Main Site         

Margaret Thatcher – Myth or Mrs

2013 April 9

Margaret Thatcher did not want me at the intimate dinner in Downing Street. But the guest of honour did. So there I was. What ensued reveals the complexity of the Thatcher story, and lays bare the inadequacy of so many of the myths which have grown around her. The truth was something significantly different.

The contradictions of the phenomenon that was Margaret Thatcher were all on show in this one incident.

It was 1987 and the height of the Iron Lady’s implacable opposition to the struggle of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela for freedom for the black population of South Africa. She had branded Mandela as a “terrorist” and was a virulent opponent of international sanctions against the white minority-government. She was, many felt, apartheid’s greatest friend.

The guest of honour at that Downing Street dinner was Joaquim Chissano, the President of Mozambique, from whose country I had been sending back reports on his government’s struggle against the economic mess the former Portuguese colony had inherited on independence – and against guerrillas backed by the apartheid regime in neighbouring South Africa.

Thatcher ought to have hated Chissano, a black Marxist liberation-fighter in the Mandela mould. But in her first year in office Chissano and Samora Machel, his predecessor as president, had privately helped steer Robert Mugabe away from booting the whites out of Zimbabwe when he took over at independence. So Chissano was a Good Guy in the Thatcher litany. Yet at the end of the dinner, when I raised apartheid and sanctions, she cut me dead with steely imperiousness and, turning to make appreciative comments about my wife’s dress, took her off on a smiling tour of the Downing Street portraits of past prime ministers.

It was all there in a single incident –political prejudice, fierce loyalty, implacable certainty, easy contradictions, cognitive dissonance, ruthless assertion and the eye-flickering charmless flattery. No British prime minister of the last century has created greater myth than Margaret Thatcher. And yet there are huge chasms between the myths and the Mrs.

To those who seek to deify her Margaret Thatcher she was a Saviour who rescued the nation from a post-war socialist decadence with a weak currency, feeble business spirit, ineffective incentives and an interventionist statist consensus government. She cut taxes and sold off council houses and flabby nationalised industries. She stood up against the unions at home and the Russians and Argies aboard. She made Britain great again.

But there is an obverse of that coin. The myth of those who, in the words of Elvis Costello’s song, want now to Tramp the Dirt Down on her yet undug grave, is that she was the hard unfeeling wicked witch of selfishness and privilege. She began by to ending free school milk for schoolchildren – “Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher”  and then went on to kill Britain’s great heavy industries, create mass unemployment, destroy entire communities, take money from the poor and give it to the rich and deregulate the City, paving the way for the global financial meltdown of 2008. The day she resigned they sang “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” outside Downing St and made pacts to throw parties to celebrate her funeral.

She was Britain’s first woman prime minister and yet there is not even agreement on what that meant. Her notion of women’s rights – to compete, fight, and succeed on equal terms with men — did not fit the orthodoxies of contemporary feminism. She made great play with the bogus idea that the economics of housewifery can be transferred to the Treasury. She tickled the spare rib of those who felt women to be the superior sex.

By contrast, her opponents saw in her saw none of the traditional female qualities of gentle, caring, compassionate, nurturing sensitivity. Feminists noted that she did little to promote the rights of women. In eleven and a half years as prime minister, she brought only one woman into her Cabinet, and she did not last long. The women of Greenham Common were among her most vehement critics. Thatcher was not bothered. “The feminists hate me, don’t they?” she said. “And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”

Among men her gender, one biographer noted, “elevated her visibility but undermined her credibility”. To many Conservative men in the early years she looked pushy rather than plucky. She manipulated Tory ex-public school boys with a mixture of coquetry and cajoling, knowing that they had been brought up not to argue with women.

The verb “to handbag” became common parlance for her bossiness and even brutality. So much so that, at one Cabinet meeting, ministers arrived to find that she had popped out leaving her bag on the table. “Why don’t we start?” one suggested. “The handbag is here.” She was parodied in the satirical tv programme Spitting Image with her Cabinet colleagues in a restaurant. She ordered steak. “And what about the vegetables,” the waiter asked. “Oh, they’ll  have the same as me,” she replied.

