Thatcher’s death: how did it make you feel?
This week’s televisual outpourings on the Iron Lady were less about Maggie and more about me, me, me.
So come on then, how was it for you? Thatcher’s passing this week offered a green light for a collective therapy session on how we all felt about her. Whether you were organising a morbid street party or getting all stiffly damp about how the Iron Lady saved us from Communism, this week was less about a clear-eyed assessment of the legacy of a frail old lady who left office 23 years ago, than it was The Maggie Experience: sharing what you thought, felt and personally experienced of her rule.
It was Channel 4, fittingly enough, given that Thatcher encouraged the founding of this channel, which led the collective mourning experience. On Monday evening, following extended news coverage, we were treated to an hour-long tribute to Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow and how he was handling the news of her demise. Maggie & Me was far more about ‘me’ (Snow) than it was about Maggie. It started with the brief biographical backstory (public-school boy with weird matron fixation gets big break reporting on Thatcher’s election), and then we moved on to the ups and downs of a turbulent career at the heart of power: Jon Snow stumbles over interview questions; Jon Snow gets his name remembered by prime minister; Jon Snow learns to ask more difficult questions, and so on.
Snow’s film was only the most overt of this week’s navel-gazing TV Thatcher remembrances. There have been TV discussions on how Thatcher shaped what we watched (gritty Boys From The Blackstuff or aspirational Dallas), what we listened to (the New Romantics or Billy Bragg), and who we were (greedy yuppie or striking miner), with everything handily reduced to a series of clip-show countdowns for quick cultural consumption. Whether you were a rheumy-eyed Tory peer, Twitter-loving modern politico, ‘Fatcha Out!’ alternative comedian, or twentysomething with apparently vivid memories of the ‘milk snatcher’ incarnate, there was no shortage of talking heads queuing up to offer you their insights into Maggie and me, me, me.
If you’re feeling charitable, you might conclude that this all-seeing I was the result of some meta-media joke, about how Thatcher created today’s apparently aggressive individualism and parochial mindset. Yet looking at the parade of weak-kneed journos, celebrity radicals and puffed-up culturati keen to emphasise their own part in the Thatcher story, you’d have to conclude that this lot required less of a shove into rampant self-obsession and individualism than a Joe Orton character does into sodomy.
It was therefore refreshing, and surprising, to see Channel 4 offer up a tribute to Thatcher in the form of a new film by Martin Durkin. Durkin has a reputation as the arch provocateur of the documentary world, producing opinionated films that knock the orthodoxies of the left-liberal set. His polemic broadcast on Channel 4 in 2007, The Great Global Warming Swindle – suggesting that the threat of climate change had been greatly exaggerated – provoked outrage among environmentalists and led to a McCarthy-lite Ofcom investigation into its scientific accuracy. More recently, Britain’s Trillion Dollar Horror Story attacked the handwringing over Britain’s austerity programme, calling for brutal cutbacks on the parasitic in order to let the free market flourish.
His films can be frustrating in their adherence to a pro-free market outlook, but they are absorbing for their refusal, in contrast to other mainstream documentaries, to hide their political beliefs behind dubious claims to objectivity. Durkin’s films are always powerful exercises in argument, seeking to persuade you through an appeal to reason rather than emotionalism.
He is on typically mischievous form in Margaret: Death of a Revolutionary, to be broadcast on Channel 4 tomorrow. He argues that Thatcher, thought of by most of us as the leading Conservative figure of the past 50 years, was in fact an economic and social radical who liberated Britain from the cloying structures of the postwar consensus and healed this ‘sick man of Europe’.
Through interviews with Tory grandees past and present (including David Cameron and David Davis), Durkin sets out to show that Thatcher was not the cold-hearted matriarch of media imagination, but rather was a pugnacious middle-class upstart who smashed both the patrician politics of the old ruling-class Tories and the authoritarian socialism of Labour.
He lands some important blows in illustrating how the famed postwar consensus, discussed in glowing terms in Ken Loach’s new film, The Spirit of ’45, was really a fait accompli by two different sets of the political elite against the masses, who had to endure shoddy housing, crap services and few of the luxuries (foreign holidays, indoor toilets, access to telecommunication) that even the poor today take for granted.
Importantly, he understands Thatcher’s power not as the result of a coup backed by the twin evils of Murdoch and the greed of the selfish masses, but as something which sprung from the increasing disillusionment of much of the working class with the Left and its failure to build an alternative vision to ailing Seventies capitalism. Embracing Thatcherism may have meant little more than accepting a larger and nicer cage, Durkin argues, but it was better than accepting that your rusty old cage was all you should expect from life.
There is a big problem with Durkin’s thesis, however – which is that the idea of Thatcher as radical ideologue is itself an orthodoxy now, and one which needs skewering. As has been argued for some time on spiked (and by other incisive commentators not obsessed with telling emotional tales), Thatcher’s true gift was for styling herself, aided by PR guru extraordinaire Tim Bell, as a free-market revolutionary while actually pragmatically continuing reforms introduced by her Labour predecessors, including reforms of trade unions.
However, Durkin does nail one crucial achievement of Thatcher, but misses its irony: in representing the victory of the lower middle classes against both the ruling classes and the workers, Thatcherism helped install a generation of technocratic managerialists at the heart of British politics. They may not possess her talent for paying lip service to the values of economic growth and free markets, but they do all share her enthusiasm for social authoritarianism. You suspect that, if this really were a revolution, then it is not the one Durkin had in mind. Nonetheless, in placing the emphasis on what Thatcher actually did rather than how she made us feel, Margaret: Death of a Revolutionary offers an important opening salvo in the debate about where we should go next, rather than simply dancing on the grave of politics past.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He is chairing the debate Blair’s Children: How Did New Labour Change Britain? at London’s Cockpit Theatre on 1 May.
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