21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Thatcher’s Legacies: Editor’s Introduction

Bianca Leggett

 

Even before her death, Margaret Thatcher was a figure who seemed to prompt visions of haunting and exorcism. She was a curse whose effects were still felt, a spirit who could possess politicians and direct their movements, a vampire, a mummy who kept insisting on returning: what she wasn’t, it seemed, was mortal. Wicked witch or not, it has become clear that it will take more than a judiciously thrown bucket of water to dispatch Thatcherism. Not so, it seems, Thatcher herself. The Iron Lady, we have discovered, was made of flesh and blood after all and we—her ‘children’ as many commentators put it—are left to make sense of her will. In this issue of Alluvium we play executors, scrutinising Thatcher’s legacy to see what has been left to us and what her representation in 21st century culture can tell us about ourselves. 

 

Dorothy's Shoes Banner

The Wicked Witch of the West? Even before her death Thatcher prompted visions of haunting and exorcism

[Image by themusticnetwork.com; used under fair dealings provisions]

 

The connotations of the Thatcher-as-mother trope are various. It is a potentially forgiving formulation in which we as Thatcher’s children are forced to acknowledge that, whatever her faults, Thatcher made us. Indeed the child’s perspective has become a popular one in recent fictional retrospectives on Thatcher in film and in fiction.[1] Responses to Thatcher and the Falkland’s War are central to both the tough twelve year old protagonist of cult film This is England (2006) and David Mitchell’s more sensitive, stammering thirteen year old in Black Swan Green (2006). Dysfunctional family life, politics and the privations of a poverty line existence are seen through the prism of a young boy’s attitude to Margaret Thatcher in Anthony Cartwright’s darkly satirical How I Killed Margaret Thatcher (2013) and Damian Barr’s biography Maggie and Me (2013). The child’s perspective potentially allows the narrator an ambivalent perspective in which the naïve focaliser’s admiration for the prime minister is thrown into ironic relief by the story of social injustice in which the child is blamelessly embedded. Damian Barr’s story is unusual, in that its tone tips from ambivalence into admiration in its concluding passage. Barr—who suffers the effects of the summary dismissal of his father from the steelworks, scant support from social services and the damage done by Clause 28—finds an unlikely sympathetic similarity between ‘Maggie’ and his young self: ‘ You were different, like me,’ he concludes, ‘and you had to fight to be yourself’ (Barr 256).

 

Falklands Media Covers

How do we read the Thatcher-as-mother trope? Thatcher's role in the Falkland's War is considered by novelists like David Mitchell and filmmakers like Shane Meadows 

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

 

Barr’s is one of a rich range of contemporary British narratives which draw on the Thatcherite era as a means to reflect upon the present. In ‘Thatcher in the 21st Century,’ Joseph Brooker takes a look at a range of different post-millennial responses to the 1980s, which encompass everything from ‘hatred’, to ‘pity’ to ‘admiration’. Brooker considers how the remembrance of Thatcher has been refracted through the prism of a present in which there is a sense that ‘Thatcher’s Britain was less Thatcherite than what followed it’. In his last interview, Iain Banks argued that ‘there was nothing symbolic about her [Thatcher’s] death, because her baleful influence on British politics remains undiminished’ (Banks). The sense in which the present is determined by the Thatcherite past is called into question in Christopher Vardy’s article ‘The Allure of the 1980s.’ Vardy notes that anti-Thatcherites and acolytes alike overwhelmingly represent the 1980s as a ‘stable point of origin for contemporary British culture,’ indeed for many of the authors on whom Vardy focuses the Thatcherite era has become a ‘dystopian origin-myth.’ As Vardy suggests, however, if Thatcher is contemporary Britain’s abusive mother, there is a risk of becoming blinkered in our fixation on blaming her for what we have become. Tony Venezia considers the problem of moving beyond Thatcher’s insistence that ‘There Is No Alternative’ in the 1980s to a present which can imagine a way beyond the straitened path we have found ourselves after Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’. In his chapter 'Utopia Loops, Ghost Legacies' Venezia considers the ‘hauntological’ work of artists whose aesthetic experiments and visions present a ‘technological utopianism of an aborted social democracy that Thatcherism derailed.’ 

