In the course of researching this article I approached an intelligent 15 year-old girl. She had been born three years after Margaret Thatcher left office. She had never seen her in action. She had no personal memories of any of the great controversies of the Thatcher epoch. And, therefore, she struck me as a perfect source for an understanding of the full semiotic range of the words “Margaret Thatcher” in the minds of young people today. This schoolgirl had been taught by good left-liberal teachers. She had read the papers and listened all her life to the BBC, and she had the normal British teenager’s range of cultural references. I tried a word-association test. “So what do you think,” I asked her, “when I say the words ‘Margaret Thatcher’ “? She paused, and then she said: “Billy Elliott.”
And there, my friends, you have the cultural war that continues to this day – 30 years after she came to power – over the legacy of Britain’s first female prime minister. Not since Napoleon has a nation been so divided over the merits of a former leader. For millions of young people who have watched Billy Elliott, Thatcher is the evil, boss-eyed termagant whose disastrous economic philosophy was responsible for the break-up of ancient Hovis-ad mining communities, and whose awful blurtings of right-wing dogma inspired all that was basest in human nature. She was a semi-ludicrous mixture of Boudicca and Queen Victoria, who whipped up her folk to ecstasies of cretinous Brussels-bashing. She was the creator the Yuppies and Essex Man, and the spiritual godmother of all the red-braced spivs and champagne-guzzling wide boys who have done so much damage with their greed and their recklessness – and it is a measure of her totemic status that people manage to blame her for the credit crunch almost two decades after she left office.
You try going on the BBC’s Question Time and announcing that you are a Thatcherite. You will see the audience scratching and raging and panting like flea-ridden gibbons because Thatcher is a boo-word in British politics, a shorthand for selfishness and me-first-ism, and devil-take-the-hindmost and grinding the faces of the poor. The Lib Dems recently shoved a leaflet through my door, and the worst they could say about Gordon Brown was that he had invited Margaret Thatcher to tea at Downing Street. So, for the benefit of all 15 year-olds who are brought up on the BBC and who have derived the impression from Billy Elliott that she was a brute who sent riot police to smash the miners’ strike, it is time to spool back 30 years to 1979 – when I turned 15 myself – and remember what an amazing job she did.
I have somewhere a rather pretentious painting I did in 1975. It shows the white cliffs of Dover on a very drizzly day, as seen from the deck of an approaching Townsend Thorensen ferry. The caption is, “Welcome to Britain, home of the economic crisis.” It is very hard to explain to young people the atmosphere of morbid self-pity that used to hang over Britain in the Seventies. British brands that had once been the envy of the world – machines whose manufacturers had out-engineered the Wehrmacht – had been reduced to laughing stocks, their reputations destroyed by a lethal combination of management inertia and union militancy. The country had so drifted from an understanding of free-market economics that Tony Benn actually tried to revive the motorbike industry with a sort of crazed commie collective at Meriden. There were endless strikes, and three-day weeks, and power cuts, and looming over it all was the Cold War – and the constant anxiety that we would somehow be embroiled in a conflict with the nasty, militaristic and totalitarian Soviet Union, a horrible place of gulags and lawless persecutions. Our food was ranked among the worst in Europe – by the British middle classes themselves.
Our children’s teeth were ruined by a diet of Spangles, Curly-Wurlies and Tizer, and our weather was lousy. Mrs Thatcher set about changing virtually everything, except possibly the weather. Now, don’t get me wrong. I was never one of those acnoid Tory boys who had semi-erotic dreams about Margaret Thatcher. She never visited me at night in her imperial-blue dress and bling and magnificent pineapple-coloured hair. I never imagined her leaning over me and parting her red lips to whisper about monetarism and taming union power. But, even as an apathetic and cynical teenager, I could see that she was doing some tough things, and the moment I came down most vehemently on her side was the Falklands conflict of 1982. So many people I knew seemed to think she was wrong, and bellicose. I remember my grandfather frequently saying that he was going to shoot her. You will still meet left-wing bores who say that she deliberately ignored the “Peruvian Peace Plan”. And yet what she did was so clear and so right.
The Argentinian junta had taken by violence a British protectorate, in clear contravention both of international law and the wishes of the islanders. It took fantastic balls to send the antiquated British Navy half-way round the world, and risk disaster on those desolate beaches and moors. It took nerves of steel to sink the Belgrano, and, frankly, I don’t think there were any other Tory politicians who would have done it. She showed a streak of absolute ruthlessness in defence of British interests, and, as the Eighties went on, it was clear that she was broadly right about the economy as well. Together with Norman Tebbit, she did what Barbara Castle had tried and failed to do – to dethrone the union bosses and give British industry a chance.
By the time Arthur Scargill took the miners out on strike, I was firmly on her side. He was simply increasing the difficulties of a declining industry, and what the script of Billy Elliott will not tell you is that Scargill never held a proper ballot. By the end of the Eighties, she had cut taxes and the economy was roaring away; and it wasn’t just that the country as a whole seemed to have recovered some of its confidence and standing in the world. Individuals were able to take control of their destiny in a new way. They were no longer completely beholden to local authorities for their housing: they could buy their own homes, and to this day, as any Tory canvasser will tell you, there are people across Britain who will always vote Tory in thanks for that freedom alone.
She gave people the confidence to buy shares, to start their own businesses, to move on and up in society – and there was more social mobility under Margaret Thatcher than there has been since. She was a liberator, and she gave the Labour party such an intellectual thrashing that they ended up changing their name. In some ways, the most significant political legacy of Margaret Thatcher is New Labour (now being abolished by Gordon Brown). Yes, she was provocative, and there are huge numbers of people who will never forgive her for saying that “there is no such thing as society. There are men and women, and there are families.” It sounds frighteningly atomistic and strident, and does not seem to reflect the duty we all owe to each other.
But she believed she had to shatter the post-war consensus that the solution to every problem was always an expansion of the state. Indeed, she did not think much of the word consensus itself, since it was not only too Latinate for her taste but also because it probably masked a conspiracy by cowardly politicians to dodge the hard questions, and, if you look at the consensus that now exists around, say, academic selection, you can see that she is right.
Margaret Thatcher will always divide the British people, not least since we are ourselves divided. There is a part of us that will always dislike the acquisitive, appetitive instincts she seemed to espouse, and yet we also recognise that they are essential for economic success. More than any leader since Churchill, she said thought-provoking things about the relationship between the state and the individual. Some of them were unpalatable, some of them were exaggerated. But much of what she said was necessary, and it took a woman to say it.