Notes From the Margins…

Margaret Thatcher Has Left the Building

  • April 09, 2013
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I am not going to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher.  I see no reason to rejoice just because my political enemies are dead.  But nor do I see why the fact of being dead should suddenly confer some kind of retrospective grandeur on a Tory politician who I once fled the country to get away from.

And when I hear the likes of Suralan Sugar, Geri Halliwel, Louise Mensch and a succession of political gargoyles demanding that the nation genuflects before her memory, or Nick Robinson whittering on about ‘belief’ being the word that best defines Thatcher,  or Lord Snooty praising her ‘lion-hearted love for Britain’, I can’t help feeling that it’s Princess Diana-time all over again, and I’m tempted to get back on a plane and get the hell out of here – at least till it’s all over.

Call me a leftwing moral pygmy, but I didn’t feel a great deal of warmth towards Thatcher when she was alive.   It’s true that she had the courage of her convictions, which is more than you can say about a lot of politicians.  But that doesn’t mean her convictions were admirable.

I remember her dictator friends, her support for apartheid, her close alliance with the death squad-sponsoring Reagan administration, the privatisations and deregulation, mass unemployment, riots and burning neighbourhoods, the heartless devastation of working class communities across the country that accompanied de-industrialisation, the transformation of the police into a paramilitary strike-breaking force.

I remember taking a vanload of food and clothing to a Nottingham pit village during the miners strike, driving through backroads to avoid the cordons of police who had effectively occupied the coalfields.    I remember the miners’ women telling us how the police had rampaged through the village not long before, breaking into people’s houses in search of flying pickets and randomly kicking peoples’ heads in.

I remember weekends at Fortress Wapping, and one night in particular when  mounted police waded into a peaceful crowd in a field that was listening to Tony Benn outside the Wapping plant with no provocation whatsoever, followed by a full-on baton charge.  And all this so that her pal Rupert Murdoch could keep the unions out of his newspapers.

This was how Britain was ‘saved’ and made ‘great’ again.  Many of the tributes to Thatcher have focused on her courage in ‘standing up’ to the trade union ‘barons’ –  when what she actually did was unleash the full might of the British state against them in order to pave the way for a new kind of society.

It was a society symbolised by the Sun‘s ‘Gotcha’ headline that greeted the sinking of the Belgrano; by members of the Young Conservatives who I watched on tele at a Christmas ball during the miners’ strike drunkenly singing a made-up carol about miners going hungry that winter and laughing about it; by the British football fans smashing up cities across Europe and waving Union Jacks while they did; a society riven by violence, racism, chauvinism, xenophobia and greed.

Thatcher was only one – admittedly powerful –  individual in a social and political transformation whose consequences we are still living with.   So one level the fact that she is dead is neither here nor there.

But that doesn’t mean that I have to come all over all gooey-eyed about her.    During the filming of Bette Davis’ last film  The Whales of August, the exasperated director Lindsay Anderson reportedly became so tired of his star’s bitter tirades against her late rival Joan Crawford that he asked her to stop and show some respect for because she was dead.

Davis memorably replied ‘Just because a person’s dead, doesn’t mean they’ve changed.’

My thoughts exactly.

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6 Comments

  1. Richard Carter

    9th Apr 2013 - 6:15 pm

    You’re not going to celebrate the death of the ghastly Thatcher? When you’ve given all these reasons why her demise really is worth celebrating:

    “I remember her dictator friends, her support for apartheid, her close alliance with the death squad sponsoring Reagan administration, the privatisations and deregulation, mass unemployment, riots and burning neighbourhoods, the heartless devastation of working class communities across the country that accompanied de-industrialisation, the transformation of the police into a paramilitary strike-breaking force.”

    I remember those, too, and for any one of them I’m only too happy to see that she’s dead. It’s only a shame, in my view, that she didn’t die many years earlier (say, in 1978).

    • Matt

      9th Apr 2013 - 7:25 pm

      Everybody dies Richard. The ideas and social forces remain. And that, for me, is the problem. Not so much Thatcher, but Thatcherism – a legacy that will outlast the person most associated with it.

      • Richard Carter

        11th Apr 2013 - 9:09 pm

        I see your point, Matt, and yes, we should be concerned with Thatcherism (which infected “New Labour” as well, to its eternal shame) rather than Thatcher, but she was so uniquely, personally awful that it’s impossible not to be personal when looking at her legacy. As Martin Kettle (not someone I normally quote, or even read seriously) wrote in The Guardian, Thatcher’s unique ability to antagonise and offend should have been taken into account in planning her funeral. She was vile in her opposition to Nelson Mandela (the ANC were terrorists, she said), her support of Ian Smith and the ludicrous puppet Abel Muzorewa, whom she hoped would win the elections in what became Zimbabwe and her devotion to and support for the foul Pinochet. And, my personal bugbear, she was a total cultural philistine; she seems only to have read one work of fiction in her life (Frederick Forsyth, I think): a bit like the general in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, who only ever read one book, it was so damn good he never read another one.

        So although it should always be possible to separate the personal from the political, in Thatcher’s case it’s just not possible. Well, for me anyway, and I’ll be celebrating on Wednesday.

        • Matt

          11th Apr 2013 - 9:48 pm

          I agree with everything you’ve said – and even with Kettle. And I don’t condemn anybody who wants to celebrate – especially when Blair is telling everybody not to. But I won’t be jumping around myself.

  2. Ian Hollingworth

    23rd Apr 2013 - 3:40 pm

    I was there at Wapping, too, Matt. I remember the police charge, the mayhem, the floodlights…and Tony Benn in the middle of it all saying to us “You are witnessing the forces of capitalism at work.” Since Blair (son of Thatcher – her “proudest achievement”) came on the scene we are no longer governed, but in Tony’s words we are “managed”. For someone who didn’t believe in society, Thatcher has cast a sickening shroud over it.

    • Matt

      23rd Apr 2013 - 8:05 pm

      You said it!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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