I am writing this from an alternate universe in which Margaret Thatcher’s obituaries were all drafted after she died.
Look at Hugo Young! His Guardian piece on Mrs T’s passing survived his own by 10 years.
Anyway, Mrs Thatcher’s death has predictably sparked equal measures of sycophancy, rage and delusion up and down the columns, blogs, broadsheets and bog papers of the UK. There’s more to come, when she gets her ceremonial send-off on Wednesday.
To get it out of the way, I am no admirer of the Iron Lady. There’s no doubt, she built modern Britain with her own mailed fists. She created good times for the south, particularly London, but she also helped create just about all of the messes blighting the nation. For the north, she was simply a destroyer. I’m from the north.
Like it or not I am one of her children. When I was growing up, she was the Prime Minister; seemingly immovable, monolithic, terrifying in stature and intent. I had known no alternative, and electorally it seemed as if there was no other way. She might have been in charge forever, that her reign might outlast my own life.
Under her death-ray blue glare, I saw the Glasgow satellite town I grew up in turn from a thriving place with a population roughly equivalent to Perth to a crumbling ruin filled with bad housing, ill health, unemployment, crime and drugs. The buck has to stop somewhere for that social disaster, and I’m happy for it to stop at Mrs T’s headstone.
When she finally tumbled in late 1990, I was in my third year at secondary school. When the news of her resignation broke, teachers burst into the classroom from elsewhere to tell us; handshakes and slaps on the back ensued.
The effect Mrs Thatcher had on Scotland as well as anywhere north of the M25 has been exhaustively essayed elsewhere, so I won’t take up your time with those recollections. Suffice it to say that the Loadsamoney Eighties seemed to pass me by somewhat.
Having been in power at such an elementary phase of my life, it’s understandable that I should conflate Mrs Thatcher with another female authority figure in my mind; that of a dragonish primary school teacher who terrified me as a young boy. The poor lady in question was probably not as bad as I remember, but she left her mark on me. Put it this way, my parents used her as a threat whenever I misbehaved. Shrieking, bulging eyed and scary, she was the type of person who turned you to stone should you ever be brave enough to hold her gaze.
So, too, with the copper wire-headed Mrs Thatcher. It’s often remarked that many of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet, not to mention the reporters who hung on her every word, were all privately educated. And so the only woman outwith their own families they encountered in their cloistered public school days was matron – usually an equally formidable figure. Small wonder Mrs Thatcher was able to dominate so many of them, usually just with a look. Because my God, that woman could stare.
What I’m most fascinated by is Mrs Thatcher the woman. The common narrative has it that for a groundbreaking female who took supreme power in her country – it’s almost unthinkable that one of the three major parties would have a woman in charge today, in these supposedly more enlightened and egalitarian times – Mrs Thatcher was no feminist. She was supposedly dismissive of other women, not especially quick to promote any of them and something of a throwback in her public demeanour. This was no master of the universe, the PR shots told us. This was Mrs Mopp, suddenly handed the job of tidying up Britain. Witness those pictures of Mrs T doing the dishes, or dusting the lectern in the middle of some luckless bloke’s speech at a Tory party conference.
Actually, I’d argue that she is an uber-feminist. She is the ideal, hard though that might be for many to swallow. Although there are a great many men who found Mrs Thatcher sexually attractive – doubtless those same boys who clutched themselves at the very sound of matron’s iron footsteps across the dormitory floor, or whose buttocks still tremble at the recollection of her swishing cane – to me she is curious because she was sexless. A woman, yes; immaculately if austerely coiffeured, pearls and handbag ever-present at her side. Powerful, undoubtedly; and relishing that power, brutal with it, unsentimental as a terrible goddess of antiquity. But sex was not part of the Thatcher make-up. She succeeded in her own way, in her own right, as successful men would expect to and as successful women almost never are. Although Spitting Image was hilarious in its depiction of Mrs Thatcher standing beside her cabinet colleagues at the urinals, the contrast is slightly off-beam. She was never masculine in the slightest, but she had a curious feminine power divorced from the notion of beguilement or seduction. It was all about power. Mrs Thatcher commanded awe. In this light, she is closer to Boudicca than Peron, more Medusa than de Marcos.
Mrs Thatcher achieved power and held onto it without any of the bullshit that today’s successful women have to put up with; the pseudo-sexist notion that they must be sexually appealing to men. There was a coincidental comparison on offer the very night Mrs Thatcher died, a British TV interview with Karren Brady, the British entrepreneur. When she walked into the studio, she looked stunning – perhaps literally a million dollars, with her hair and dress and jewellery impeccable. Even the strongest of us might have to suppress an urge to genuflect. This was more Hollywood than the boardroom.
And yet… I couldn’t help but wonder if paying attention to Karren Brady’s looks in the first case means we’re all missing the point. Not so with Thatcher.
That said, Mrs T was very much all woman. The paradox is intriguing. Spectacular as Geoffrey Howe and Douglas Hurd’s hairstyles were at the time – caricaturists barely had to embellish them – it’s hard to imagine them having to submit to a stylist for an extra hour or more every day before getting on with the business of government. Mrs Thatcher had to deal with that extra dimension, her appearance, before running the country. In her antecedents of the time we have Joan Collins’ formidable Alexis Carrington in Dynasty, shoulder pads, power dressing and all. Now that was a character the papers had no problem labelling a bitch; but then, she had sex appeal.
