With Britain’s declaration of war on Germany 100 years ago this week the old ‘ornamentalist’ order (David Cannadine) began to self-destruct. A year earlier in 1913, George Butterworth, grainily recorded here reviving folk dances, had composed his melodious ‘idyll’, the Banks of Green Willow, as if a soundtrack to the last spring of old England. The Somme took Butterworth and a large part of his generation, in the first movement of the protracted catastrophe of the ensuing decades. In the broadcasts marking the painful centenary of this sleepwalk [link] to cataclysm, a younger Winston Churchill – familiar emblematic scowl but still a wisp or two of hair – figures in the margins. Churchill was already a hyperactive presence, and remained so throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Thatcher is compared to Churchill by her posthumous army of sycophants, but this is a tenuous analogy. She was aberrant. He by contrast was always one of the chaps, albeit an eccentric one lacking the patrician smoothness of Chamberlain, whom he supplanted as prime minister, and of Eden, who eventually supplanted him. Thatcher was weird, an outlier; acutely conscious of her sex and at pains to pronouce upon the lessons of her modest upbringing, yet barely ever mentioning her mother, or her older sister. Her forthright manner was, in part, (Hugo Young) ‘an act, put on to convince herself and others that she really was the boss, and a cover for deeper apprehensions’, where every policy decision was a ‘virility test’, a cover for her lack of self-confidence and political strategy.
The polarised reaction to Thatcher’s death last year was contrived and nauseating at both extremes, from the uncouth baiting from her demonisers, to the pre-fabricated paeans on the Tory benches and their newspapers. Many of the former weren’t even born when she was evicted from No.10. Many of the latter were the agents of her downfall.
Years ago I would certainly have joined in the crowing, but growing up in the petit bourgeois end of Croydon, far removed from the harrowing of the north and of industry occasioned by the Thatcher governments’ policies, I had less immediate cause to despise her. I think I understand her better now. After she died I watched the footage of her speech at the College of Europe in Bruges and of the ‘no, no, no’ debate after the European summit in Rome, perhaps her most Pyrrhic triumph (it set in motion the inexorable train of events from Geoffrey Howe’s resignation to eventually her own). In neither of these iconic performances does she appear shrill or rabid; on the contrary she exercises her complete control with grace and wit. Hugo Young said she was as if uncaged.
And that voice. Trained such that it became half way between the average pitch of a male and female voice, she (in the words of the late novelist Angela Carter) ‘coos like a dove, hisses like a serpent, bays like a hound… a form of “toff speak” now reminiscent not of real toffs but of Wodehouse aunts’. Iain Sinclair said that, post-Grantham she’d lost her essential self through her manufactured voice coaching. He likened her to the robot warrior Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
She was successful, with her party political opponents in fragmented disarray, so long as she agreed to be malleable. She would quietly backtrack if she met serious obstacles in her way, like in 1985 when she made a seemingly principled stance against retaliatory strikes and ‘crossing borders’ in general, before acquiescing to Reagan’s use of UK air bases to bomb Libya. Alan Clark in his diaries admiringly and repeatedly reflected, La donna è mobile. She unwisely jettisoned such artfulness in the late 1980s.
Young again: ‘Between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives were led for the quarter-century from the mid-1960s by people with tin ears and negligible capacities for inspiring any but audiences of the already converted.’ The Tories needed her, they dumped her, and now her political offspring fawn over her mythology. In many ways she was a poor leader. In later years she proved unable to harness the other impressive politicians around her, who were always men – she only ever admitted one other woman to her cabinet. She drove Scotland away from conservatism for a least a generation. Even in her devastating 1987 victory her party only persuaded 32% of those eligible to vote for her. At the end of her premiership, a poll found 54% preferred an emphasis on collective welfare over individual self-help, 59% preferred keeping people in unprofitable work over sacking them in the name of profit and efficiency, and 43% were in favour of a federal Europe compared to 31% against. Thatcher herself told her ambassador to the EU ‘we have to be in to win’ (as well as instructing him to ‘find out what the children are doing and stop it.’) Her self-styled acolytes today are incapable of mustering any such brass-balled determination.
Alan Bennett unsurprisingly had no time for her. A ‘mirthless bully… shut off from humanity’. That’s too harsh for me. She was a proud, flawed, abrasive, vulnerable woman set up for a time to rule in an otherwise male-dominated world, her unyielding public poise finally giving way with that teary glance through the car window as her car pulled away from Downing Street. She resembles the sacred king/ solar deity described by Frazer in the Golden Bough, installed in spring, reigning in summer and sacrificed at harvest tide. (The ugly smear machine that was activated shortly after Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation this week shows that the instinct of the male Tory establishment is still to revile women in authority, all the more so if she isn’t white.)
Overall, these receding scenes of lived history recall my adolescence, and in particular the silent corridors of the posh school where I briefly flunked and floundered, its ochre hues and oak panelling, the aloof masters in a permanent state of mild amusement or supercilious disdain, and outdoors an eternal cascading autumn. Thatcher was one of two arrogant, blond and excessively-coiffed matriarchs, whose intimidating and unchallengeable presence loomed over childhood, the other being my grandmother.
Soon after that fleeting betrayal of her mortality, Thatcher put her mask back in place. She resumed, like grandmother, a stately descent into loneliness, insanity and fable.