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The rush to write up the Thatcher legacy

Gauging what the late British prime minister was all about has become this week’s most fevered media activity

The news of the world: collage of yesterday's newspaper covers by Nick Sutton @suttonnick

Wed, Apr 10, 2013, 14:29


The death of any public figure always brings on a rash of assessments and analysis, but the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on Monday has taken this to new heights. Between the extremes of rancid bile of those who always bitterly opposed Thatcher’s policies and the blustery attempts at canonisation by her supporters, there is every other shade of opinion under the rainbow to contend with. You’ve people writing about her impact on UK pop, a rehash of that oddshaped Thatcher-as-Spice-Girl meme and anyone with an opinion on her and space to express it leaping in (some of the strongest pieces are from the most unexpected sources).

As often happens on these occasions, you wonder what might have been the case regarding similar revered/reviled public figures who died in a pre-social media, internet world, had Twitter or live blogs been in fashion then. Certainly, the news that the Telegraph had to turn off comments on all their Thatcher pieces speaks volumes about the modern way of consuming and shaping media.

Of course, there have been some predictable responses. If I’d got to a bookies in time on Monday, I’d have put a lot of cash on that attention-seeker Morrissey saying something really crass and stupid and, lo, he came up trumps. However, a much more measured and thoughful response came from Billy Bragg, reminding people that “this is not a time for celebration” because “the death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today…raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this. The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don’t celebrate – organise!”

Bragg won’t need reminding that the reason why Thatcher was in power for so long and was able to change and mould Britain in the way she did was because she kept getting re-elected with large working majorities. No matter what those who opposed Thatcher thought – and there was many who opposed her ill-regarded policies in the Falklands, Ireland and, not to forget, her own country with those feverish attacks on communities in places from Yorkshire to Wales – she had the support of the majority of her people to keep doing what she was doing. They kept voting her back in.

In the end, the Labour Party only managed to rout the Conservatives in 1997 because of the then government’s self-inflicted implosion and Labour’s decision to tweak some of their own policies in a more NewBritain-friendly way. Tony Blair and his team knew that Britain had changed and their only way to get back into government was to reflect such changes. You could argue that the Labour Party changed because of Thatcher. If they didn’t, they might never have had a sniff of Downing Street again.

It’s worth remembering that we’re dealing with history here. Thatcher hasn’t been a resident of Downing Street for over 20 years so there are many who don’t remember her in power at all. I was in a cafe in London on Monday when the news broke and a group of twentysomethings at the table next to me were all “who was Thatcher?” as the news broke on their phones. They were either nippers or not born when she was in her prime and yet, they’re the ones who are probably the beneficiaries of what Thatcher was all about.

Over the last 35 years or so since Thatcher first stepped into power, their country has changed beyond all description. Those traditional industries which once kept the economy ticking over have been powered down to be replaced by service industries of every stripe. London’s pre-eminience as a financial centre is in a large part due to Thatcher’s fondness for light regulation and free enterprise – just as the sheer despair and disenfranchised economies of much of the rest of Britain is down to what she did when in power. That’s a large part of her legacy, for good or bad.

What’s interesting is how quickly we have moved to gauge what Thatcher was all about and how Thatcherism played out. It still usually takes a death for this kind of assessment to be made, though that’s where the whole “don’t speak ill of the death” thing comes into play. As Glenn Greenwald wrote earlier in the week, such a dictate may be appropriate for private individuals, but it doesn’t apply to influential public figures. After all, “those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography.” What we’re seeing right now are clashes between her fans and foes, between people who defined themselves by how they liked or loathed her. The real assessment will come with time.