London Calling

Memories of Maggie Thatcher


News of Maggie - Screenshot Comp

It was pretty disorienting Monday to wake up to Tony Benn on the radio, denouncing Margaret Thatcher for making war on the population of Great Britain. For a moment I thought I was back in Cambridge in 1984-85 – only I couldn’t be, because my mattress was solid, not sagging like a hammock in the bed frame. Or perhaps I was in Brighton in 1988-89 – but no, the curtains weren’t moving in the breeze penetrating a closed window.

Time travel seemed out of the question, after all – though maybe I should give up reading science fiction at bedtime.

Gradually, I realized Maggie must have died at last, after her unfortunate later years of dementia. This was not a great surprise. The world clicked back to normal – until it occurred to me that this was an interesting obituary for someone who wasn’t a leader of North Korea.

Of course, I’m not the only one who noticed this. Ross Douthat, in a blog for the New York Times, remarked on the “dissonant notes struck in [the] eulogies” and compared this phenomenon to the absence of “critical distance in the encomia that followed the deaths of Thatcher’s great contemporaries, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II.” (He may be a little off-target to include the pope, as John Paul II “died in office,” as it were.) Douthat attributes this to the passage of time – though the same could be said of Reagan, who had been out of office 15 years at the time of his death.

While Douthat makes good points and is correct about time, a cultural difference also is at work with Maggie. When it comes to politicians passing, the U.S. media favors a secular canonization process for those who didn’t conduct mass killings of their own population. Incompetence, injustice, economic devastation, racism, invasions, wars – we are very good muffling these in the cotton wool of “the passing of a remarkable person, beloved by so many,” with minimal audiovisual reference to people who “disagreed with their policies.”

Only Watergate has given our marketing team of obituary writers serious problems.

There are definite advantages to having the BBC News carried on our National Public Radio (NPR), because the voices in their coverage keep Maggie Mortuus from becoming a historical monolith against which the present cannot argue – despite, as the Daily Mail reports, some British Twitter users’ strenuous wishes to the contrary. The serious remaining antagonism toward her underscores a very real battle of Britain that constituted the background of my times in England. Though often politically ineffective, this oppositional process shaped the culture in ways that endure.

The names and voices that now recall her – Benn, Ken Livingstone, and Gerry Adams among them – used to wake me in the mornings and followed me into tutorials, seminars, lectures, and pubs. Maggie’s face today on the front pages of numerous papers recalls headlines that bellowed at me daily from newsagents and train seats. Even refusal to call her “Baroness” or “Lady Thatcher,” while a point that may make U.S. feminists squirm a tad in the ongoing debate over respect for women in office, highlights a key element of that period: class as the nation’s battlefield, even as the notion was being redefined in purely economic terms.

Today, as then, the opposition voices also hint to me of “the bits I missed” as a visiting American student to Cambridge and Sussex. That itself has an odd nostalgia: the memory of feeling that I didn’t care for this person’s policies – indeed, probably disliked the person herself – but that I lacked context and understanding for my objections.

American denial of class in its own system still dominated at that time (the concept was, after all, “communist”), and in the United Kingdom it was undergoing a metamorphosis. No longer defined simply in “Oxbridge versus the Red Bricks” terms, with their associations of old family entitlements and privileges, “class” in the U.S. sense of designating people’s importance, their worthiness to access power, according to income was part and parcel of Thatcherite economics – and haunts the power structure, especially the banking system, of The City under austerity today.

The Thatcher years ushered in the era of “wide boys in their stripey shirts” – brokers, fund managers, and other financial usual suspects, among whom Nick Leeson (now Ireland’s “insolvency expert“) emerged in the 1990s as an early warning of the more elaborate Libor scandal. Against the power of this new economically globalizing generation, Thatcherist policy encouraged perception of trade unionists (especially miners), immigrants, and environmentalists as new local cadres of social villains.

This part may sound more familiar now to the United States than it did in the 1980s and 1990s, as it has resonance in variously populist, libertarian, Tea Party – and liberal – contemporary rhetoric. That it is so confused here is, I think, the sign of a differential experience and awareness of the effect of Reagan/Thatcher policy, which impacted on Great Britain more vividly and directly than on our image-managed and geographically more widespread population. Among the key elements missing in the Reagan/Thatcher years was the Internet, and the discourse in the United States today is almost a distorted echo of the on-the-ground struggles of Maggie’s England.

