Mrs T & the battle for history

(or, yes, another bloody Mrs Thatcher post).

The passing of Mrs T has led to some interesting reactions in our house. My wife, raised in the Welsh valleys, and who saw her village go from a state where everyone worked in the mines to one where no-one did, has found it painful. She hasn't wanted to watch any of the debate or coverage, because it makes her too angry, and she doesn't want to feel that way.

Far from growing up on the periphery of Thatcher's society as she did, I grew up in its very centre, in Essex. And this was just as traumatic. As a sensitive teenager in the Thatcher years I felt isolated and confused. Everyone I knew bought in to the very simplistic notion that only money counted, there was no other metric. They became estate agents, bankers, builders. They laughed at me for going to university and wasting my time. I lacked the sophistication and clarity to argue why I felt there was something wrong with this creed and, while people in London may have had viable alternatives to be part of, in Essex there were none. It was a lonely time until I got to university. All of this came back to me this week, particularly as the parade of 80s ghouls such as Tebbit and Mellor were brought out to pay homage.

So I am unable to make a rational judgement of Thatcher's premiership. As many people have commented Britain was a busted flush at the end of the 70s. Enough of us complain about customer service from BT now, you had no idea what it was like in the 70s. So there was a degree of change that had to happen, a painful transition. But I can't make that balanced assessment – it is a purely emotional response.

And this is what I think the commentators fail to grasp. They are judging just on policy. But it's more than that – when Tony Blair passes I think I'll be capable of making a rational assessment of his time, and I bet people won't be celebrating his death with the same fervour.

The protests scheduled for her funeral and the presence of "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" at number 1 are more than childish or ghoulish responses. They are, whether the participants realise it or not, part of a struggle for history. Already we are seeing a rational, balanced assessment of Thatcher occurring which tends to favour her. But this glosses over the human aspect of it all, the pain she caused. These public acts are a way of cementing into history this feeling. When people mention her in the future they will have to record now these protests at her passing, it can't simply be a record of a big ceremonial funeral where she was celebrated.

Just as the poll tax rioters were decried and lambasted at the time, but now those riots form an essential part of the Thatcher history, so the less respectful reactions to her death are part of an attempt to etch into history some of that emotional aspect she has for so many. This doesn't mean that anything is legitimate, but I think to simply dismiss more guttural reactions is to misunderstand their role in the wider context.

One Comment

  • Robert Farrow

    I think this is pretty much spot on. I can’t help but feel that most people wouldn’t be thinking about buying this record were it not for the fact that such a divisive figure is being lauded as some sort of uber-patriot and national saviour. What other avenue is available for protest? No money for the public sector but we can find £8 million from the exchequer for Thatcher’s (non!) state funeral? It seems like a fairly obvious attempt to wrap the conservative party up in the flag and claim Thatcher as some sort of feminist. If this wasn’t happening I don’t think there would be such an appetite to dance on her grave.
    Then again, the prospect of doing precisely that is all that has been keeping some people going since the 1980s…

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