Tramp the dirt down

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You may recall the Elvis Costello song from his 1989 album Spike. It began:

I saw a newspaper picture from the political campaign
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously in pain
She spills with compassion, as that young child’s face in her hands she grips
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice coming down on that child’s lips?

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher had been in power for ten years. Still riding high and roughshod over the remnants of our society. Within the year, she would be driven, tearfully, down Downing Street and away to a well remunerated dotage ($250,000 a year for being a “geopolitical consultant” for tobacco giant Philip Morris, anyone?), only latterly diminished by senility and a series of strokes. For anyone who remembers the 1980s, she looms large. She was the leader who wrote the instruction booklet for what David Cameron and George Osbourne are trying to do now: that is, to squeeze public services and sell off as much silver as possible to the private sector until we have a shareholder-run state which answers only to the bottom line.

She is dead now. Death was explicitly wished upon her many times, and not just in protest song, and now those casualties on the road to serfdom have their wish. Her loss is lamented by those on the right who regard her as a figurehead, an achiever, an icon. Some on the left are organising street parties, which seems a bit harsh now that she’s actually died. I wonder if Elvis Costello is planning a trip to St Paul’s. Maybe he has mellowed since 1989. They do say you get more right wing as you get older. I find I get more left wing.

I would love to rewrite history and say that I despised her and her monetarist policies from the day she swept to power in 1979, but I was 14 at the time, and not politically educated. My politics, such as they might have been described, were simply handed down from my father, the sort of benign provincial Tory who put his working-class background firmly behind him, reads the Telegraph and believes in lower taxes, but who is anything but a foaming-at-the-mouth old colonel. I thought of him then, and think of him now, as a gentle, fair-minded soul. I did not feel indoctrinated by him. But I had to leave home and get to London before a more informed and passionate politics overtook me.

Educated by the NME – hard to credit that by looking at it now, but in the early-to mid-80s it was powerfully polemical and driven by Marxist doctrine, like much of the best music of the era – I read a book from the library by Jeremy Seabrook about the failure of the Labour movement called What Went Wrong? and it set me on the path I’m still on today. It was actually fashionable to be left wing in that decade, and I don’t mean to make voting Labour seem like a hollow lifestyle choice, it’s just that it meant something more profound and full-blooded than a party-political cross in a box. It was tied in with CND, and the GLC, and Red Wedge, and the NME, and Anti-Apartheid and, in Scotland, with the SNP.

The zeitgeist was embodied by the 1930s protest song Which Side Are You On?, powerfully covered by Glaswegian folk firebrand Dick Gaughan in 1985 for the miners’ strike. You were either with Thatcher, or against her. To be against her was, in my experience, to be alive.

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I was a student between 1983 and 1987. As a constituency, we were hardwired to bristle at Tory policy. Listen to the contempt Thatcher has for students, as related in her second memoir, The Path To Power, (this comes from a chapter on her years in the Dept of Education, 1970-74): “This was the height of the period of ‘student revolution’ … it is extraordinary that so much notice should have been taken of the kindergarten Marxism and egocentric demands which characterised it … the young were regarded as a source of pure insight into the human condition. In response, many students accordingly expected their opinions to be treated with reverence.”

She idolised Macmillan-government ingenue and national curriculum cheerleader Keith Joseph – and later, of course, brought him into her cabinet, where his education policies were so punishing, my Dad wrote a letter to the local paper complaining about them – and, in The Path To Power, she defends Joseph against charges of being a “mad eugenicist” after an infamous speech in 1974 at Edgbaston where he said that “our human stock” was “threatened” by mothers “pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5.” As far as she was concerned, “the speech sent out powerful messages about the decline of the family, the subversion of moral values and the dangers of the permissive society.” That the permissive society was tied up with the liberation of women, and that the “decline” of the family was a coded Tory way of encouraging women back into the kitchen helps us to understand why Margaret Thatcher was no feminist.

In an article she wrote in the Telegraph in January 1975 when she was shadow Education Secretary but challenging Ted Heath for the leadership, she defended what she called “middle class values” as “the encouragement of variety and individual choice, the provision of fair incentives … for skill and hard work, the maintenance of effective barriers against the excessive power of the state and a belief in the wide distribution of individual private property.” She ranged these against “socialist mediocrity.” She won the leadership by appealing to the Tory party’s misty-eyed nostalgia for these values, which, when you break them down, are about looking after yourself: “individual choice … individual private property.” She was, if nothing else, consistent, right through her reign, which began here.

In reading her autobiography, which ends as she enters Downing Street, at which point the book turns into a sort of manifesto, I felt I understood a bit more about her character. She seemed interested only in politics and policy, from a very young age. There was little sense of a human being interested much in culture. (This probably explains why she cut arts spending.) She was, if nothing else, dedicated to her line of work, and to work in general, famously sleeping for four hours at night at her peak.