I experienced the cultural disconnect during those years in England, and I recalled it vividly when I saw two NPR headlines juxtaposed Monday morning. The first was Thatcher’s obituary. The second, an unrelated, U.S.-oriented story, declared, “Mine Safety Reform Stalled Three Years After Deadly Blast.”

I arrived in Cambridge for my university junior year at the peak of the 1984-85 Yorkshire miners’ strike, but with no real understanding of the difference between it and Philadelphia’s nearly annual teachers’ strike. Nor was much assistance offered by the university. Still greatly sheltered (and sheltering) from “working-class concerns” – think of Inspector Lewis‘s or Inspector Morse‘s Oxford and you’ll not be too far off, though we lacked the stuffiness – academic Cambridge offered little insight into the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) strike in response to Thatcher’s plans for sweeping closures. NUM leader Arthur Scargill and Maggie challenged each other on every front page, but, distinctly a visitor, I never felt the direct impact of outrage.

Not so in Sussex, four years later. In the red-brick environment of the south, studying Tony Harrison‘s poetry amid daily animated political dialogue and to a background of Billy Bragg, I came to understand the visceral, personal experiences of Maggie’s policies and felt the creeping awareness that these would not drift into memory’s dustbin with the ease of the Keating Five. While the United States, then and now, may demonstrate something of a split personality even within parties over the concerns of miners – promoting mine safety while wishing to rid coal from the list of energy sources, for instance – the presence of the class dimension hardened the imprint of the strike in British culture. A Tuesday headline story about the Yorkshire town of Grimethorpe, appearing in Norway’s Aftenposten, captures the continuing divide: “‘We can never forgive what Margaret Thatcher did to us'” (“Vi kan aldri tilgi det Margaret Thatcher gjorde mot oss”).

These Vs are all the versuses of life
from LEEDS v. DERBY, Black/White
and (as I’ve known to my cost) man v. wife,
Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right,

class v. class as bitter as before,
the unending violence of US and THEM,
personified in 1984
by Coal Board MacGregor and the NUM,

Hindu/Sikh, soul/body, heart v. mind,
East/West, male/female, and the ground
these fixtures are fought out on ‘s Man, resigned
to hope from his future what his past never found.

~ From Tony Harrison’s “v.” in Selected Poems

Maggie Thatcher was always more emblem than human in my experience – in music, in literature, and in gender roles. For a U.S. girl coming of age when Thatcher arrived at Downing Street, the prime minister posed a dilemma. England had done what the United States seemingly couldn’t do: it gave a woman real power, real leadership. Juxtaposed with doe-eyed “stand-by-your-man” first ladies, Thatcher offered the promise of there being a serious point to the college degrees we were about to pursue, a future beyond just a nice diploma and a desk job.

Had the U.S. media cared to enlighten us more frequently in that pre-Internet era, we could have turned to Indira Gandhi of India or Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. As the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi was known to us, but barely; and the “exotic” sari and distant location of her leadership made it difficult for us to gravitate to her. Brundtland’s first term as prime minister in 1981 was brief, and Norway then as today somehow managed to slip by much American news coverage. (This was, after all, before the Lillehammer Olympics.) Even in my academically inclined girls’ school, I never heard her mentioned.

But if your politics were to extend beyond gender roles, Maggie immediately became problematic. Her denouncing of the African National Congress as a terrorist organization and her reluctant, economically motivated movement toward assisting to end apartheid, as well as her reliance on police action wherever class, economic, and racial tensions became evident in her own country, were among elements of her tenure I couldn’t stomach. To oppose the Euro is one thing; to deny justice, another.

It made me suspect that, at this rate, it would be an unearthly long time before England saw another female prime minister.

I don’t favor the “she is dead, and in hell, I know” reaction that some have demonstrated in the wake of Maggie’s passing. But a critical-minded coverage of her passing reflects a genuine, enduring policy battle that pays better tribute to her political and cultural significance than the usual bland U.S. encomiums. And frankly, I think she’d enjoy it. The personal tragedy of her later years was the deterioration of that sharp-wittedness that, for better and for worse, made her a worthy opponent for the generation, and that made me happy – even as I disagreed with her – that she was present in negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Someone had to lend intelligence to Reagan.