Thatcher’s legacy, baby-faced dictators and funny women

Helen Lewis-Hasteley on Maggie and legacy-building, tots with lethal toys and the press and the publ

Amid a sea of tributes to Christopher Hitchens - including the invention of a genre of journalism, the "then I woke up with a terrible hangover, while the Hitch had already filed a 3,500-word essay on G K Chesterton" article - there was one that stood out.

It was by Salon's Glenn Greenwald, and it used Hitchens's death to ask: when is the appropriate moment to question the career and legacy of divisive public figures?

Noting how the Hitch had been one of the few to speak ill of Ronald Reagan during a fiesta of Republican-patrolled grief in 2004, Greenwald wrote: "To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems - enforced by misguided . . . notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts - is not a matter of politeness; it's deceitful and propagandistic."

It's a question that left-wingers must ask themselves about Margaret Thatcher, who will apparently be awarded a state funeral when the time comes. There will be huge pressure not to criticise her actions - and point out their effects today - in the days after her death. Show some respect. Think of her family.

It's a tempting argument, but wrong. Politicians are public property. They must submit to being pilloried by cartoonists and columnists in office and having their legacy fought over once they step off the stage. Their death should not be a signal for immediate canonisation but one for unblinkered reflection on their life.

I was only seven when Thatcher left power so I don't have any visceral feelings about her (although the mere mention of her name is enough to send my mother, a woman so mild-mannered she uses "Bugs Bunny" as a swear word, up the wall; I suspect my coal-miner grandfather would have a few choice words, too). And if I'm honest, if she were a left-winger, I'd probably argue she deserves a state funeral as our first female prime minister. So I can't get worked up about that: let the right give her a state funeral, as long as the left doesn't have to pretend to be sad that she's gone.

Bah, humble

A scan of the words that entered the dictionaries gives you a flavour of 2011: Merriam-Webster has "bromance", while Collins has "clicktivism" and "unfollow". As portmanteaux are all the rage, here's my nomination for next year: humblebrag, or boasting under the cover of humility. The Humblebrag Twitter account is full of US reality stars saying, "SOOOO weird to see my ugly face on a billboard LOL," and thespians sighing, "Damn, the last time I cried I was paid for it." My favourite is this, from Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz: "Just involved in a major car accident . . . In my own driveway . . . Involving two of my own cars." Tiny violin time.

Young guns

When I heard that North Korea was to be ruled by the 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, my first thought was: great, there's a leader of a nuclear power who's younger than me. More ammunition for my mother this Christmas. Over in Pakistan, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto is co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party with his father, President Asif Ali Zardari. His birthday is 21 September 1988 (1988! Surely only actors in Skins were born in 1988!). As the sun sets on my twenties, I've had to get used to pop stars and footballers, then novelists and TV presenters, being younger than me. Next on the list, it seems, are the people with access to weapons of mass destruction.

Private lives, public deaths

A few years ago, an acquaintance committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a restaurant in the City. This spectacular exit ensured that his death was reported in every national newspaper - making what was already an agonising time for his family and friends even harder, as reporters sniffed around for any hint of sex or drugs or dodgy dealings to explain why a talented young man would choose to end his life. On 27 November, another man with seemingly everything to live for - the football manager Gary Speed - was found dead at his home.

Aside from a long-lens picture of his house printed on the Mail website, I had thought the media were showing commendable restraint in their reporting. Then, two days before Christmas, the Times ran an extraordinary editorial (which, even more extraordinarily, was re­printed in full in the next day's Daily Mail) arguing that the Leveson inquiry into press standards was inhibiting the tabloids from fully exploring the circumstances of his death. "Mr Speed was a person of power and influence . . . Suicide is, or at least should be, a matter of public concern. And, since his death, the internet has lit up with unsubstantiated rumours."

To which the rejoinder must be: we have coroners' courts for a reason; by and large, they do the job of investigating causes of death a lot more carefully and soberly than newspapers. And if the Times believes this to be a matter of such burning public interest, why should it be left to the tabloids to investigate it?

A woman's wit

Last year, I wrote about the paucity of funny women on TV. Three bits of good news: the first is that Sarah Millican's latest DVD, Chatterbox, has sold 150,000 copies - a record for a female comedian. The second is that the BBC devoted 90 minutes to a Victoria Wood retrospective in a prime Boxing Day time slot.

The last is the continuing success of the columnist Caitlin Moran, whose autobiography, How To Be a Woman, was the book I referred to most in conversation this year. For the first time I can remember, here was not just a funny woman but a funny mother. Mums are many things in popular culture - organised, put-upon, loving, harassed, nagging - but I can't recall one being hilarious before. Things are looking up.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide