The Patriot Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher: symbol of liberty and strength. Changed Britain and the world
for the better. May she rest in peace. – Rupert Murdoch @rupertmurdoch
As we enter a phase of ‘national’ reflection it’s worth looking at how Thatcher and Thatcherism is being framed and revised. I want to look at how the former leader is thought of through the changes of the media and society of the time. My most vivid memory is just how normalised state violence became. Her use of paramilitary police violence during the miner’s strike and her response to the hunger strikes were expressions of a brutal demagoguery. We need to challenge the resurrection and deification of her as a ‘saviour’ figure and attempt to move away from her as individual and look at the continuity of her brutal and failed ideas.
Bizarrely attempting to align Thatcher with Princess Di, Chief Hagiographer David Cameron came out with the wonderfully stupid epithet, she was the ‘Patriot Prime Minister’. If she represents the apogee of British patriotism then this great white-wash of remembrance may hasten the break up of Britain. If it does, it’s worth remembering that she did more in her tenure to create division than anyone seeking self-determination ever did. If in the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death we voted for devolution, we might take the next step in the aftermath of Thatcher’s.
The long long 1980s we’ve experienced included the transformation of news and popular culture, the tabloidisation of much of social information. As we reflect on the media transformations – accelerated under the Wapping Dispute which are usually heralded as a boost for popular democracy – it’s worth also remembering her attacks on free speech from Zircon to D Notices and more. As gushing praise masquerades as news coverage from every media orifice today we lean that Thatcher’s government considered arresting journalists covering riots in Britain in 1981 as it blamed the media for fomenting violence in inner-city areas, according to previously secret Cabinet papers (see report here).
The sheer violence of the era is incredible to remember and mustn’t be forgotten in the mist of apologia and propaganda. The nightly reports of police violence as a newly emboldened state authority repressed dissent and protest was seen again and again from Orgreave to Wapping from the inner cities to the Poll tax protests, from Greenham Common to the Battle of the Beanfield.
But the physical violence that the confrontations created were being matched by the psychological violence of a new tabloid media in which shameless greed was dressed up as ‘liberty’, and selfishness dressed up as individualism.
What are we to make of the tributes that include Nancy Reagan claiming “The world has lost a true champion of freedom and democracy” or Virginia Bottomley arguing: “She believed in the power of liberty, individual freedom and the rule of law”, Radoslaw Sikorski, calling Thatcher a “fearless champion of liberty” or the Economist magazine which hailed the late Tory leader’s “willingness to stand up to tyranny” and “bet on freedom”?
The reality is that much of the authoritarian attacks on civil liberties and rise in power and influence of crucial allies in the press can be charted to the Thatcher era.
How can we possibly link this women’s era with liberty when she supported the apartheid regime from popular protest (worth reminding Michael Forysth and others who refer to her as being on the ‘right side of history) as well as General Zia ul Haq’s military dictatorship in Pakistan and General Suharto of Indonesia, whose 32-year dictatorship was rightly described by the New York Times as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century.
All of this is conveniently forgotten by those focusing on how she – incredibly – ‘ended the Cold War’. That’s some fantastic revisionism going on.
Patriotism and Quietism
It’s worth reflecting on what that patriotism felt like but it’s worth also looking at the attempts to shut-down dissent and proper analysis by media consensus in the aftermath of her death . As Spinwatch have it:
This demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous. That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power. “Respecting the grief” of Thatcher’s family members is appropriate if one is friends with them or attends a wake they organize, but the protocols are fundamentally different when it comes to public discourse about the person’s life and political acts.
But the key point is this: those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography.
There is something extraordinary about the efforts to contain peoples shared anger about the Thatcher era. Where to begin to account for the human misery she caused, and reveled in?
Should we start with the mass unemployment, ‘a price worth paying’ or naming striking workers defending their communities as the ‘enemy within’? The strongest memory I have – and it’s probably why decades on people still feel such anger – is the remorseless nature of the change she inflicted. This ‘amoral’ policy context is worth remembering, it’s a dehumanising process. Craig Murray writes: “As you drown in a sea of praise for Thatcher, remember this. She was prepared to promote lung cancer, for cash” (see article here).
So where’s the continuity?
Wikispooks reminds us that: “Three months after the Lockerbie bombing, Margaret Thatcher and the rising star in Conservative Research Department, David Cameron, visited apartheid South Africa.
The past and future British Prime Ministers made a point of visiting the Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia (illegally occupied by apartheid South Africa in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 435). In 1989, the Rössing mine was jointly owned by Rio Tinto Group and the Iranian Government, and was supplying uranium to develop Iran’s nuclear programme. Mrs Thatcher was so impressed with the Rössing Uranium Mine that she declared it made her “proud to be British”, a sentiment echoed by David Cameron.”
It has recently been reported that Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron concluded a secret nuclear deal with the apartheid regime during their visit in 1989.
Let us avoid the re-writing of history and disassociate Thatcher from liberty which she repressed at every turn.
If Cameron was the ‘Heir to Blair’ and the unwitting beneficiary of Thatcher’s media changes, we at least saw this year the depravity of that culture lay bare. But in some ways she was preferable to Cameron. She believed in what she did. Those that came after her seem like functionaries by comparison.
It’s extraordinary that Owen Jones put’s it best saying: “Thatcherism was a national catastrophe, and we remain trapped by its consequences. As her former Chancellor Geoffrey Howe put it: “Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.”
What’s extraordinary is that Jones is still a member of that party.
Hers was cold power, pure interest, naked avarice. At the time all of this was shocking. What’s depressing is that has now been internalised and normalised. This is a great opportunity to re-examine the values she fostered and to reject them and the failed economic ideology she created.
The apologists for the society she created can keep lining up to explain and revise her legacy, but few of us who lived through it will be convinced.