As I have suggested, the notion of ghosts and haunting lends itself, not only to a vision of a past without Thatcher, but to the way we thought about Thatcher herself in the present. In the closing chapter to this special issue, 'Gordon Burn and Mrs T,' Rhona Gordon considers contemporary works which are haunted by Thatcher as ‘an absent presence’; in her prime as a hollow media construct, a less than human synecdoche made up of hairspray and handbag; in senescence, as an absence from the world of power and celebrity which defined her and finally, of course, in the looming presence of her death. 

 

Goose Green Memorial

Moving beyond Thatcher's legacy: we need to dismantle the persona of the Iron Lady and rehumanize Thatcher as a woman

[Image by John5199 under a CC BY license]

 

Visions of Thatcher as a frail old woman—more King Lear than Boadicea—open up new perspectives on the woman. The publication of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Thatcher’s early years, though always gallant, has caused some surprise in its willingness to expose weakness and banality in its subject. Andrew Rawnsley’s review observed that ‘The result is to paint a much more multidimensional portrait of Thatcher than the caricature heroine adored by the right or the devil incarnate loathed by the left’ (Rawnsley, n. pag.). Brooker observes that, ‘Fixation on Margaret Thatcher’s persona or image is not likely to yield much more political insight’. This may be so, but perhaps it is only by dismantling the persona that we can rehumanize Thatcher and, in so doing, finally lay her to rest. Only then can we begin imagining a present which, not only understands Thatcher’s legacy, but has found a way to move beyond it. 

 

CITATION: Bianca Leggett, "Thatcher's Legacies: Editor's Introduction," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 4 (2013) ("Thatcher's Legacies" Special Issue): n. pag. Web. 21 July 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.4.04.

 

Bianca Leggett is a researcher and Visiting Lecturer in the English and Humanities department at Birkbeck and in Media and Performing Arts at Middlesex University. She is working on a monograph based on her doctoral research entitled Englishness Elsewhere: English Identity in the Contemporary Travel Novel. 

 

 

Notes:


[1] For more on the theme of childhood and ‘retro-memory’ in contemporary novels of the 1980s, see Christopher Vardy, ‘Remembering the 1980s in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green’, eds. Bianca Leggett and Tony Venezia, Twenty-First Century British Fiction (Canterbury: Gylphi, forthcoming).

 

Works cited:

Banks, Iain.  Interviewed by Maev Kennedy and Stuart Kelly. 'Iain Banks: squeeze a Tory, Blairite or Lib Dem and Thatcherite pus oozes out' The Guardian, 14 June 2013 [accessed 08 July 2013]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/14/iain-banks-tory-thatcher-blair?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487.

Barr, Damian. Maggie & Me (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Dent, Grace. 'Comment: Thatcher's children we may be but these death parties are just childish,' The Independent10 April 2013 [accessed 08 July 2013]: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/grace-dent-thatchers-children-we-may-be-but-these-death-parties-are-just-childish-8567288.html.

Grice, Andrew. "Margaret Thatcher's ghost still sets agenda in divided Britain," The Independent, 19 April 2013 [accessed 08 July 2013]: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/margaret-thatchers-ghost-still-sets-agenda-in-divided-britain-8580917.html.

Mars-Jones, Adam. 'Review of Damian Barr's Maggie and Me,' The Guardian, 25 April [accessed 17 June 2013]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/25/maggie-me-damian-barr-review.

Rawnsley, Andrew. ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning by Charles Moore – review’. The Observer, 27 April 2013 [accessed 17 June 2013]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/apr/27/margaret-thatcher-charles-moore-review.

Vardy, Christopher. ‘Remembering the 1980s in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green’.  Eds. Bianca Leggett and Tony Venezia, Twenty-First Century British Fiction (Canterbury: Gylphi, forthcoming).

