatcherism has temporarily corrupted is an old idea, of tolerance, fair play and eccentricity, an unrealistic but potent Ealing Comedy and Sylvia Townsend Warner version of the national identity that may only have a tenuous basis in reality, but is still what we imagine when we think about ourselves.
We will return to our whimsical thought of building Blake’s Jerusalem in this green and occasionally still pleasant island, with the help of whoever wants to join us, because both of our totemic 1945 victories, in war and peace, were won collectively and for a shared cause. The divisions Mrs Thatcher and her successors exploit should now be buried with her, the political aberration she represented set firmly aside. This will be achieved not by dancing in the streets but by returning to the project of becoming the kind of people she seems to have instinctively loathed. As Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote earlier this week, it was “the England of Milton, Blake, GK Chesterton and Oliver Postgate” that she set herself against: can we now prove that, despite appearances, her efforts made no more than a temporary dent on that nation’s resilience and purpose?
On the day of her strangely North Korean-style funeral, with that purpose in mind, I might find myself re-reading some Shelley or getting down my old Virago copy of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead. I might watch some films by Jeff Keen and Derek Jarman, listen to a few tracks by John Betjeman and Linton Kwesi Johnson, put on a BBC Radiophonic Workshop LP and – just to rub it in – do something that’s not for money or status, but entirely for its own gloriously useless sake, unproductive by any measurement or criteria her ideology would cement into every corner of life. That will be the appropriate tribute, the best method of resistance to this doomed entrenchment of a game that’s been well and truly up for years already.