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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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.