Monday, 20 May 2013

The real legacy of Margaret Thatcher

A lot of rubbish was said and written about Margaret Thatcher immediately after her death. The consensus was depressingly deferential – partly in the spirit of “never speak ill of the dead”; partly due to her supporters seeking to exploit the mourning to reinforce her legacy; partly due to her opponents being overwhelmingly defeatist; but mainly because, although the economic orthodoxy she established has crashed in flames, no one has any idea what to do next.

The few who dared to criticise her openly were no better. Many of these critics descended into appropriately 1980s-period SWP-style gesture politics (the ‘Ding Dong’ song and mock funerals and all that).

What was missing was some serious analysis and an historical perspective, and two commentators have helped to remedy that lack.

In the New Statesman, John Gray, ostensibly reviewing a book about Edmund Burke, observes that Thatcher sought to shake up Britain but that the results were far from those she expected and in some ways the opposite of what she wanted:
As a consequence of her leadership, the Conservative Party is in some ways weaker than it has ever been. Turning it into an instrument of her personal will, she triggered a coup that has left every subsequent Tory leader on permanent probation. Alienating Scotland, she virtually wiped out her party north of the border and planted a large question mark over the Union. Within England, her indifference to the human costs of de-industrialisation deepened the north-south divide. The result is a hollowed-out and shrunken party that faces huge obstacles in ever again forming a government. For someone who has been described as the greatest Conservative leader since Churchill, it’s quite a list of achievements. If you wanted to shake up Britain and change it beyond recognition, Thatcher was, of all postwar leaders, the one mostly likely to have this effect.
In short, Thatcher instituted the very kind of revolutionary politics that Conservatives were meant to oppose. Her politics is no longer a solution to anything but the present political establishment remains mesmerised by her legacy and unable to snap out of it.

TV documentary maker Adam Curtis, meanwhile, has a theory about why the pundits were incapable of analysing Thatcher after her death. As a corrective, he has put up a film he made in 1995 about Thatcher called The Attic:
It’s about how she constructed a fake ghostly version of Britain’s past, and then used it to maintain her power. But also how she became possessed and haunted by this vision.
I’m putting it up as a bit of a corrective to the terrifying wonk-fest that took over after Mrs Thatcher died. A conveyor belt of Think Tank pundits and allied operatives poured into the TV studios and together they built a fortress around Mrs Thatcher’s memory that was rooted in theories about economics.
They did this because economics is the only language that wonks understand. It’s a view of the world where they see the voters – the people who put Mrs Thatcher in power – as simplified consumption-driven robots.
What was missing was the fact that Mrs Thatcher was also a powerful romantic politician who created a strange but compelling story about Britain’s past that connected with the imagination of millions of people. It was fake, but it was incredibly powerful because she believed it. And the power of her belief raised up ghostly dreams from Britain’s past that still live in people’s imaginations – long after she fell from power.
The problem with wonks is that they can’t deal with emotion and feeling, and they don’t like stories. It means that they cannot connect at all with the feelings and imaginations of the voters. Yet the think-tankers have built a sarcophagus of economic discourse around Westminster.
What we are waiting for is a politician to come along who can connect with our imaginations and inspire us about political ideas instead of boring us to tears.
I fear that emotional politician might be a bloke called Nigel, propping up the bar with a pint and a fag and a thing about foreigners. In the meantime, here is the film:

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