Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Maggie T – Jack Bauer of the 80s?

 "If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to 
compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing."

I know, I know. I'm supposed to despise her. All the trendy people do. Any time you write about Margaret Thatcher you're obliged to use the sentence "love her or loathe her" at some point, because you have to acknowledge how many people absolutely hate her guts.The trouble is, I can't help liking someone who just doesn't give a damn.

This ruthlessness is often misinterpreted; her famous "There is no such thing as society" quote is part of a longer speech with which most of us can agree: 

"I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the government's job to cope with it!" or "i have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour, and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations."

Contrary to popular belief, every story that has emerged from her private life appears to show a  kind and well-mannered lady. She just didn't care what anyone else thought of her. How very liberating (and unlike a politician). It makes a change from the current crop; the Milibands look like the nerdy guys in your class that everyone hates without really knowing why, and the best description of David Cameron is one I overheard; "He looks like a cartoon goose who's been magicked into a person."

Playing devil's advocate, it's always funny to ask an ardent Thatcherite why they hate her so much. The phrase "Milk snatcher" usually comes up, although this is possibly the most childish reason I've ever heard for not liking a politician. (Worse even than saying they look like a goose.) Oh, boo hoo. Did she take your milk away? If cutting free milk costs to re-use the money elsewhere is the worst thing that a Prime Minister does, she's not doing too badly. (Plus, I remember the warm, probably-bacteria-ridden-because-it-had-been-sitting-in-a-classroom-all-morning milk we had in the late 80s (which we paid for, presumably). She was doing us a favour).

You could say she had a healthy self image.

I don't have the time, inclination, or knowledge to go into too much detail regarding the coal mines. However, I will point out that while Maggie is often criticised for "ruining coal miner's lives", Harold Wilson actually closed down more mines than she did. For some reason, when a male, Labour politician decided upon this action, it was because the coal industry was already struggling and it was the best resolution he could find. When Thatcher did it, it was suddenly a personal vendetta against hard-working Northerners.

It's also worth noting that Labour could have re-opened the mines later if they had felt strongly; however, by the 1990s we were all about green issues and fossil fuel was no longer de rigueur. Interestingly, Maggie was ahead of her time regarding the environment; perhaps because of her scientific background. In 1988 and '89, she called for action regarding pollution and climate change, her contribution giving the issues the political respect they deserved after years of being considered tree-hugging hippy nonsense.

Maggie T is often lambasted for being "pro-apartheid", but is that true? She once called the African National Congress (ANC) "terrorists," although the context softens the blow: a journalist asked for her response to the ANC's threats to target British companies in South Africa, and she retorted that such threats showed "what a typical terrorist organisation it is". Her words are more understandable when you think about what they meant by "targeting".

Ambassador to South Africa Robin Renwick says in his book A Journey with Margaret Thatcher that "She reacted with genuine indignation to any imputation of racism. She regarded apartheid as an alien doctrine contrary to basic laws of justice and incompatible with her meritocratic vision of society, irrespective of race or creed.... In Commonwealth meetings, she regarded those who accused her of preferring British jobs to black lives as hypocrites, given their own records on human rights and dependence on trade with South Africa."

"You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and   
 the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it." Gustave Flaubert    

Thatcher was instrumental in freeing Nelson Mandela from his long prison sentence, and South African politician Pik Botha pointed out that she "did more to help South Africa to get rid of apartheid" than any other foreign leader in her time. (I also like the story about her visit with Mugabe (whom she detested): when a mock attack was staged and everyone else threw themselves down, she didn't even blink.)

The Iron Lady was also at the centre of controversy in 1981 when IRA prisoners protested because they were not being given special status as prisoners of war (they demanded the right to avoid doing prison work and wearing uniform). When their requests were ignored, they went on hunger strike and ten men died. Maggie's response was succinct: "The people who had been killed by the Provisional IRA had had no choice. The hunger strikers had a choice.” 

No matter what your political affiliation, it's hard not to admire someone who says "go ahead punks, make my day," when faced with blackmail. (Case in point: Louise Mensch, a daughter of Thatcher if ever there was one. When she was threatened with the exposure of her youthful drug taking, she publicised the email and assured the writer that she would not be put off from questioning the extent of "hacking as journalism").

