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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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.