Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: dressed up like a million-dollar trouper

In news terms, there are two varieties of clear-all-the-decks death: those that come out of a blue sky, the most memorable in my lifetime being those of John Lennon and Princess Diana (9/11 was a whole different kettle of mortality and the death of Osama bin Laden was as much a footnote to an unpublished Baudrillard essay as a real demise), and those where all the preparations have been made and all the hacks need to do is to cut the second date into the gravestone and check that none of those making pre-recorded tributes have themselves died in the intervening months or years. These would include the Queen Mother, Jade Goody and, yesterday, Margaret Thatcher.

It’s not only the coverage and tributes that had been well rehearsed for Thatcher’s farewell, of course. Those of us who weren’t, in her phrase, “one of us” (were we “one of them”, like derided homosexuals in a 1970s sitcom?) have been thrashing over our feelings about her for more than 30 years. Her defenestration by her colleagues in 1990 provided a dress rehearsal and as her health declined in the past few years there’s been much debate on the left about how to respond to her death. I’ve always believed that since she thrived on the animosity of her opponents, whether they were Tory wets or hardline trades unionists, Irish terrorists or Argentine sabre-rattlers, any overt celebration over her passing would only serve to feed her legacy. I appreciate the sincerity of those who met to tramp the dirt down in Brixton and Glasgow but I wouldn’t have joined them even if I’d been in the vicinity. In the event, I felt pretty neutral over the bare fact that an 87-year-old woman had suffered a fatal stroke; what did seize me was a feeling of nostalgia, coloured by the fact that her time as prime minister coincided with almost the entirety of my secondary and higher education. I wasn’t mourning her, I was mourning my own past, my own youth. Well, she turned British society onto the virtues of selfishness, so it was only appropriate that her death should make me think about myself.

There was one odd aspect to her death, though, that only trickled out from between the eulogies and the grief-stricken Cher fans. Apparently, she had moved into a suite at the Ritz in December and that’s where she died. Apart from offering a weird sort of equivalence with Diana, whose last night among the living was spent at the Paris Ritz, it does suggest that her spin doctors had taken a day off. She was never a soundbite politician in the mould of Blair or Cameron, but advisors such as Tim Bell (who made the announcement of her death) had instructed her in the art of image management. To be spending her sad final months in such opulent, five-star surroundings, the property of the publicity-shy, tax-averse Barclay twins – who also own the fervently Thatcherite Telegraph newspapers – while so many of her compatriots are struggling to stay afloat, rather reinforces the notion that hers was a government by and for the rich; that she was, in Denis Healey’s phrase,La Pasionara of middle-class privilege”. I don’t, incidentally, buy the notion that hers was a tale of a meritocratic rise through the ranks of society. Her background was that of the provincial petit-bourgeoisie, undoubtedly low-rent by the standards of the Tory grandees of the 1950s but probably a notch up from that enjoyed by her predecessor as party leader, Edward Heath; and her smartest business move was to marry a millionaire. Death comes to us all, sure; but the specific location of her death reminds us that, whatever her grisly catamites may bleat, we’re not in this together, not even close.


Anonymous said...

What a sad bitter piece! Wbolly inappropriate on the death of one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century. The writer should consider what a dreadful state the country was in before Lady Thatcher came to power.

Pearl said...

I did not find this wbolly inappropriate. From what I know of her, it seems on the money...

So to speak.

The day Ronald Reagan died -- a leader I thought I disliked until Bush the Younger taught me what dislike really is -- our CEO tearfully informed us at work that we could take the rest of the day off. While the executives put on sorrowful faces, the rest of the company ran, grinning from their desks...


Martin said...

Well said, Tim. I half expected to feel a twinge of anger yesterday, but Mrs T's passing merely raised that little feeling of discord that arises when an anonymous neighbour puts his house up for sale.

Anonymous said...

It's odd but whenever someone famous dies I kind of feel caught out because I just don't seem to have the same strength of reaction as everyone else.
But then I wonder if everyone else really feels the way they pretend.
It's depressing to think that not only will the journalists and tv presenters have worked out long ago how they were going to react to this event, but so have her former colleagues. There's nothing spontaneous or even honest about any of it.

dinahmow said...

I'd have liked Anonymous #1 to sign his/her name.If out of respect for a woman he/she clearly venerated if nothing else.

In 1979 , when she won the election, I really did believe she might try to mend the broken pieces. But she simply went about breaking as much more as she could.

And chose to die at the Ritz.Selfish to the end.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Like many, I'm having mixed reactions to this, not helped by the fact that I live abroad and so don't know what her legacy actually is, curently. I can't help wondering what her last words were, though: did she say "I am become death", in the manner that she once said 'We have become a grandmother'; or perhaps "Capitalism, downfall", apparantly Christopher Hitchens last words; but I have to hope that they, and her legacy, give us something more positive.

Anonymous said...

Chose to die at the Ritz? If her dementia was as bad as some parts of the media suggest, I doubt she was involved in the choice.

Tim F said...

Anon 1: Don't be such a jessie. She liked a good scrap and she relished the invective she attracted; to her, it proved she was doing the right thing. If news of her death had been greeted with bland shrugs, would you have preferred that?

True, Pearl. Churchill was not universally adored, but he represented a time when the nation pulled together in a great and vital cause, so even those who disagreed with many of his policies were genuinely moved at his death. He was us. Thatcher (and Reagan) presided over a time when the precise opposite happened. They continue to divide from beyond the grave.

Good analogy, Martin. Her death has resurrected some of the old arguments, but it hasn't really brought any new ones to the table.

Anon 2: Indeed, it's just protocol. I know it's a variant on Godwin's Law to compare this to the compulsory tears when a North Korean leader dies, but there's a real feeling of just going through the motions. Cf Diana, which was weird and mawkish and (to me) incomprehensible but at least the punters were doing it because they felt it, not because it was in the script.

I think Section 28 and the Poll Tax were the signs that she'd started believing her own PR, Dinah.

Gadjo: She probably misquoted a Saint.

Anon 3: Apparently she was reading when she suffered her final stroke, so I guess her dementia was intermittent at worst. She may well not have chosen to stay at the Ritz; but I still maintain it was a dumb PR move by Bell, et al.