 Why can't blackmail victims in movies deal with it  
 like Louise Mensch does? It's so satisfying.

When Dirty Harry or Jack Bauer are tough on criminals, pistol-whipping them or shooting off the odd kneecap, everyone cheers them on. When Maggie T took a similar take-no-prisoners attitude, she was criticised for being "unsympathetic". You have to wonder if at least part of the vitriol directed at her (then and now) is because of her gender. To this day she is the only woman to win the PM role; she entered a male-dominated field and soundly whooped all their arses. (You don't need balls when you've got ovaries.) She didn't play the "woman in a man's world" card, she just got on with it. When there were reports of a "rift" between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace ("Ooooh, catfight!") Thatcher noted that "stories of clashes between 'two powerful women' were just too good not to make up." 

It's often said that she "didn't do anything for women" and she herself said that she wasn't a feminist. (Oddly, nobody yells at Katy Perry or Taylor Swift for expressing the same sentiments.) It's hard to imagine the same level of hatred being shown to ANY man (possibly barring George Bush) although plenty have done their bit to denigrate the quality of life for many. Shall we make a date, then, to dance on Tony Blair's grave? Let's figure out which track we'll get to number one when David Cameron pops his clogs, too.

The Daily Mail's terrible writing brightens the news of a certain songs's chart sucess; one article began: "Ding dong! The Witch is Dead was written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and sung by Judy Garland, who played Dorothy, the Munchkins and Glinda the good witch." What a horribly mangled and untrue sentence (Judy didn't sing on the song at all, and she certainly didn't play ALL those parts....). Sadly, this has now been edited it to: "sung by Judy Garland, who played Dorothy, the Munchkins and Glinda the Good Witch, played by Billie Burke." (It's still not quite right, is it?)

Along with the "Ding dong" song in the race to the top of the charts, we have the option to buy a punk song called "I'm in love with Margaret Thatcher." Ardent Maggie T admirer Louise Mensch has been drumming up support on Twitter, pointing out the inherent comic effect of making BBC reporters read it out. A punk song might take us back to the heady days of the 80s, but surely there are some non-sarcastic choices for a "Hope not hate" song. Je ne regrette rien, for instance. Titanium? True Blue? Aint no grave? Hell on heels?

I heard that her last words were "F*** the Haters!" Surely not?!

It's easy to find fault with Thatcher, but a deeper look at her career yields more interesting results than listening to teenagers who have learned to hate her, or people who blame her for everything that's wrong with their lives. (My favourite quote: "I haven't had a job for twenty years because of her.")

A little-publicised aspect of Thatcher is her views on Tibet; she was the only leader who actually stood up to the Chinese government and told them they had no right to be there. In her 2003 book Statecraft she writes: "The Chinese now appear to have resolved upon a programme of 'modernisation' that involves shifting the ethnic balance in favour of Han Chinese and away from Tibetans, as a final solution to the continuing resistance. I hope that they do not succeed. Some 2700 Tibetan monasteries have already been destroyed since the communists marched in fifty years ago. The systematic extinction of a nation and its culture is unpardonable. But, the fact is that the West has no fundamental security interests in Tibet. This limits what we can do – though not, of course, what we should say in every international forum."

She's certainly a lady of contrasts, and as well as dividing opinions in 1985, 2013, and probably 2100, she is one of the few who have single-handedly changed the world.

Will we see her like again? Some are already proposing her granddaughter as the next steel-willed lady with leadership skills. 

I kind of hate the fact that you can say "She was the Pippa 
of the funeral!" and everybody knows what you mean.

As for the "blah blah I'll be dancing on her grave" boasts, knock yourself out; I will still snort with derision. The oddest thing about these celebrations is that they're happening when an 87-old-woman has died. Surely the time to celebrate would have been 1990, when she was politically assassinated and forced to leave Downing street. Ridiculing an elderly lady who had dementia seems a little bit like taunting a ferocious dog, but making sure he's securely tied up first. It's not exactly a noble or courageous act. 

Perhaps the strength of feeling is due to the belief that she is an almost omnipresent power she is still being held responsible for any and every downside to our lives today. Apparently her influence is still stronger than any measure the government could have taken in the 23 years since she left office. Pretty good going, Lady T!

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