On the Labour benches she liberated the repressed misogyny among politically-correct male MPs who chanted “ditch the bitch” when she entered the Commons. They called her Attila the Hen and likened her voice to “a perfumed fart”.

But a new myth was forged in 2011 with a film made by three women, actress Meryl Streep, director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Moran. The Iron Lady recast Thatcher with two distinct narratives – one in which she was a member of the lower middle class struggling to overcome the snobbery of Tory upper-class culture and, most strongly, as a woman who vanquished all comers in a male-dominated world.

It was about as accurate a portrait as that of Richard III at the hands of Shakespeare. The great opponent of feminism had become a feminist icon. The politician who had waged the most naked of class wars, describing striking miners as “the enemy within”, had become a warrior against class prejudice. This was a Thatcher with a softness, a humour and a humanity which led many on the Left to describe it as a “whitewash”. On the Tory side Mrs Thatcher’s insightful biographer, Charles Moore, to describe the Oscar-winning movie as a “most powerful piece of propaganda for conservatism”.

But the truth was that Margaret Thatcher had long been a re-maker of her own image. As Education Secretary in the Cabinet of  Edward Heath – a grammar school scholarship boy, note, rather than a well-bred Tory patrician – she did not object to the middle-of-the-road policies of the time. But by the time she entered Downing Street in 1979 –  and had the temerity to quote the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, “where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – she had remoulded herself into a hard-line free-market monetarist.  As her policies were refashioned so too was her image – her shrill voice was softened, her fussy frills and furbelows banished, her teeth straightened and her hair made more elegant.

Even so, the simplicity of the myths concealed a chain of contradictions.

She promoted the idea that inflation at 27 per cent was somehow the fault of inefficient nationalised industries and the failure of a post-war mixed economy when it had as much to do with the quadrupling of oil prices after the Yom Kippur War. By contrast, the idea that she killed off British shipbuilding, coalmining and steelmaking does not bear scrutiny, for all were in long-term decline long before she took office; the acceleration of their decline was as much to do with global recession as Thatcher governments.

There were other paradoxes. The great tax-cutter, we now know, actually opposed her Chancellor’s 1979 decision to cut income tax from 83 per cent to 60 per cent. Though she sold off many state-owned enterprises the welfare state actually expanded in her time. Unaccountable regulators now wield the power once exercised by the bosses of nationalised industries. She emasculated local government and promoted the remorseless growth of big and intrusive government at the centre.  And her carefully-engineered economic recovery policies merely fuelled the credit boom of the mid-1980s.

On Europe, for all her passionate Euro-sceptic No-No-No speechifying, she led the Tory Yes campaign in the 1975 referendum on staying in the Common Market. In 1986 she signed the Single European Act which strengthened the European Economic Community and gave away many British independent powers, though she was myopically unable to see the inevitability of German unification.

The contradictions abounded. For all her fierce nationalism over the Falklands she passively handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997 without insisting on democracy for its residents. On Iran, when President Jimmy Carter asked her to withdraw diplomats from Tehran to support the US she refused; yet later she allowed the SAS to storm the Iranian Embassy in London. When PC Yvonne Fletcher was shot from the Libyan embassy she permitted the killer to leave the country yet, despite the opposition of almost all her Cabinet, gave permission to use British air bases for the bombing of Libya

It was the same with the IRA. Publicly she spoke about unwavering resistance to terrorism. She stood firm and watched ten Republican prisoners, one of them an MP, starve themselves to death for their political rights. Yet behind the scenes, recently-released government papers show, she authorised three sets of negotiations with the IRA in secret. At the end of the following year, she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, conceding for the first time that the Republic of Ireland should have any say in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

For all the myth-making Margaret Thatcher was a conservative who promoted accelerated change.  She was for a traditional view of life but in the end promoted the individual – there was “no such thing as society” – over the family and the common good.

All political lives, Enoch Powell famously wrote, “end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”. Perhaps myth is what makes that different. Myth does not, in the end, require fact or explanation. “Myth is never driven out by reality, or by reason,” wrote the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, “ but lingers on until another myth has been discovered, or elaborated, to replace it”.

Comments are closed.