Most of us use marking points or measuring posts in life. If you remember eight World Cups, then that places you in the thirty to forty years age group. Similarly, we may use US Presidential Elections, or Prime Ministerial reigns to mark out our lives. By any definition, Margaret Thatcher is one such signifier. Prime Minister for all of the 1980s, the ‘Thatcher Era’ marked the time of many alive for that decade.
And now she’s gone. The most divisive political figure of British 20th Century political life has been laid to rest. Her departure brought a flood of good and bad nostalgia for those of us of a certain age. The 1980s was a long time ago but her passing made it seem like only
yesterday; images of Arthur Scargill and the Miners, the Poll Tax Riots, the sound of that voice, all combined to have a time-warp effect. Was it really that long ago? There’s a fine cultural legacy of music, comedy and drama which sprung up to oppose the ‘Iron Lady’.
Margaret never did, in the words of ‘The Beat’, stand down willingly but had to be evicted from Downing Street by her own Ministers.
The appearance of a phalanx of long-forgotten Tory Cabinet members testified as to just how electorally successful Thatcher had been. The Assassins of 1990 lined up to say how much they really thought she was great all along (Ken Clarke, with is his typical candour, was one of the few ex-ministers not to give a self-serving account of the ‘coup’). ‘House of Cards’ comes to mind – politics is a treacherous trade and to quote that other hugely controversial hero of the Tory Right, Enoch Powell, ‘all political careers end in failure’.
The incredible vitriol exhibited in former Mining Communities should not come as huge surprise but the rawness will have been shocking to many. Nearly twenty three years since she ceased to be Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher still shapes the political geography. This writer ‘grew up’ under Thatcher – she was a constant feature on the News, a humourless didact of a woman that refused to ‘turn’. She was mercilessly lampooned on ‘Spittin’ Image’ as a bully of her Cabinet colleagues (only partially true, but this depiction was uncannily accurate in the case of Geoffrey Howe). Margaret Thatcher drove the Conservative Party relentlessly towards the Political and Economic Right; One Nation ‘wets’ like Michael Heseltine could never lead a party mesmerised by the new dispensation. There was no such thing as society as she saw it, only individuals and their families and such atomisation of social networks had an enormous impact on the old bulwarks of the Left: the Labour Party, Trade Unions and local government.
It has been observed that Thatcher’s greatest triumph was Tony Blair, a man who would fit Peter Mandelson’s phrase of being comfortable with the rich. Blair, a Labour Leader with no roots in the Party, was happy to accept most of the Conservative privatisations and his and Gordon Brown’s naivety in continuing the laissez-faire attitude to the City would result in Labour being viewed as ‘not sound’ on the Economy. Ed Miliband is being careful not to allow himself to be too closely identified with either Blair or Brown.
It is simply unimaginable that when John Major dies, there will be the same level of controversy, argument and division. Margaret Thatcher has been praised for her clarity but this frequently slipped into bloody-mindedness, particularly when it came to the ‘Poll Tax’, the hubris around which caused her removal from Office. Her supporters, of which there are still many, will see her as the liberator of Eastern Europe and a hero for giving people the freedom to earn as much as they wished. But her legacy is more resonant in the unregulated markets mess that ultimately lead to the Recession/Depression the Western World has endured for the past five years and her embrace of General Pinochet. For from ‘saving the country’, she created the climate that very nearly destroyed it. The Reagan/Thatcher implementation of the ‘Chicago Doctrine’ will no doubt still be debated decades from now. The EU she came to despise now rigorously enforces her economic ideology.
Margaret Thatcher died an old, frail lady not being cared for by the NHS but being nursed at the Ritz – this, in itself, is symbolic of the values she preached and lived. The ‘circus’ surrounding her funeral served as a reminder of how much of an impact she had between 1979 and 1990; the counterfactuals have been done, we now live with her ‘Real World’ effects and the challenge for the Left, Progressives and Radicals to move the political compass needle back in their direction. The ‘Real World’ can be changed again – it is up to the post-Thatcher generation to lead with courage, away from her legacy.