And she was confident that she was right. She treated the men around her in the cabinet as lower life forms, and forged on with what she felt she needed to do, and in the end, they turned on her, probably trying to claw back a bit of self-respect after years of emasculation around long tables. She believed in the individual over the state, in private over public, in self over society.

These tenets found purchase in a Britain previously beset by industrial unrest, which she attempted to wipe out by crushing the unions and literally removing the industries where they flourished. (If you read The Enemy Within by Seamus Milne, and it’s a set text as far as I’m concerned, you’ll see how Nicholas Ridley was charged with preparing for a showdown with the miners that would lead to the dismantling of the coal industry in order to give a boost to the British nuclear industry.)

All because she had read Hayek and Friedman and Walters, who warned against state intervention in economics (“central planning”), which Hayek claimed, in 1944, would lead to totalitarianism. He believed that the economy should be left “to the simple power of organic growth,” and it sounds so harmless in that phrase. But it’s the market we must bow to, and yet the market which has left this country in tatters – left, as it heinously was by New Labour, untrammeled on their watch – so that the current Tories can bulldoze their own ideological notions through the wreckage.

Well I hope I don’t die too soon, I pray the Lord my soul to save
Yes, I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live long enough to savour
That’s when they finally put you in the ground
I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

It’s difficult on the face of it – even mean – to celebrate the death of an 87-year-old woman with dementia, who hasn’t wielded political power since 1990. Except that her policies, pushed through with the trademark defiance and zeal that her admirers credit as her greatest qualities, linger on. Where were you when you heard that Thatcher had died? The same place as me: in her long shadow. She did change this country. Or at least, she saw its dark soul and changed the way we thought about ourselves. She championed Reaganomics before Reagan. She unleashed the selfish bastard within, and sold council houses and privatised utility shares to an electorate apparently desperate to improve their lot at any price. The price we paid was the loss of community, the loss of compassion, the loss of perspective.

When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam
And the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam

The blanket media blitz has been predictable. (It doesn’t take a newspaper insider to surmise that her obituaries have been “on file” for quite a few years.) The not-quite-state funeral next Wednesday – and oh how appropriate that it’s a public-private finance initiative – will hopefully draw a line under all the nostalgia. Blair was as much of a statesman as she was a stateswoman, and there my admiration for both ends. She was more honest than Blair, and more forthright than Cameron. She fed the satire industry while taking apart all the other ones, and comedians will never have it so good again.

I’ve heard miners on the radio and TV unabashed in declaring their hatred for a dead woman. You can easily understand why. But I think I would find it difficult to concentrate at a street party – or do a dance on the dirt – when her legacy is all around us, not least in the anecdotal and statistical evidence of a nation convinced by a right-wing press and a few scare stories that the welfare state is a bad idea. Beggar thy neighbour? It’s what she would have wanted.

I never thought for a moment that human life could be so cheap
But when they finally put you in the ground
They’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down

The Right Horrible Lady

The producers of The Iron Lady need not have spent a penny on publicity for their biopic of Margaret Thatcher. I’m actually sick of reading about it, and her, in the newspapers, and seeing it, and her, on the TV. Whether it’s right-wing commentators wailing about the impropriety of showing Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, in her amnesiac dotage (“They should have waited until she’s dead!” they cry, which is surely just as disrespectful to the old dear), or left-wing commentators complaining that the film in some way deifies Thatcher (Michael White was on BBC Breakfast yesterday, saying, “It’s not a political film at all,” by which he meant it wasn’t left-wing.) I saw a preview of The Iron Lady a few weeks ago, and I’ve had time to ruminate. (The screening was delayed while we film critics waited for the BBC’s Nick Robinson to turn up – it was clearly a must-see for political journalists who don’t usually go and see films.)

I’m afraid think it’s a deeply underwhelming film, saved by the central performances. As I near the end of The Path To Power, Margaret Thatcher’s second memoir, I fancy myself as something of a Thatcher scholar – I’ve certainly been immersed in the fine detail of her, yes, path to power, and know something of the way her mind worked.

That we’re looking here at the work of talented writer Abi Morgan (The Hour, Shame, Sex Traffic) makes it all the more disappointing. But she and director Phyllida Lloyd set themselves an impossible task: to tell a major political figure’s life story in 105 minutes. It simply cannot be done in any meaningful way. Dramatically, I applaud the conceit of presenting the story in flashback from the dementia-encroached dotage of the octogenarian Lady Thatcher, where she conducts conversations with her long-dead husband Denis, played by Jim Broadbent. I could have watched 105 minutes of these two fine actors bouncing off each other as a devoted old couple, one of whom just happened to once run, and ruin, the country. But alas, the dotage is merely a device to frame endless reconstructions of the dramatic bullet-points of Thatcher’s career, from Grantham schoolgirl to ousted PM.

