When you hear people pronouncing vehemently on a person who came to power before they were born and speaking in terms of utter disgust and anger, you realise that you are no longer in the presence of history or debate, you are in the presence of folk mythology.
Just so with the myriad commentators on the death of Margaret Thatcher, who have for the last 24 hours heaped imprecations and opprobrium on the name. Couple with that the jubilation at her death and the whole “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” attitude of some commentators who were born after she came to power and who can barely even remember her, and you realise how easy it must be for the reflex of Jihad to be instilled into the minds of the young in the Middle East.
In the folk consciousness, the myth appears to be that a cruel witch really did land in this Happy Island and lay waste to it, without any prompting whatsoever. By this reading, her intentions were utterly malign and everything she did was the spontaneous production of an evil genius. Like The Terminator or a Macchiavellian creature from Dr Who, she materialised on this planet with the sole intention of wreaking destruction, a bizarre anomaly abominating against Nature.
The vilification heaped on her from these quarters undermines the case against Thatcher. Half truth and misinformation from a generation programmed to resentment by university lecturers and resentful parents – that you can expect as part of the knockabout. It is less comical when the national newspapers also fall prey to the same instinct. Yet they do. Thus we have Owen Jones in The Independent telling us:
“We are in the midst of the third great economic collapse since the Second World War: all three have taken place since Thatcherism launched its great crusade.”
Seemingly having forgotten that in 1976 the Labour Government had to go cap-in-hand to the IMF to seek a bailout of billions to prevent the UK from sliding into bankruptcy, Jones imagines Thatcher as a crusader who laid waste to communities that were previously filled with “secure, skilled industrial jobs”.
Partially true, in that we did have skilled workers whose jobs had been secured for years by unsustainable State subsidy, it appears that Jones falls prey to the psychological effect of nostalgia when he imagines Britain prior to his birth in 1984.
Thus from Jones we imagine Paradisia Britannica in which there was no class system (“Britain was one of the most equal Western European countries before the Thatcherite project began”) – and bizarrely no racism existed. Yes, read that last one again. Apparently Margaret Thatcher invented racism, because here’s what he says happened under her right-to-buy scheme:
“The scarcity of housing turns communities against each other, as immigrants or anyone deemed less deserving are scapegoated.”
Britain was a big multi-cultural love-in before “Thatch”, it seems. Perhaps the National Front, in Jones’s world, came into being under Thatcher’s leadership, even though The Battle of Lewisham which marked the start of the neo-Nazi organisation’s decline occurred 2 years before “Thatch” came to power. Jones, it appears, is a good rhetorician, but a terrible historian.
Let me just give a few fleeting impressions of the Britain that elected Thatcher to power.
In 1976, the Labour Government upon receiving their bailout from the IMF were given a series of conditions they had to meet in order to stave off bankruptcy. Sound familiar? In Britain many of us snide quite happily about Greece and Cyprus, while forgetting we were in an analogous situation only 37 years ago.
Wilson and then Callaghan tried desperately to reduce the size of the State. But the unions, who paid for the Labour Party through their membership subscriptions, weren’t having any of it. As soon as cuts were attempted, public service workers went on strike. We had a Government that was impotent in the face of the union power that was inexorably driving the country towards destruction. “We’re all in this together” might equally have been the cry back then. And what we appeared to be in was a sinking ship that the entrepreneurs and innovators, the powerhouses of wealth creation and the creatives had all abandoned to escape the 98% upper tax band.
The streets during the Winter of Discontent really were piled with rubbish, as rats gorged themselves in the streets on the detritus the unions refused to take away. I’ve heard of “refuse collection” but I never thought that was what it meant. To the massive distress of relatives, bodies went unburied because council workers wouldn’t dig graves – another inability to deal with yet more discards, it seemed, as a mythological sense of horror and helplessness built up around those times in the folk consciousness.
Not a myth, but a truth, I remember back at home my mum sitting at the table week after week going though her shopping bill. She used to weep at the prices going up. I can remember her saying to the ceiling with tears in her eyes: “That’s butter gone up another ha’penny. That’s 2 pence this month.” At its peak, inflation in the UK was running at 24.2%, a figure that seems difficult to imagine in the post-Thatcher era, because her number one priority was to stabilise inflation and keep the value in the pound.
Into this scenario steps Thatcher. In the ensuing years she did some terrible things and she did some things that would transform this country into a modern economy. She deliberately set about breaking the power of the unions, yes. But when the unions won’t even let you bury your dead granny, then there is a mythology at play here other than “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”.
And that’s the point that I’m making. Thatcher wasn’t Wonder Woman fighting evil union power, just as she wasn’t the Wicked Witch of the West murdering the Munchkins, either. For some reason, we are all prone (myself included, as can be seen above) to fall into half-conscious mythological constructs when we consider this extraordinary figure of female power. Perhaps it’s because we find it difficult to accept and understand her on her own terms. A powerful woman who knew her own mind. Fancy that? Much easier to call her “witch” or “goddess”.
What Thatcher did was neither all good nor or all bad. In fact those terms simply distort her and her legacy. What she was was a product of the most extraordinary times. Britain had been told quite clearly by our IMF backers that the country could not go on spending money it didn’t have. After the failings of Wilson and Callaghan, what she brought to the political scene was strict, rigid fiscal discipline. She was the housewife and dominatrix combined (see how easy the archetypes are to reference?). She looked long and hard at what was costing this country money and failing to give us influence in the world – and got rid of it.
It’s hard. It’s cold. It caused real pain and real hardship. It changed Britain forever, displacing families and destroying industry. It also freed people to think innovatively because it broke the union stranglehold on businesses, destroyed the closed shop and ended wildcat strikes.
To mythologise her and imagine her as the “dark shadow rising in the land of Mordor” is to maintain a child-like sense of good and evil that serves no purpose but to breed more ignorance and more stupidity, just as “Superthatch” is a nonsense, too. Yet it is easy to do with her because she was such an extraordinary woman who caused such strong feelings. In the minds of many who were her contemporaries, the emotion resonates. What chance for those born after her, who never experienced the awfulness of the years before she came to power?
With Thatch the psyche is activated. Well-established archetypes buried deep in our brains prevail.
Fairytales, after all, are so much more compelling than history.