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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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Is our obsession with class propping up the powerful?

Lynsey Hanley’s memoir Respectable: the Experience of Class attacks the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie – but society will only be transformed by building coalitions between the middle and working classes.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism