SINCE Margaret Thatcher’s death last Monday, we have seen some unprecedented behaviour on the streets, on football terraces and in the music charts of Britain.
There have been eulogies and diatribes, commiserations and celebrations, and with the lady’s funeral still to come we can expect it to crescendo on Wednesday. What we are witnessing is a perversion of the personality cult. Instead of the adulation and myth-making of a leader to embody the causes of fascism and communism, we are seeing a battle royal over who Thatcher really was in an attempt to brand capitalism good or bad.
Nobody cared this way about the deaths of Harold MacMillan, Alec Douglas Home, Harold Wilson, Ted Heath or Jim Callaghan. Why not?
The reason is threefold; Thatcher’s government was an ideological crusade, she persevered where others retreated and, tellingly, she was a winner – three times over.
This will not be a short campaign, but is likely to continue up until 2020 when the last official papers for her period in office are released. It takes the form of a philosophical re-enactment of all the 1980s arguments over the individual versus the collective, the effects of financial prudence and low taxes versus high public spending and big government, and the results from a robust and frank foreign policy versus compromise and accommodation with those that seek to challenge every facet of our way of life.
It is not about Thatcher as a person, for in a country of more than 60 million people there are relatively few who are in a position to have known her well enough to speak with any authority. It is at best anecdotal about individual experiences shaped by her policies. Whether they realise it or not (and many do not) different sides use Thatcher’s name to craft a good or bad brand identity that will, in shorthand, write the perceived history and thus seek to influence the future.
This makes the articles, interviews, statements, tweets and demonstrations all the more emotive for those involved, while the public takes a fairly ambivalent view that, according to polling, shows her relatively popular but with an acknowledgement that the woman had her faults. It is noticeable that many of those protesting their happiness at an old woman’s death are of a youthful disposition and yet if you voted in the 1979 general election that brought her to power the youngest you could be is 52. Anyone younger than 41 would not have been 18 and able to vote when she resigned her premiership, and those below 23 were not even born at that moment.
Yet we have children chanting slogans about her death in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, and teenagers telling anyone who will listen via Facebook and YouTube how evil Thatcher was. All rational thought seems to have departed. The statistics do not lie. When she left Downing Street the economic picture was of a healthier, more productive country with fewer industrial disputes, greater home ownership and the spreading of wealth across social classes than when she entered it.
Where the debate might prosper is in how she achieved those outcomes, for some argue it could have been managed with less social division and more compassion. I have my doubts, for that route risked more indecision and delay that would have extended the pain, more fudging of issues that would have left them unresolved, and woolly thinking that only stores up problems, but it is a debate that is at least honourable.
Sadly, examples of how myth-making is presented as fact abound. Thatcher allegedly hated the miners and yet Wilson closed more pits and made more miners redundant over a shorter period as prime minister than Thatcher did.
There also seems to be a collective amnesia that she offered the miners’ union a deal costing taxpayers £800 million that NUM leader Arthur Scargill rejected or that the mining community was itself split, with many continuing to work throughout the dispute.
Scottish pits such as Bilston Glen, Polkemmet, Comrie, Barony and Killoch voted against the strike.
Similar myths are propagated about Thatcher being anti-Scottish, decimating public expenditure and using Scotland as a guinea pig for the poll tax – all of which on investigation are simply groundless. The most regular of myths is that she killed manufacturing, but again the Office of National Statistics records show that manufacturing output was up by 7.5 per cent over her 11 years in office.
It was Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who were to deal the hammer blow to manufacturing some ten years later.
The epitome of the inverted personality cult is the campaign to put Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead at number one of the download charts that has left the BBC in the position of pleasing no-one by neither banning the song nor playing the whole of it in its chart show. It seems to have been lost on those buying the jingle that they are lining the pockets of huge capitalist corporations Apple and Amazon while feeding royalty payments to Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Likewise Thatcher was not Mary Whitehouse seeking to define public taste and would have not have approved of attempts by some of her supporters to deny people the right to express their views.
But the reason so many are disputing the Thatcher legacy with such bile and bitterness is because, unlike Wilson, Heath and the others, she took on the received wisdom of post war British collectivism and won. She left office undefeated, untamed by Argentinian generals, European commissioners or trade unionists. She won three general elections, never with less than 42 per cent of the vote share and enjoyed the support of more than 13 million electors each time. Even in Scotland she always polled more than 700,000 votes.
Thatcherism will live on as the debate over her personality, her premiership and its effects becomes eternal.