Posted on April 9th, 2013
Yesterday, Margaret Thatcher died... It was long expected, and the obituaries had largely already been written. This one wasn't.
In history's eye, Margaret Thatcher is the dominant figure of Britain's 1980's. This was the decade I grew up in and it was the formative political experience of my lifetime. Much of my politics is rooted in how it sits within my gut. But in this piece I'm not going to address the moral implications of her government's policies, or the social changes that took place over the course of the era, one individual does not make history alone. I wish instead to talk about her manner of politics, because that was pure Margaret Thatcher and no-one else.
She possessed a key political talent, and it was noticed and supported by her allies in the press (in particular Rupert Murdoch)... Through a combination of how she projected her personality and subtly divisive policy decisions, she was capable of provoking her political opponents and their supporters into fits of foaming incoherent fury. They would become little more than caricatures, and throughout the resulting onslaught she managed to maintain an austere and composed manner. She would then sit down, dignity intact, and continue to be the one with all the power. This trick only works when you're the incumbent, and in my lifetime the only politician I've seen with a comparable skill for making their opponents implode was George W Bush.
In Thatcher's case her adversaries would then be ruthlessly presented to the people as caricatures by her press friends. With incumbency and a plurality-based political system, she could exploit this portrayal in the seats both sides needed to win to ensure victory come election time (comparable to Ohio or Florida in a US presidential contest, and in Britain this was largely the suburbs of Southern England). She would enrage opponents who weren't empathic figures to the locals in these key marginals, and the opposing tribes' resulting unpalatability would allow her to sail home in election after election. She only ever had minority support, but it was the right minority, and in a country without term-limits it looked like she could do this indefinitely. Margaret was blessed with political opponents who were keen, even enthusiastic, to smash themselves against the rock of her implacability. Let's list a few of the opponents who left themselves strewn like roadkill behind her Ford Sierra.
- The Provisional IRA
- The National Union Of Mineworkers
- The National Union of Teachers
- The Argentinian Junta
- Saddam Hussain of Iraq
- The Militant Tendency of the Labour Party
- The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
- The Greater London Council
Or some individuals who are indelibly linked to the tribal wars of the 1980s: Arthur Scargill, Dennis Skinner, General Galtieri, Bobby Sands, Ben Elton, Ken Loach, Steve Bell.
There is a fine line between victim-blaming and identifying her talent for making her opponents auto-caricature, and so I'll acknowledge that in areas where she had little political investment her policy of provocation often moved into outright social devastation. From these tactical considerations came an entire approach to policy that was instinctively against inclusion or compassion. The Provisional IRA in particular were ruthlessly painted into a corner until they bit-back and from then on could be presented as demon-figures. But acknowledging the damage done doesn't mean I can't see the success of her divisive political strategy. Her opponents were half-crazed by the torment she inflicted on them.
Her greatest moment for the application of this technique was the aftermath of the Brighton Bombing. The Provisional IRA had just tried to assasinate her, and the entire government, by detonating a bomb beneath the hotel hosting the Conservative Party Conference. She immediately convened the conference, and spoke:
"The fact that we are gathered here now — shocked, but composed and determined — is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail."
For me, I cringe when I remember the self-defeating demonstrations and intellectually incoherent speeches of her opponents that drove them further and further away from the people they needed to win-over to end their torment. By the mid-80s, when I began to be aware, the battle-lines had hardened irrevocably and the anti-Thatcherites seemed incapable of perceiving how their tribe came across to the other side. I will, till the day I die, loath political tribalism of all stripes and plurality-based democracy. The only way to win the support of a whole country is to learn to see yourself through the eyes of everyone in it. In death, listening today to the frothing vitriol of her opponents, it appears she has used her key talent to benefit her political tribe one last time.
"Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out" - a popular chant during the countless demonstrations of the era, from the Poll Tax to Nuclear Disarmament..