So, we get the Miners’ Strike, and the Falklands, and the “Special Relationship” with Ronald Reagan, and the Poll Tax riots, and so on, and so on, each one neatly condensed into one or two scenes – although Reagan only appears, dancing with her, in a montage, and we get nine years condensed into about a minute of newspaper headlines and newsreel. The bullet points are mostly ably enough presented, and the all-star cast means you never get bored (“Look, it’s Richard E Grant/Anthony Head/Roger Allam/Iain Glen/John Sessions!” “He must be playing Jim Prior/Michael Hesletine/Gordon Reece/John Nott/Francis Pym!”), but it’s all a bit history-by-numbers. BBC4 has made this kind of biopic its stock in trade, and yet, its own stab at Thatcher, The Long Walk To Finchley, with Andrea Riseborough, wisely concentrated on just one period of her life and stayed focussed. This, though, is essentially a film aimed at the international market – after all, Thatcher is a global icon, like it or not – and it leaves nothing to chance or subtlety. Because it has Meryl Streep in the central role, it has instant Hollywood appeal, and may yet win her a handbagful of awards. She’s hugely entertaining, although as Peter Bradshaw notes in the Guardian, it is not much more than a brilliant impersonation. She’s worked hard to get the voice and the mannerisms right, but Thatcher was an impenetrably poised and self-made public figure, so when you do a good impression, it’s of a kind of media construct anyway.

What The Iron Lady doesn’t do is explain why Thatcher was Thatcher. It makes a lot of capital out of the glass ceiling, which she comprehensively smashed, and has fun with shots of her as the only woman in the Commons, the only pair of high heels, the only blue hat etc. There’s no doubting the self-belief it took to put up with all that shit, and Thatcher can be objectively admired for becoming the first Western leader who wasn’t a man. But if the rather simplistic film is to be believed, she turned the bullying she experienced as a young, female MP on its head and simply bullied the men around her once in power. The more of her book I read, the more convinced I become that she was a megalomaniac, but one driven not by vanity, or revenge, but by pure dogma. Her hatred of socialism – or “statism”, “collectivism”, “federalism”, any  number of “ism”s – is in her bone marrow, and if she despises the men around her, it’s because they do not share her extremism, or are not prepared to see it through to fruition. She has no time for moderates, whatever their gender. She adored Denis, after all, and he was a man.

But hey, as Michael White said, it’s not a film about politics. It’s about an old lady looking back over her life – a life that just happened to involve selling off council houses and going to war in the South Atlantic and destroying the unions. I was deeply offended by the bit where her close friend and ally Airey Neave is killed by an INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) car bomb in 1979. Thatcher was, if I remember rightly from the book, in her Finchley constituency when she heard the news. In The Iron Lady, she is in the same underground car park at the Commons, the last person to speak to him before he drives off, and she is seen running up the ramp to where his car sits in flames, Hollywood style, not quite in slo-mo, but it may as well have been. It’s a disgrace to play with real events in this way; far more offensive than making a film about an old, demented lady before she’s dead, it uses the actual death of a man to make her life seem just that little bit more dramatic than it was. I’m surprised Morgan and Lloyd didn’t have Thatcher personally pulling Norman Tebbit’s wife from the wreckage in Brighton.

I think I understand Margaret Thatcher much better now than I did at the time, thanks to her book. (I was certainly too naive and ill-educated to understand her in 1979, when The Path To Power ends and The Downing Street Years begins.) This film, if anything, subtracts from that understanding. It recasts her as a fearful battleaxe and a quasi-feminist warrior, neither of which helps to explain why, under her Premiership, this country was transformed over 11 years into the I’m-all-right-Jack, shop-your-neighbour, free-market, property-obsessed, credit-addicted, money-motivated, privatised, sold-off-to-the-highest-bidder, de-unionised nation of on-our-bikes, aspirational, apparently middle class “entrepreneurs” in a society that we were told doesn’t exist, and where if you use still the bus after the age of 26 you should consider yourself a failure (a sentiment that she shared, even if it’s from a quote she never said). Every Prime Minister who’s succeeded her has been in thrall to her in some way. (Good lord, it was Gordon Brown who put forward the idea of a state funeral for her.) That kind of impact goes beyond party politics.

There is a film to be made about Margaret Thatcher, but it would have to be longer than 105 minutes. It took Thatcher two big books to complete her life story up to the mid-90s. These can no more be distilled into a single film than Hubris and Nemeis by Ian Kershaw, which only cover the life of a man who died aged 56. (This is why Downfall was so successful: it took place over ten days.)  Not that I’m comparing her to Hitler.

For a concise review of the film, here’s my Radio Times review.