We Can’t Let Maggie Go
Like many middle-aged Brits I came to political sentience chanting, ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie…’ followed by some general abuse inviting Mrs Thatcher’s exit. It was all so easy. Hating the Tories in general, and Mrs T’s economic brutality in particular, was as natural as breathing. For all the economic and social divisions, 1980s Britain was a straightforward place to grow up.
Mrs Thatcher having gone is one of those life-marking moments. Like when your parents would say, ‘Of course you’re too young to understand’ and find someone who remembered the charts before the Beatles. I need to talk to someone who actually remembers the ‘no such thing as society’ quote, the declaration that Nelson Mandela was a ‘terrorist’ or that some people thought Michael Foot would be a credible prime minister. I think I’m looking for some sort of grounding in the face of the incredible passions the Iron Lady still arouses. The nation is again split from top to bottom,or possibly between top and bottom, and the spirit of ‘83 roams the land. Was she really so bad though, I ask my friends? Most of them think it she was worse. Despite this plenty of my Thatch-hating mates operate small businesses, pay Rupert Murdoch for Sky TV, and live happily in a world created in the laissez-faire 80s rather than the socialist 70s. A little inconsistent perhaps? Maybe instead it’s that an overwhelming focus on Mrs T’s personality and her triumphs or sins glosses the possibility that the 80s weren’t so straightforward after all.
I’m slightly shocked to realise I have mellowed with time. One of the platitudes handed down by the adults who thought I was too young (though to be fair I couldn’t help it) was that my black-and-white views would acquire shades of grey as I aged. Annoyingly this turns out to be true. While I still regard quite a lot of the things that happened in the 80s with horror, and there is a rational economic case that nasty medicine doesn’t always help, it’s possible things weren’t all bad and that she wasn’t entirely to blame.
Since her death though, glossing, and preferably with the broadest possible brush, is exactly what a lot of us want to do. There are balanced verdicts, but between the Paul Johnsons and Ken Livingstones, there is still a gulf that hasn’t narrowed in the decades since her ousting. Was she the post-war Britannia and her critics pygmies? Or was she personally the source of everything wrong with the modern UK? It’s striking though that people still want to have state funerals, memorial libraries, deathday parties and celebration records after all this time. This surely tells us more about ourselves than about Mrs T.
Why does she still get our blood up? Recently I was teaching a group of psychology graduates about a paper by psychoanalyst David Gutmann on the impact of the 80s. This seemed to offer some clues about her enduring place in our heads. Gutmann considered that the 80s, what with wars, AIDS, stock-market crashes, nuclear meltdowns, ideological collapses, less collectivism and more cocaine was ‘a decade characterized by the rapid erosion… of many traditional forms of defence against anxiety.’ No kidding! Forget about the 60s I thought, looking round a room of bright young people and channelling the patronising grown-ups of my teens. By the time Mrs Thatcher wept in Downing Street, the world felt like it had really turned upside down.
According to Gutmann, the response to all this flux, at least for some, was a retreat into more rigid forms of defence against anxiety. Fanaticism instead of traditional religion, radical politics, fear of science: extremes pushing at a familiar consensus. When the going gets tough, we may risk slipping into Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position and her ideas of the good and bad breast. I know many struggle with Klein and her language but in this case I think that Gutmann was onto something. In Klein’s view we can end up splitting our experience in the most black and white picture possible. People are either idolised or experienced as overwhelmingly bad. This happens most clearly in infancy but we have the potential to do it for our whole lives. For many, Thatcher was pure heroism, rescuing a country destroyed by union yobbos. If you live in the de-industrialised north though, and remember how little was done to protect jobs or communities, it may be hard not to hold Thatcher to blame for every bit of it. It’s hard to hold onto complexity about either her achievements and motivations or to acknowledge the possibility that other factors, from globalisation to Arthur Scargill, might have had a part to play.
Coincidentally two of the most polarising politicians of my lifetime have died very close together. Hugo Chavez was also one for strong responses and a mixed legacy. Some people just invite extreme reactions. Partly perhaps, for the obvious reason that they promote certain interests and completely disregard others. But also maybe because they are willing to stomp all over our certainties, either out of audacity, belligerence or (and many would say this of Mrs T) complete insensitivity. Recently a friend reminded me of a classic Thatcher quote on the subject of charity. ‘No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.’ When she originally said this I remember being completely appalled. Now, as well as a snort of laughter, I can’t admiring, as so many did, her sheer balls. For all her traditional values, Maggie was your woman if you wanted to slaughter a few sacred cows. It’s a shame she didn’t have a sense of humour, as when it came to skewering the earnest pomposity of me and my ilk she’d have killed on the alternative comedy circuit. Some would say it’s a pity she didn’t do that instead.