Peter Kennard: From Maggie Regina to Blue Murder

After Thatcher, political artists need to look harder.

In early 1983, the former Labour MP Brian Walden interviewed Margaret Thatcher live from 10 Downing Street. The interview began at noon. The prime minister restated her belief that individuals had grown too dependent on the state, and that strikes were really nothing more than a selfish howl for a greater share. Walden quickly interjected, suggesting there was nothing particularly new about her ideas. “They have a resonance of our past,” he said. “You’ve really outlined an approval of what I would call Victorian values.”

This appeared, unexpectedly, to please the prime minister. “Exactly,” she half-whispered to Walden, whom she had already named publically as her favourite interviewer. “Very much so.”

Perhaps one of the best known images to come out of Margaret Thatcher’s assertion, and continued reassertion, of what she believed to be “Victorian values” was Peter Kennard’s Maggie Regina. The montage was originally designed for the front cover of the New Statesman in May 1983, but is now owned by the Tate collection and is exhibited regularly. The magazine assembled a pull-out supplement in which university historians wrote to explode Thatcherite conceptions of liberal purity, which they argued were mistakenly attributed to the Victorian era, just as the Victorians had attributed them to the Middle Ages in their own day.

“She wasn’t a PR construction like Cameron is,” says Kennard, now Senior Tutor in photography at the Royal College of Art. “She was direct – we had to attack her directly as well.” Kennard’s latest exhibition, “Blue Murder”, devised in collaboration with Cat Phillipps, aims to break through the thicker sheen of modern politicians, working with the “flat screen desert” of David Cameron’s face.

The work is purposefully modest - old newspapers, ink, charcoal – and designed so as to be easily transported and hung outdoors or in unconventional spaces. The message is not. A series of symbols explode through Cameron’s profile: cash, stock listings, riots and adverts for Rolex watches. Their main point of contention is the dismantling of the welfare state. “He’s a PR man,” says Phillipps. “His face is just a surface. We want to rip it apart and try to reveal some of the shit that they’re doing.”

Today a ten-day exhibition featuring Kennard’s Maggie Regina and a selection of artist’s responses to Margaret Thatcher over the years opened at London’s Gallery Different. “If people can see images which support what they feel then it helps them,” Kennard explains. Where the late prime minister provided plenty of material to work with, the coalition government is an altogether more opaque, more corporate and controlled operation. This is what lies at the heart of the new work: again, artists must puncture the veneer in order to expose the false assumptions upon which those in power act. “We need to look harder now,” he says.

Blue Murder opens at the Hang-Up Gallery, 56 Stoke Newington High Street, on 27 April.

Images courtesy of Peter Kennard/kennardphillipps.

"Maggie Regina" and "Blue Murder" contrasted. Copyright: kennardphillipps.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times