When news of Mrs Thatcher’s death was announced last Monday, I resolved to stay away from internet message boards and social networking sites for a few days. Alas, in a moment of weakness, I checked briefly into Facebook and Twitter and quickly felt the need to go and have a shower. I don’t believe in the perfectibility of humankind, so I could hardly be surprised by some of the stuff that people were willing to post on social networking sites. Nor would I make any particular objection to people behaving in the way that they do; it is perfectly within their right. I can only wonder, with a sense of incredulous curiosity, at the extent of the lack of self-awareness in the kind of person who can post a picture of themselves cavorting drunkenly in the centre of Glasgow, bottle in hand, alongside a status update reading:
‘The witch is dead – Rejoice, because she led the party of hate and spite’.
Much of the comment I’ve read in the last few days (both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere) seems to fall into two camps: Mrs Thatcher was either the greatest-ever prime minister and the saviour of Britain, or she was an evil witch out to screw whole communities and destroy industries. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between these two extremes.
I was a teenager growing up in Glasgow when the Conservatives won the election in 1979. I found it hard to believe that ‘that woman’ had become our prime-minister. I continued to despise her throughout the following decade and can still recall the sickening feeling of ‘losing’ the 1987 election, her third consecutive triumph. It seemed that the country was going through a dismal, depressing period and I hated Margaret Thatcher, her party and most of the things they did. But the passing of time has allowed me to develop rather a different perspective on events. It is clear that Britain in 1979 needed a transformative government, needed a Thatcher (or someone like her) to bring about certain necessary changes, changes that would make our economy fit for purpose in an ever-more competitive world. Those changes could never have happened under Callaghan, Foot or Kinnock. The assertion that Mrs Thatcher ‘destroyed’ the old industries is conveniently simplistic, but ignores a massive elephant in the room. What she did was end the expectation that everyone else should subsidise those ailing industries. Those dockyards, car factories, steel mills and coal mines, with their ancient practices and protections, could not have continued operating in a modern economy because the conditions in which they expected to be maintained were not sustainable.
I suspect that what is fuelling today’s Thatcher-hatred is not fury at the so-called industrial carnage, not righteous indignation at the perceived class warfare and not outrage at her seeming indifference to the plight of those who were the victims of economic vicissitudes. No … what hurts the Thatcher-haters most of all is that ‘that woman’ successfully took the temperature of the electorate, time and time again. And it’s not just that she won; it’s that in her winning, she changed the rules of the game.
Accordingly, the antics of these demonstrators since Monday seems a tad pathetic, like a blind and toothless old dog barking at the distant memory of a long-dead postman. The Thatcher-hatred seems little more than an enfeebled cri de coeur, an impotent acknowledgement of the defeat of old-style leftism. Bewildered and punch-drunk from successive failures at the polls, these demonstrators still rage against their ancient adversary, desperate to blame someone for their continued failure to capture the imagination and the votes of ordinary people.
But as they enjoy their street parties and their silly campaign to push that song up the pop charts, I’d like to think that, in a contemplative pause, perhaps deep in the quiet night, there might arrive, for some, a moment of revelation, a moment when that public mask of bitterness and scorn might fall away; a moment of something approaching self-awareness.
In his poem ‘Snake’ DH Lawrence beautifully expresses the contradictory desires expressed by a man when he encounters a snake at his water trough. On the one hand, he admires and wishes to befriend the creature; on the other, he feels a compulsion to violence and eventually makes a feeble attempt to kill it. Ashamed of his mean-spiritedness, Lawrence ends the poem with a near-perfect expression of self-loathing:
And I have something to expiate;