On Margaret Thatcher

Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth at the Commonwealth Conference, Zambia, 1979.

Margaret Thatcher was a product of class. She came from a working-class background of shoemakers until her father “rose” through the merciless English class system to become a grocer. In England to be “a grocer’s daughter,” as she was often sneeringly called, means being lower-middle class. That is someone whose family has dedicated its energies to not being working class but is not yet middle class and certainly not aristocratic or owning class.

This engine of class anxiety powered Margaret Thatcher onto a trajectory that surprised the mostly posh Tory elite. While almost none of them voted her into power, they soon realized what they had. A combination of chance conditions had created a woman who fulfilled a number of needs crucial to revitalize a decaying and demoralized right wing. Importantly, she didn’t appear to care what anyone thought of her. This personal armor was necessary for her to have survived politically. If she “cared” that people assumed her too weak, hysterical, high-pitched, or generally female to be a politician, she couldn’t have opened her mouth.

This apparent imperviousness meant she was prepared to say in public what the Tory grandees said in private. This woman could front them up and they could appear moderate behind her. She could do the dirty work of the owning classes as she struggled to pass as one of them. At the same time she could use working-class credibility if she needed to, and therefore appear to support a culture of individual meritocracy. The cult of ownership reached its apotheosis in the selling off of “council” housing. To own is to exist. To rent is a sign of failure. The ethos of individual achievement led to the notoriety of her (out of context) quote, “There is no such thing as society.”

Her class anxiety, so manifest in the painful eradication of her Lincolnshire accent, led to a forced, fake elocution, a voice that grated or soothed depending on what you were listening for. The photographs of Margaret Thatcher meeting the Queen are telling: she looks like a photocopy of the monarch, but badly printed. The anxiety blurs the picture. The cracks show. Both are figureheads but only one is the real thing. Nevertheless she was Prime Minister. She had the top job. How did a woman achieve the feat of leadership of a party dominated by and serving the interests of owning-class men?

The policies she espoused suited their purpose better than they could have dreamed, but so did the personal style: a bossy, middle-aged woman, not too motherly, dedicated to a cause beyond her own personal life. These were men who for the most part as boys were wrenched from their homes and sent to boarding school. By and large the women who had raised them most intimately were nannies from “respectable” working-class backgrounds who put their charges’ needs ahead of their own families. At boarding school these women were replaced by matrons and housemistresses—disciplinarians, remote and authoritative, yet knowing the secrets and the vulnerabilities of their charges. Margaret Thatcher was perfectly cast in the role of ultimate incarnation of this succession of females in their lives, and that must be part of the explanation of her apparent power over the posh men in public life. But just as nannies could eventually be cast off at will, so could Margaret Thatcher if she stepped out of line, which she did in her third term.

It was her policies that incited rage in my friends and me, as young women growing up in the ’80s in the shadow of her power. Humiliating the miners, selling off the housing stock, making people get excited about owning shares in basic amenities such as gas and electricity by privatizing them, stirring up sentimental patriotism, starting the trend of vilification of the poor, damning the unemployed as “lazy”—one catastrophic change rolled out after another. In the name of “saving” Britain from decline it seemed to us that she was destroying it.

But I remember one day standing staring at a poster in a shop window. The poster was designed by a left-wing group and showed Margaret Thatcher hanging from a noose with the heading “Kill the Bitch.” This wasn’t unusual, and has been echoed in the days after her death by reports of people chanting “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” gleefully quoting the song from The Wizard of Oz. This has the appearance of innocent irony. But the eagerness to apply rhetoric and imagery akin to lynching and witch-burning—demonizing her as a woman and evoking ancient hatred of female power in any form, whether spiritual, medical, or political—was and is impossible to get enthusiastic about. Why this conflation of the person and her policies? Why was her conservatism perceived as evil rather than destructive, demonic rather than politically catastrophic?

It was in this confusing climate that I discovered it was possible to contain at least two attitudes simultaneously: on the one hand, revulsion toward and criticism of her ideas, the policies of greed, selfishness, brutal colonialism and militarism, and, on the other hand, a grudging admiration of her ability to gate-crash her way to power as a female, continuously enduring personal attacks—the endless references to her hair, her handbag, her voice, even the angle of her head.

Her bewilderment at the betrayal when it came from within her party—however hard she had worked, however little sleep she could endure, and even though she had lasted longer than any other Prime Minister in the 20th century—showed the shaky ground she had unknowingly stood on. She had stepped out of line and become “reckless”—in other words, was following her policies to their logical conclusion. The hated “poll tax” she introduced was shamelessly discriminatory against the poor and led to violent riots. Her blustery anti-European rants became embarrassing and her relationship with her always all-male cabinet was openly dictatorial. She was no longer an acceptable mouthpiece. She had to go.

Despite this political decapitation, it’s ironic and distressing that the right wing has produced a female leader, now spoken of respectfully, even reverentially, by its leaders, while the left limps toward gender equality in politics and launches its criticisms of Margaret Thatcher in a rhetoric borrowed from the Inquisition. But above all we are left with a cocktail of derision at class and female mobility, a trajectory in her case barely disguised by stiff hairspray and elocution lessons. It is telling that Margaret Thatcher’s presence could be evoked by Martin Amis on BBC TV’s Newsnight the day after her death as “a whiff of Chanel mixed with the occasional refreshing weep” and with a quote from Mitterrand, who said she had the mouth of Monroe but the eyes of Caligula. The female body must be punished, it seems, for transgressions from eternal second place, and the girl from the working classes must never be allowed to forget that her origins still show like lipstick on her teeth.

A funeral display of pomp, ceremony, and grief, planned as if for royalty, reeking of hypocrisy on the part of those that brought her down and deflecting from a far more serious reality, will prove as divisive in its effect as the policies she espoused. For her greatest legacy was to eviscerate the Labour party, deflate any meaningful opposition and make all subsequent British parliamentary politics a soup of sameness. The myth of solidity of the middle class took hold in the popular imagination and everyone became afraid to appear to be anything else. Freedom and rampant self-interest became fatally confused. Principle, conviction, and belief lost their currency as words that meant anything dependable. And the woman herself became myth: a collective fiction, an exception. The door to real female power closed resoundingly behind her.

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