As the nation pays its respects to the longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, Stylist debates the longer-lasting legacy of Baroness Margaret Thatcher.
Words: Lucy Mangan And Susan Riley
"You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life”. So said Winston Churchill, a man who so resolutely refused to back down, he – against all odds – led Britain to victory against a materially far superior power. And 24 years after Churchill exited No 10, Margaret Thatcher walked in. She wasn’t cowed by her enemies – of which there were plenty – and she definitely stood up for something; the power of the individual and the merits of competition and profit.
Few people in British history have been as divisive as Baroness Margaret Thatcher – it’s hard to think of anyone who inspires such admiration or hatred. So staunch was she in her opinions, she radicalised both the right and the left. The gap between the two political parties had never been wider; there was no third way in the Eighties. And while it’s been over two decades since Thatcher tearily drove away from No 10, the grip of her legacy on the common consciousness has lost little of its power. She became more than a prime minister – she became a figurehead of irrevocable change.
It’s interesting to imagine what our children will think when they look back in 50 years. Will she be like Winston Churchill – an image wheeled out whenever we need to hammer home the idea of dogged Britishness and national pride – or will she be remembered as a woman who dehumanised Britain to a level from which it’s yet to recover? Here, Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan and Stylist acting editor Susan Riley discuss the merits and faults of the late (debatably great) Margaret Thatcher
“The rage she still induces is enough to make people forget social niceties” Lucy Mangan
“The last time London undertook a funeral this big, it was for the Queen Mother. Now it is preparing to hold the (all but) state funeral of another elderly woman known throughout the world for the part she played in British life. But where the Queen Mother was laid to rest amid affection, this time things are different. This time it is the funeral of a woman who at her death still divides the nation as uncompromisingly as she did in life. In the week since former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke, 34 years after she first entered 10 Downing Street, all the old passions – tribal, heartfelt – political and personal, have been resurrected and with all their former vigour.
My husband and I are being very careful towards each other at the moment. We are both Thatcher’s children but while he reveres her for her determination, vision and remoulding of British attitudes and our economy, I loathe the sight of her and everything she stands for. He shares her attitude that a hand-up is always better than a handout. I believe there are too many people in the world who will always need and deserve the latter to make this a viable moral or political policy.
Across the country, this pattern is being repeated, between partners, friends and social classes. But why has there been such a vitriolic response to the death of an 87-year-old politician who has not been in power for over 20 years and who spent at least the last decade suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s disease?
Margaret Thatcher was a lower middle-class woman, grammar-schooled and – rarest of all – a conviction politician, unswayed by concerns about popularity or strategy outside those who would lead her most quickly to her goals. She believed that people shouldn’t be helped by a welfare state but by living under conditions and legislation that encouraged them to help themselves. She believed she knew what was best for Britain – economically stifled, in her view, by trades union and postimperial complacency – and rode roughshod over anything that stood in her way.
State assets were privatised – coal, steel, water, gas, electricity, even the railways eventually – supposedly so their monopolies were broken and other companies could compete to sell these things to the public, thereby increasing efficiency and lowering prices for the consumer. Legislation was introduced that broke the power of the unions, with the aim of increasing workplace flexibility and profitability. Income tax was reduced and spending on the NHS, education, benefits and the arts was cut because she felt the public sector had been sucking on the engorged taxpayer teat too long. Those involved in these industries fought bitterly against the changes, for personal reasons and because of a belief that there are some things – like the NHS – that should be guided by the common good rather than the profit motive.
But the real change she brought about was both more nebulous and more profound and, if you were born after the Eighties, you are just going to have to take my word for it. She changed the way we – collectively – thought.
If you are led for long enough by someone who truly believes that “there is no such thing as society”, that everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps as she (a grocer’s daughter from Grantham) had done, and that nothing that can’t be monetised with perfect efficiency should be valued, by someone who did not seem to care that her changes were destroying communities and increasing unemployment, poverty and suffering (especially when combined with her benefit cuts), then your national character changes inexorably and for the worse.
The idea that everyone’s place in the world is determined entirely by their own actions, that you have responsibility only for yourself and that your success will be measured solely by the amount of money and the number of opportunities you manage to grab in as short a time as possible is a seductive one. It is, in essence, an appeal to your worst self and once it has been made, and sanctioned, it is very hard to unmake it. Altruism, empathy, compassion – these are delicate things and they require daily nurturing at all levels of society. Without it, they quickly wither and are hard to revive, let alone restore to full strength.
That, I think, is why Thatcher still inspires such vitriol; her psychological legacy endures. No government since has been willing, able or even terribly desirous of dismantling it. To those who have, more is being given still. From those who have not, more is taken every day.
