Thatcher sanctification: The new Churchill?
Attempts to elevate Margaret Thatcher into a national hero are unlikely to succeed, writes Peter Manson
The April 17 funeral of Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly represented the beginning of a concerted attempt by the Conservative-dominated establishment to transform this hated figure into a national icon. For the Tories, and for an important part of the ruling class, Thatcher symbolises the triumph of British capital in seeing off both the “enemy within” in the shape of a powerful working class movement - in many ways New Labour can be seen as her greatest achievement - and the “enemy without” in the shape of the Soviet Union and low-level rivals like Argentina.
The myth they would like to cultivate is that the ‘iron lady’, in the words of David Cameron, “saved Britain” virtually single-handedly, through her unique foresight in envisaging a dominant ‘free market’ - ‘free’ of both meaningful union constraints and the interfering state - and thus helped secure and extend ‘freedom’ as a whole, for everyone. They would like the notion that Thatcher was Britain’s “greatest peacetime prime minister” to eventually become an established truth, taught in schools and accepted by every ‘right-minded’ person.
Of course, they are not so stupid as to think that the majority is now ready to embrace such a notion. There are just too many people still alive - most of all within staunchly working class communities - who truly despised Thatcher with a vengeance. That is why, in formal terms at least, her funeral was not a state occasion. After all, Thatcher was so modest and selfless that she herself had insisted upon that. But that had not stopped the state from taking charge of all its most important aspects in an enterprise code-named ‘Operation True Blue’, which was first devised under the previous Labour administration (whether that was originally a tongue-in-cheek title is not entirely clear).
So we had the mobilisation of hundreds of members of the armed forces, the union jack-draped coffin pulled through London past the patriotic thousands to - where else? - St Paul’s cathedral, scene of many a royal or state-sanctioned religious ceremony. This too was a royal occasion - for the first time since the death of Winston Churchill in 1965,0 the monarch attended the funeral of a former premier. Thatcher was even honoured by the flourishing of the official ‘mourning sword’, dating from the 16th century, by London mayor Roger Gifford - that too last saw the light of day at Churchill’s funeral.
Needless to say, both the BBC and particularly the Tory media played their part. While prior to the funeral the BBC had been slated for its ‘disrespectful’ news coverage - ie, it had allowed some critical voices to be heard among all the tributes - on the day itself it was a case of blanket coverage, with David Dimbleby, without whom no state occasion would be complete, providing the bland and soothing commentary accompanying the TV pictures.
For its part, the Tory media in many cases devoted as much space to the funeral as they did to Thatcher’s death. But there are only so many angles from which a ceremony can be covered, so we were treated to scores of full-page colour photographs to make up for the lack of meaningful comment.
To their shame, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took their places in the cathedral on the front row, reserved for the current and former prime ministers, but among the foreign dignitaries there was no-one from the present United States administration - the establishment had to make do with US political has-beens in the shape of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former vice-president Dick Cheney.
For all they might deny it, this was a diplomatic snub on the part of Obama. The US administration is not (yet) prepared to give its blessing to the sanctification of such a controversial and divisive figure. She was too closely associated with a certain brand of rightwing Republican thought - Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and the neoconservatives - to be embraced by the whole US establishment. In fact the £15 million Thatcher museum and library in Westminster, plans for which were announced last week, is to be modelled on the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California.
Obviously it would have been useful to have the US on board, but it is hardly the end of the world for the Tories that they were snubbed by Obama. The aim, after all, is to transform Margaret Thatcher from a Tory hero into a truly national hero - along the lines of Churchill, Wellington, Nelson, Elizabeth I and Boudicea. This “great British occasion” - epitomised perhaps by the tears of chancellor George Osborne - fittingly marked the passing of such a figure.
However, there are clearly problems with this iconisation project. The first I have already referred to - the uncomfortable little fact that Thatcher was despised by at least as many as those who loved her: opinion polls continue to show that this class divide cannot be wished away now that she is dead. It will take several further decades for that hero status to be achieved - if indeed it can ever be attained at all.
When it comes to overcoming such a class divide, Churchill could be acclaimed for his role on behalf of the ‘whole nation’ in the winning of a world war and the defeat of Hitlerite fascism - slightly more impressive that the recapturing of a couple of south Atlantic islands from a tinpot South American dictatorship. And even Churchill’s status as a war hero was not enough to see him elected at the head of a Tory government in 1945. It was not only the mass post-war desire and confident aspiration for a more equal and freer world that ruled out the election of Churchill and the party he headed: it was also the persisting collective memory of Churchill, the bitter and vicious anti-working class warrior.
As Liberal home secretary in 1910, it was Churchill who sent in troops against striking miners in the so-called ‘Tonypandy riot’. Over a decade later, as Conservative chancellor during the 1926 general strike, he was renowned for his ruthless abhorrence of working class militancy - “Either the country will break the general strike of the general strike will break the country”, said this enthusiastic editor of the strike-breaking British Gazette. He is said to have proposed the use of machine guns against miners on one occasion.
But Churchill’s hatred for working class organisation was not restricted to Britain. After 1917 he was amongst the most dedicated mobilisers against the Russian Revolution - Bolshevism had to be “strangled in its cradle” with the help of British armed intervention. He viewed Benito Mussolini as a bulwark against Bolshevism and on a visit to Rome in 1927 declared that the Italian fascist leader has “rendered a service to the whole world” in showing how to “combat subversive forces”.
He also shared several ideological traits with the German Nazis, not least his anti-Semitism and belief in eugenics. He participated in the drafting of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 and was most distraught when his preference for the sterilisation of the “feeble-minded“ was rejected in favour of their confinement in special institutions. That was the reality of this staunch opponent of fascism and British national hero.
Apart from the fact that Thatcher cannot be clearly associated with any outstanding national (as opposed to class) achievement, there is a second, more immediate problem for David Cameron in the iconisation project. It is all very well saying that “We are all Thatcherites now” - apparently “everyone now accepts” many of her arguments. But Cameron chose to create an image of himself that deliberately set out to define the new, ‘modern’ Tory in a way that she would have detested. It was not just his contrived attempt to portray the Conservatives as caring people who cherish the environment, but his commitment to formal homosexual equality, not least gay marriage.
It was during Thatcher’s third term that her administration was responsible for introducing the notorious section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” - in particular the “teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” was declared illegal. Just 25 years ago you could be prosecuted for even offering to school students the possibility that gay people should be treated as socially equal. This legislation was overwhelmingly supported by Conservative MPs and that too was part of Thatcher’s legacy.
Of course, the process of sanctification involves a lot of ‘cleansing’ - the downgrading or erosion from social memory of all kinds of negative aspects relating to the proposed icon. That was most certainly the case with Churchill. But there are limits to the degree to which one may pick and choose, and the speed with which one is able to do so. That is why Cameron does not sit easily as an inheritor of Thatcherism.
According to The Daily Telegraph, the “silent majority made itself heard” on April 17. The Tory establishment hopes to transform this wishful thinking into reality by elevating Thatcher into another Churchill. It is highly unlikely it will succeed any time soon.