But, this is getting very close to praise, and this I do not intend for the late Mrs Thatcher. Go beyond skin deep, pierce the epithelial thin mythology, and a harsher face emerges. Union power had gone past the stage of usefulness in the 1970s, yes – and maybe they did have to be engaged with. But Mrs Thatcher didn’t engage with the unions – she destroyed them. And with the obliteration of their power base, she also did for the industries that birthed them. And with the end of the heavy industries – sold off abroad, much like most of the utilities – came the death knell for many parts of the industrial north. The shipyards, the steelworks, and the mines, the mines, the mines… a legacy of ghost towns, despair and broken prospects. For a vision of how badly this policy of eradication worked out, Britons need only to look towards the last economic powerhouse in Europe – Germany, who hung onto their manufacturing base, employing people across their nation and also making things that other parts of the world wish to buy.
She cannot be forgiven. I’m sure she’d appreciate the sentiment. Mrs Thatcher was a curiously unchristian figure for a British establishment figure; it was obvious that Christian virtues were not part of her make-up. It’s a delicious irony that her “no such thing as society” line has been attributed to her address to the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly on the Mound (apparently not so; she made the comment to a women’s magazine on the same day, I understand). No such thing as forgiveness, compassion and fraternity (or sorority, for that matter) either. Channelling St Francis of Assisi in her victory speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street in 1979 is one of the grimmer jokes of her premiership.
But wait – what about the services industry and the rise of the City? You can’t argue with the figures, showing that the City is responsible for almost 10% of this country’s GDP. And yet, if one of Thatcher’s key legacies is financial deregulation, then surely she must partly carry the can for the current disasters we are still trying to find a way out of. And what of the current obsession with home ownership in the UK? Surely that’s one of Thatcher’s legacies, too – the idea that we are indentured to mortgages, that such a market can be sustainable and ever-expanding. Thanks to this monetarist notion of our value as people, as consumers, being linked to a price tag on our homes, our cars and our fucking training shoes, we are simply money slaves. And if it’s not mortgages, it’s student loans, another hangover of Thatcherism and the drive to make education competitive. Easy credit, an entire economy founded on debt… It was always going to fail, always.
The myth of the grocer’s daughter is another one that irks me. As a grocer’s daughter, Mrs Thatcher would have been better off than many of her peers in Grantham, Lincolnshire – the notion that she came from nothing is ridiculous. If we wed this to the seldom-acknowledged fact that her husband, Denis, was a millionaire businessman – a far cry from the boozy buffoon he was often portrayed as in the popular press and Private Eye – then surely we can acknowledge that although Mrs Thatcher had the drawback of XX chromosomes in a man’s world, she was also a woman who enjoyed advantages in her path to Westminster.
What we should not overlook is the fact that her intellect was of the first rate. Studying chemistry at Oxford, before qualifying for the bar, we are obviously talking about someone of immense brainpower. That doesn’t fill the moral gap, though. She was a curiously artless figure, not particularly associated to any kind of cultural or artistic leanings. Tony Blair’s floppy-hatted rock n’ roll student days and his guitar-carrying photo opps outside Number 10 may be the very essence of naffness, but at least there’s something you can relate to in there. Not so, the austere, clinical gaze of the lady in blue, who dealt with pounds and pence, valency and molecules, every element in its proper place in the periodic table.
I could go on. But I don’t wish to dance on the woman’s grave. I will grant Mrs Thatcher a sense of dignity she denied many in life. She has two children, and I have sympathy for them. At some point she must have hugged them, kissed them, soothed them when they were frightened. It’s just difficult to imagine her doing so.
Echoing Russell Brand’s superb commentary in the Guardian, I’m also fascinated by how maternal a figure this mother-of-two might have been. There is the naked biological fact of her offspring, but again, there’s a disconnection between Thatcher and my conception of motherhood that I can’t reconcile.
It seems that Carol and Mark might not have sprung from her loins at all – rather that they were born of two of her pulled teeth planted in the soil, like the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts. Or perhaps she willed them into existence with a single flash of those eyes, sprung from the ground, blinking, confused and scared before their terrible, terrifying mother: our mother, too. Kali.
I had a chat with a female friend this weekend that struck a chord. She’s got a six-month-old girl, and she said it was an odd thing to imagine her daughter growing up with only a faint idea of who Mrs Thatcher is. For the wee girl enjoying her slice of pear in her high chair, Mrs Thatcher will be as distant a figure as someone like Harold Macmillan, or indeed Winston Churchill, to people from our generation. A figure from an ancient world, someone glimpsed only in the abstract, depicted by actresses and the stuff of unfathomable jokes and references among her parents and grandparents, despite all the videos and photographs available online.
A figure of marble and bronze, scary only to the suggestible, or, if you’re of a separate political hue, admirable only in the way you might admire the sacrifice of brave Leonidas at Thermopylae.
That’s politics, and that’s life.
The age of Thatcher is ended.