 

 

Please feel free to comment on this article.

7 comments

  1. Christopher Daley /

    Congratulations on a fascinating special issue, Bianca. I enjoyed all the articles.

    One article that I think is worth mentioning is Stuart Hall's "The Great Moving Right Show" Marxism Today, Jan 1979 (online: http://www.hegemonics.co.uk/docs/Great-Moving-Right-Show.pdf). This is a superb examination of the socio-economic conditions that Thatcher exploited and also works really well when set against the current move to the right in British politics. Hall's sub-section on economic crisis is especially important in understanding how Thatcherism developed as a response to economic problems that had their roots in the 1960s (See Hall, pp.15-16). When read against the economic crisis of today it is noticeable that Thatcher's economic legacy becomes one of successfully deferring economic crisis (through property booms, North Sea oil, the sale of national assets etc) rather than offering resolutions. The consequences of that deferral was the re-emergence of economic crisis in 2008 and now we see another right wing government seeking a similar deferral through another property boom and shale gas expansion.      

    • Bianca Leggett /

      Thanks for that Chris–I hadn't come across this Stuart Hall article before.  Deeper context seems to me to be important if we are to get past the cult of personality and begin to understand better the conditions in which Thatcherism, both more chaotic and opportunistic than it is sometimes portrayed, flourished.  So, Stuart Hall seems to have been pretty on the money in 1979, which commentator do you think has got the most astute outlook on where we're headed in 2013?

  2. Christopher Daley /

    I think Hall's assessment is still spot on for assessing the socio-economic conditions we find ourselves in today (there are so many striking similarities between 1979 and 2013 that can be drawn from that essay). In terms of academic works that deal with literature and economics I was wondering if you have looked at Nicky Marsh's book Money, Speculation and Finance in Contemporary British Fiction (http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/money-speculation-and-finance-in-contemporary-british-fiction-9781441105288/)? I haven't had a chance to read it yet but it seems very relevant.

  3. Thanks for the recommendations Chris! I've just looked up Nick Marsh's Money, Speculation and Finance in Contemporary British Fiction and discovered – in the chapter on Thatcher, Gender and the State – a section examining Fay Weldon's Darcy's Utopia, which is a novel I've been meaning to read for a while and about which I've seen very little published in terms of critical literature. We taught John Lanchester's Capital last year at Lincoln on our MA in 21st Century Literature – I'm wondering if there's enough material here for an entire contemporary literature course on "Reading the Money Economy"?

    • Christopher Daley /

      'I'm wondering if there's enough material here for an entire contemporary literature course on "Reading the Money Economy"?'

      Absolutely! That could make for a fantastic interdisciplinary module. There is a tendency, I think, for literary scholars to shy away from thinking about economics beyond rather general references to neo-liberalism and Keynesianism. A module that went beyond this would be excellent.

      • Christopher Vardy /

        Really interesting discussion! I completely agree re. Hall – that piece is still the best way in to thinking about what a contradictory but ideologically potent project Thatcherism was, and his book 'The Hard Road to Renewal' (1988) expands many of these insights with almost a decade's hindsight. It's still so relevant. Contemporary historical analyses of the 80s are patchy, but 'Making Thatcher's Britain', Jackson and Saunders (eds.) (2012) and E.H.H. Green's 'Thatcher' (2005) are interesting in placing Thatcherism in a wider historical and economic context. 

        You're also completely right that we need to engage more closely with economics (and historical research) when we talk about the recent past, although it can be difficult to know how to orient yourself in a field that's quite alien. 

        There's a lot of interesting theatre that engages with economics at the level of form: from Caryl Churchill’s 'Serious Money' (1987) to twenty-first-century texts like 'Love and Money' by Dennis Kelly (2007) and Lucy Pebble’s 'Enron' (2009). Perfect for the MA course…

  4. Gasp, apologies… NickY Marsh!

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