Hating Thatcher

Mrs Thatcher was divisive, illiberal, militaristic and thought there was “no such thing as society”. Easy to hate the old bitch, then. And wrong.

I confess it. I never liked Mrs T. She seemed shrill, self-righteous, bossy, narrow-minded, uncultured. The St Francis stuff made me quite queasy. I was never the kind of public schoolboy who was erotically drawn to the Sybil Fawlty sort of stridency. I did however at least recognise that she was mostly right. Hating her seemed silly.

Nearly all kindly people hated Mrs Thatcher and plenty of them still do. Tilda Swinton makes one sort of case. Eddie Izzard makes another. Consider the roll-call of bad reasons to dislike her. (I take it that my own reasons were more excusable.)

Old sexists hated the fact that she was a clever and effective woman.

Feminists hated her for not caring about them (and for wearing old fashioned feminine clothes).

The snobbish Establishment hated her for being lower-middle class (and being suspicious of them).

Liberals hated her for being frankly unpermissive and pre-Beatle.

Insecure men hated her because she was sexy in an unabashed way.

Socialists hated her for loving entrepreneurs.

Sociologists hated her for realising that “there’s no such thing as society”. In other words, there isn’t a machine which makes us, but rather a world made by individuals who have responsibility for it and for themselves.

Wimps hated her because she thought the British military was one of the few things which long years of pseudo-socialism hadn’t wrecked (Tony Blair ended up with much the same view).

The coal-miners union hated her for realising that either British coal-mining would pay its way, or it should cease. (She got rid of far fewer coal-miners than successive Labour governments had.)

The welfare state hated her for destroying services. (She didn’t: she couldn’t stop the thing growing even though she’d have liked to.)

The point about Mrs Thatcher was that she struck a note of clarity and that millions of people responded to it. Britain in the late 1970s was at the end of a period of fudge and compromise. One could defend the accommodation the elite, the masses, the unions and everyone else had come to. It had a sort of decency. But it was corrupt and clapped out and many of us knew it. It couldn’t be got rid of politely. It was only someone impolite could do the work.

What is so wickedly bad about hating Mrs T is that it ignores the way she was so triumphantly British. She was made by Britain and she helped move the project on.

The way this happened is of importance.

She wasn’t a revolutionary and her thinking wasn’t new. Ted Heath had tried to be Thatcherite when he was briefly “Selsdon Man”. But he was scared-off by the left and the centrists. Even Harold Wilson had tried to “smash” the unions. But Mrs T had the balls to be hated in ways those men didn’t dare. And anyway, the country was ready for a bit of briskness by the time she came along. “You turn if you want to, the Lady’s not for turning” was a disparaging echo of Ted Heath’s change of heart in the early 70s.

Tony Blair has served his country by embedding the Thatcherite revolution in New Labour’s view of the world. But he was a fraud when he presented himself as being the evolutionary force which softened Thatcherism so it was fit for modern and progressive purpose. John Major had already provided a crucial bridge between the two cultures. It was lucky for New Labour that it was able to bury Major’s Tory “niceness” under a torrent of (largely unjustified) accusations about Tory sleaze.

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Publication date

22 November 2008