That is why the rage she still induces is enough to make some people forget social niceties like not speaking ill of the dead. But for those who are offended by their behaviour (and I don’t like it myself – primarily because it risks hurting family members who loved her, but also because anything done posthumously is pointless) can take comfort from the certain fact that given the choice between being remembered with hagiographic sentimentality or the shining admiration and raw fury that attended her in life, our indefatigable former leader would surely go for the latter every time."
"To say Thatcher had no impact on me and my peers is just naive” Stylist’s acting editor Susan Riley
“I am a 1977 child. Year of the snake. The summer Elvis died on a bathroom floor. I was raised in the north. Daughter of Dilys and Bernard – a careworker and headmaster respectively. Their daily paper was the Daily Mail. My dad went to buy it every day at the paper shop, stocking up on rum and raisin chocolate at the same time. My mum loved the crossword and when Diana died, she kept the ‘just excellent’ tribute pull-out they published stored in the top of her wardrobe. They voted Tory all their lives.
Growing up – the time of mismatched neon socks and budgie bikes – I never even considered that this fact or their preference of daily read would receive sneers from my contemporaries later when I went to journalism college in London. It was 1999 and for my band of middle class, university educated, wannabe columnist co-students, only The Guardian was seen as cool and acceptable and the terms left and right wing were bandied about with abandon. I kept quiet. Left wing and right wing were not expressions used in my house. Yes, my parents had strong opinions on issues but they never summed themselves or our family up in that way. It’s something I apply to my own life. If I’m honest, often I feel people get a little too hung up on those labels and get consumed by what being one or the other is meant to make them think.
With this in mind, I didn’t think politically when I heard Margaret Thatcher had died last Monday morning. I thought as an editor – how will our readers want us to cover this? Who was she to them? How is she thought of now by my generation and those born after me? Because to me, as a real life person and not a mouthpiece repeating rhetoric I heard around my dinner table aged 10, she was an omnipresent figure in my formative years. She was the woman who was always there. The smart and in control figure on the evening news who spoke firmly and with conviction. The woman my parents – who were just and fair people, and worked hard to give their kids what they didn’t have – believed to be the best option presented to them at the time. The woman who had me thinking that ruling the country was no big deal and yes, of course, there had been women Prime Ministers before. And no, I’m not glibly saying that Thatcher was singularly responsible for the ‘can-do’ psyche and dizzying ambitions of my generation of women, but to think that growing up in an era where Elizabeth and Margaret had all the bases covered had no impact on me and the rest of my roller-skating, Whitney Houston-loving peers in any small and subconscious way is just naïve.
Entrepreneurship; being the best you can be regardless of your background; not being embarrassed to say you’re ambitious and want to make more money; not thinking that you should receive special dispensation for being a women and equally not thinking for one second you can be held back for being a woman. All of these things are admirable qualities and helped to get me to where I am today. Oh, and I don’t care if she was or wasn’t a feminist, just as you shouldn’t care if I’m one. We never asked Gordon Brown if he was against animal testing. Or Tony Blair if he only ate Fairtrade chocolate.
Assessing how I feel about this woman has made me envy my parents, too. In a challenging period in history, they knew where Margaret Thatcher stood. She didn’t bullsh*t, or fib to win votes; she had the guts to say what she thought. Me? I have no idea how to vote today; politicians have become so watered down and afraid of upsetting the apple cart. I admire anyone who tells it like it is – and I want one of those in No 10. I really do. They must have done in the Seventies and Eighties too; they voted her in three times.
So who, honestly, is Margaret Thatcher to you? Have you said? Truthfully? And how accurate is it to you and where you were between 1979 and 1990? Yes, Thatcher was divisive, but I haven’t heard many reactions to her death that aren’t equally so. I know her politics weren’t to everyone’s taste. They weren’t all to mine. But I’m not going to get on my high horse about them. I can’t tell you anything you haven’t read already because I was riding my bike round Styal Woods and fancying Shakin’ Stevens at the time. The woman has become a myth and it’s not one of our making. A super villain on an Osama Bin Laden scale to a certain ‘type’ of person; a Florence Nightingale saviour to others. And I’m not comfortable in either camp.
I would never have genuflected at Margaret Thatcher’s feet. But I won’t curse her either. I find her contribution to British politics fascinating and that she did, and does, and will continue to drive debate is a positive thing. We should question; we should debate. And yes, there were plenty of cons. But I – or Geri Halliwell, or anyone else who deleted a tweet or didn’t give their true and honest opinion – should not be made to feel embarrassed for pointing out the pros.”