Fractured Memory: Great Prime Minister or Self-Centred Bossyboots?By Tom Aitken in London
The funeral of Lady Thatcher has taken place, the crowds have dispersed. Unsurprisingly it was timed, performed and delivered with the precision and effectuality that, on the whole, marked the Olympics. There was a bit of offstage shouting from time to time.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were there, attending a prime minister’s funeral for the first time since that of Winston Churchill in 1965.
Was it a ‘State Funeral’? The confidently asserted official answer was ‘No’. Within the service itself it was said, I think to everyone’s approval, that the service was a recognition of a remarkable person, not of her policies and opinions. She was the longest serving Prime Minister of Britain during the 20th Century and one of those who changed it most during her time in power.
Changes which divided Britain
Those changes, however, divided the country when they were made and leave it divided, socially, regionally and politically to this day.
Unsurprisingly, then, the rumpus that has followed Margaret Thatcher’s death in her 88th year has come close to equalling the rumpuses that peppered her time in power (1979-1990).
Most other news has been banished from the front pages. Yet, as I have hinted, the issues dividing us now are uncannily like those that divided us then.
There are, for example, considerable areas in the north of England and elsewhere where unemployment has been endemic since the closure of large parts of the mining industry during her time in power.
That particular issue illustrates the paradoxes pervading the situation. Much for which Mrs Thatcher is bitterly blames would have happened anyway. The mining industry was in decline as, inevitably, available supplies declined and other energy sources became available.
The question was not whether it would come to an end but how and when that would happen. Many of Thatcher’s overwhelmingly male cabinet talked of ‘managed decline’.
The woman who didn’t shilly-shally
But Mrs Thatcher saw no reason to shillyshally. Why do so when too many miners were chasing too little coal and had too much power to create difficulties for industry and society at large by going on strike.
In this, as in everything else, she saw no reason to procrastinate, and she did not care at all whether she was liked or hated.
Similarly, public opinion in the port city of Liverpool, which has certainly fallen on hard times in the years since Thatcher was voted in, inclines to belief that its problems arose at her behest.
Much of central Liverpool has been refurbished, looks prosperous and is enjoyable to visit. But, two decades on, long streets of empty, crumbling buildings surround the centre, and parts of the suburbs are very badly off.
The blame must be shared
But, as with many of the problems left behind in Thatcher’s wake, she was not by any means the only one to blame.
In a recent issue of the Independent, Jane Merrick writes that Derrick Hatton, then deputy-leader of the Liverpool City Council and the Militant firebrands he led, ‘set progress back a generation’. At the 1985 Labour Party Conference Labour leader Neil Kinnock accused Hatton and Militant of wreaking ‘grotesque chaos’ in the city.
Where is Hatton now? He is Now, however, he is a multi-millionaire PR man living in a luxury penthouse overlooking the (no thanks to him) regenerated centre of Liverpool.
Part of the money that kick-started the regeneration came because of financial help pushed Liverpool’s way by the Conservative firebrand, Michael Heseltine.
(One of the piquant moments in this morning’s cathedral service came when the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, a friend of the Thatcher family, was giving us what he saw as the good side of a remarkable, by no means faultless woman. The BBC’s cameras, doubtless manipulated by hardened Trotskyists, honed in on Heseltine, sinking lower in his seat, glowering and curling his lip.)
Glenda Jackson speaks out
Last week, Glenda Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead for twenty years, faced a noisily aggressive crowd of Tory backbenchers across the chamber while delivering a clear but nuanced account of her reasons for disagreeing with Mrs Thatcher (who was perhaps one of the reasons why Jackson, previously an award winning actress, went into politics).
The Tories did their best to shout her down. Failing that they complained to the speaker that she was ‘out of order.’ He disagreed.
Another finely balanced account of the iron lady came from Russel Brand, lank haired TV comedian, famed (to those whose don’t think much of him, at least) for drug consumption and offensive language. Wandering in Temple Gardens one recent Sunday, he had spied ‘a hunched and frail figure in a raincoat, scarf about her head, watering the roses under the breezy supervision of a masticating copper.’ A man loading a van explained what was going on.
‘Maggie Thatcher. Comes here every week to water them flowers.’ They watched the Iron Lady being ‘helped into the back of a car and trundling off…a pale phantom dumbly filling her day’.
Brand imagined ‘an Ealing-style comedy caper in which two inept crooks kidnap Thatcher from the garden but are unable to cope with the demands of dealing with her and give her back.’
‘Her refusal to stand against apartheid’
After many further pertinent thoughts he wrote: ‘…her every discernible action seemed to be to the detriment of our national spirit and identity. Her refusal to stand against apartheid, her civil war against the unions, her aggression towards our neighbours in Ireland and a taxation system that was devised in the dark ages, the bombing of a retreating ship––it’s just not British.’
I could write on about endless contradictions in her character and our reactions to her:
–– A woman in politics, but absolutely not a feminist.
–– A parent who however kindly you look at it, paid little attention to her children’s needs, perhaps influenced by her own memory that after she turned fifteen she and her own mother ‘had nothing to say to each other.’
–– The daughter of a shopkeeper who became a close friend of General Pinochet.
–– A tough politician who bit her lip to hold back her tears as she drove away from Ten Downing Street, most of her cabinet having demanded that she resign before she wrecked the party that had helped make her what she was.