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Laurie Penny on Mrs T: unreliable narrator

There are many Maggie Thatchers, and which story we choose to tell says more about us than it does her.

There are many Maggie Thatchers, and which story we choose to tell says more about us than it does about her.

"I really wish," whispers my Northern Friend, watching the Grand Hotel explode into chunks of concrete on screen, "that they would stop making young Denis Thatcher so fanciable". On reflection, it may have been a mistake to go and see The Iron Lady, the ubiquitous Thatcher Biopic, in the company of seven anarchists who have partaken of fortifying cider before venturing into the Tottenham Court Road Odeon, but by the time the soaring theme-music starts to roll it's far, far too late.

The way in which we choose to tell the story of Margaret Thatcher will always be about more than one frail old lady losing her faculties in Belgravia. It's about the ideology that Thatcher represents, the free-market, anti-union, anti-state, pro-business fanaticism that divided the nation in the 1980s and is coming to divide it again. The opening shot, in which Meryl-Streep-as-Thatcher's wizened, liver-spotted paw reaches up to snatch an pint of milk from a shelf along with the inevitable Oscar -- a cheeky reference to the old Left nickname "Thatcher, Milk Snatcher'" for the benefit of those readers who have mentally erased the 1980s -- does not soften the blow of what is to come.

Bouffant battleaxe

Over the next one hundred and three minutes, I watch my friends sink into fetal positions in the snap-up seats as history is reshot with soaring trumpets in the background. In this nostalgic and mostly imaginary recent British past, we are a nation of strong, self-reliant businessfolks who don't believe in welfare. Thatcher was a feminist hero who refused to "die washing up a teacup". Unions are socially irresponsible throwbacks memorable only for allowing the rubbish to pile up in the street in the bad old days of the 1970s, before Maggie took power in an orgy of Union flags descending in slow motion from the ceilings of memory. War and spending cuts can save Britain, and the unemployed and dispossessed are snarling, ungrateful animals, thumping and screaming outside the darkened windows of a ministerial car.

I start peeking through my fingers when Maggie has her Next Top Model-esque makeover montage, transforming from matronly back-bencher to power-dressing, bouffant-haired battleaxe, and being strapped into a peacock-blue gown with a plunging neckline whilst she lectures Geoffrey Howe about the importance of public sector cuts. A couple of what look, from their trendy open-neck shirts and slick hair, to be young Conservatives in front of us are practically wetting themselves with excitement. "Oh god. The gay Tories are going to love this," the friend to my left says, a sentiment that might perhaps have caused the real Thatcher to tighten her grip on her handbag.

To my left, Anarcha-Feminist Friend has stopped rocking in her chair and started scribbling frantically in a notebook. "I've worked out how we can get through this," she says, "It's not a panegyric, it's actually a really clever story with an unreliable narrator, about a dotty old lady editing out all the bad bits of her legacy and remembering herself as a hero." Then we have to sit through the scene where Denis Thatcher literally ascends into heaven, leaving Maggie alone at the top of the stairs. "Jump," she whispers, too loudly. The young Conservatives glare at us.

My Northern Friend is supposed to be quitting smoking. Outside the Odeon, with the patriotic overture still ringing in our ears, he's sucking down his second Pall Mall in a row and shaking with rage. "I don't care if it's a hagiography, you can't make a film about Thatcher without talking about the Miners' Strike," he says. "They hardly even mentioned it." The young Conservatives stumble past us and out into the winter chill with the glazed, slightly sheepish expressions of punters leaving a strip-club. There are many Maggie Thatchers, and which story we choose to tell says more about us than it does about her. Right now, the official story is a nostalgic flag-waver about how war, markets and judiciously chosen twinsets saved Britain- but there are, and will always be, those who remember it differently.

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

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's Brexit gamble

The Prime Minister is betting that the economic hit from putting border control first will be delayed and go unnoticed. 

Britain’s European referendum was about immigration. That doesn’t mean the country was divided on it. Had the question been a Yes/No proposition on whether or not immigration was a good thing, it would have between a 78 to 22 per cent rout for Brexit.  As it was, what separated those who opted for a Remain vote over those who backed a Leave one was not whether or not you thought that immigration to Britain should be lowered. Remain did, however, 88 per cent of the vote from the pro-immigration majority.

The real dividing line was between people who thought that bringing down immigration would come at a cost that they were unwilling to pay, and people who thought that it could be done without cost, or, at least, without a cost that they would have to pay. Remain voters, on the whole, accepted both that there would be an economic consequence to reducing immigration generally and they’d pay for it personally, while Leave voters tended only to accept that there was a cost to be paid for it in general.

That leaves politicians in a bind, electorally speaking. There undoubtedly is a majority to be found at the ballot box for reducing immigration and there is an immediate electoral dividend to be reaped from pursuing a Brexit deal that puts border control above everything else.

But as every poll, every election and the entire history of human behaviour shows, the difficulty is that this particular coalition is single use only. It’s very similar to the majority that David Cameron and George Osborne won to cut £12bn out of the welfare bill. People backed it at the ballot box but revolted at the prospect of cuts to tax credits, one of the few ways that the cuts could possibly be achieved. In the end, the cuts were abandoned and George Osborne’s hopes of securing the Conservative leadership were, if not permanently derailed, at least severely delayed.

The nightmare scenario for Theresa May is that the majority for border control dissolves as quickly on impact with reality as the planned cuts to tax credits did.  That’s also the dream for the Liberal Democrats and Greens, who, due to Labour’s embrace of the Conservative approach of abandoning single market membership, are well-placed to benefit if everything comes unravelled.

Who’s right? In both cases, the gamble is clear. There will be a heavy economic price to be paid through leaving the single market. The question is whether that price will come in one big shock or be paid out over a number of years. If the effect of leaving the single market is an immediate fall in people’s standard of living, job losses and negative equity, then Theresa May will find herself in jeopardy. But if the effect is longer-term, and the consequences of Britain’s single market exit are only made clear when in 2030, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to abandon promises made to pensioners at a time when the pound was worth more than the Euro, then May will be able to reap the electoral dividend of getting Britain’s borders under control.

But there’s a more pessimistic future than either of these. The worst-case scenario isn’t that we all become poorer and the freedom of future governments to do what they want is sharply reduced by its weaker financial consequences. It’s that the economic hit is immediate, noticeable, but that the blame centres not on the incumbent government, but on immigrants and minorities.  

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