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Laurie Penny: What Margaret Thatcher means to my generation

We are living in the shadow not of Thatcher herself, but of Thatcher the icon.

Why do young liberals hate Margaret Thatcher? It's a fair question, given that many of us, myself included, were still potty-training when she left Downing Street 20 years ago. We weren't on those picket lines. We weren't in those riots. We weren't even old enough to understand why our parents had lost their jobs. So why the drunken half-jokes about dancing on her grave? Why, after two decades, is it still so personal?

It could hardly be anything else. Today's young people are living in the shadow not of Thatcher herself, but of Thatcher the icon. Thatcher for us isn't a real politician with convictions and committees to attend: she is an image, the wicked witch in the woods, the rubber mask of neoliberalism in drag gurning down at a generation just beginning to understand how it has been cheated. In most respects, we still live in a Thatcherite society, atomising itself into marketable units at the expense of the social. Thatcher has become part of the creation myth.

Young people who weren't born during the poll tax riots focus their alienated rage on the image of Thatcher, because, in neo-Thatcherite Britain, images are all we have. The Iron Lady and her cronies instigated the junk-food principle of politics, whereby hungry, needy people will invariably swallow something that isn't good for them if it has a recognisable cartoon face on it - even if, as the coalition cabinet proves, it is sickeningly rich and stuffed with yellow preservatives.

Handbags at dawn

For young women, Maggie casts a second shadow over the entire notion of female empowerment. Twenty years after she left office, it is depressing rather than encouraging that Thatcher is still the enduring Anglo-American model of a woman in a position of political power, one to which all women seeking public office, from Sarah Palin to Harriet Harman, are eventually expected to respond.

Thatcher was no more a feminist than Bradley from S Club 7 was ghetto, but she created a brand of female empowerment - all heels, warmongering and expensive handbags - striking enough to replace the erstwhile aspiration of real woman-power.

There were good reasons for her stylistic self-management; the electorate was always far more likely to accept an Iron Lady than a woman of flesh and blood. But that handbag hovers over today's ambitious young women like a sartorial guillotine, reducing feminism, along with progressive politics, to a lifestyle choice, and neutralising it in the process. As the recession has given the lie to the dream of perpetual growth, young people have begun to develop an idealised, almost pantomimic understanding of what was lost.

Ask any 20-year-old for a Thatcher slogan and they will tell you, "She said there's no such thing as society." We understand, and painfully so, that we now live in a country where community has been replaced with an image of community that can be broken up and sold back to us at a profit.

This is what the "big society" is all about: not cuddly One-Nation Toryism, but the logical conclusion of Thatcherism, with the corporate iconography of society replacing the social even as the welfare state is destroyed. It is no accident the Camerons have employed a stylist and a photographer at public expense, while it has been decided that "wasteful" quangos such as the Youth Justice Board ought to be axed. In personality politics, image is everything.

We may be too young to remember Thatcher high-heeling it out of No 10, but our leaders still dance to the rhythm of her politics and our aspirations are still dominated by her project. The mythology of Thatcherism is more than mortal. When Elton John is called upon to sing her eulogy, he will no doubt conclude that the country burned out long before her legend ever will.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.