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Thatcher's victories are too old and complete to help Cameron

Conservatives are winning a cultural campaign to nationalise their political bereavement and it will do them no favours in the end.

New Statesman
A floral tribute outside Downing Street. Source: Getty

The late Baroness Thatcher is now the subject of two different categories of controversy, inseparable but in crucial ways distinct. One is about her life, the other about her death. The former is by far the greater argument. It is a debate that is triggered by her passing but not generated by it. Its contours have been visited, explored, surveyed and mapped many times already over the past decades.

There is a huge body of academic literature and memoir analysing the historical scale and moral implications of her victories – over the Labour party, over the miners, over the essential ambition of Socialism by state enterprise. Nothing new will be added in the days between her death and her funeral. Reviving the arguments now is the intellectual and journalistic equivalent of repeating on TV the great Hollywood performances of a recently deceased movie star. The over-familiar is made poignant by events but not changed by them.

The second controversy is much smaller and is, in adherence to the parochial laws of Westminster that amplify pettiness and shrink intellectual ambition, the more rancorous. It is the question of whether the unarguable historical significance of Thatcher’s accomplishments justifies their treatment as a subject of national reverence.

Most of the Tory party and the Conservative-leaning press appear to want this week to be a moment of culture war consolidation – expressing not just sadness at the death of an individual but recapitulation of an immutable moral-political axiom: the politics of Thatcher (and of any who tread in her footsteps) are salvation; Labour’s way leads to ruin.

The ceremonial funeral is a state function in all but name; many of this morning’s paper’s attack opposition MPs for not attending yesterday’s parliamentary tribute, although plenty did. The discussion of statues, memorials and minutes of silence is all meant as a celebration of the woman and her works but it is also hostile to rational appraisal of them. Sadly at this point it probably becomes necessary to interject a comment condemning celebrations of the death. I doubt I could put it better than Norman Geras, the Marxist academic and blogger, who said the following in his “six theses on the death of Margaret Thatcher”:

To publicly rejoice at the death of a democratic political opponent, talk of dancing on her grave, hold street parties for the occasion, and so forth, is contemptible. It says more about the morality inspiring those who engage in such activities than it does about the object of them. Consider that one day it will be you who are dying, and whatever you have done or failed to do in your life, you will deserve the love of those who feel it for you and something better than cruel glee from those who don't.

… And notice, too, that Thatcher's political legacy, the continuing influence of what she did in office, is not altered one way or another by her death. It will continue to make its way in the world, as also to be opposed there, for a good while yet. The expression of public enjoyment has no possible justification, therefore, on these grounds either.

The reasonable demand that dissent from the heroic interpretation of Thatcher be expressed with respect does not, however, resolve the question of whether that interpretation should be embraced as a kind of state doctrine.

The implication in Conservative expectations of collective mourning is that, since the changes Thatcher wrought turned out to be irreversible, they should also naturally be cherished by all. Plainly that isn’t true. They can be cherished by the right and lamented by the left. The centre can pick and choose. It is absurd to expect Labour MPs to acquiesce in the hagiography of their nemesis and it is to Ed Miliband’s credit that he didn’t do that in parliament yesterday, yet managed to fulfil every demand of respect that protocol required.

My instinct is that the Tories will win this little cultural skirmish and that it will do them no favours at all. BBC presenters will don black ties and put on their most solemn voices. The Queen will attend the funeral. None shall speak ill of the deceased, except in terms laden with caveat and leavened with praise. Some monument will be erected for sure. And then what? We will be back to the first of our two controversies, the one about Thatcher’s life, the one that was never going to be resolved by her death.

Meanwhile, it is Labour that will have been forced into an uncomfortable but necessary re-examination of its feelings and attitudes to Britain’s most potent post-War Prime Minister. It is the Labour leader whose position with relation to that leader’s legacy will be clarified and, by a small measure, enhanced given the smart calibration of his response. By contrast, the Conservative view will go back into aspic. It cannot much help David Cameron when his party drapes itself in the ceremonial robes of the unhealthy Cult of the Perfect Leader with its peculiar undercurrent of matricidal guilt.

The core presumption behind the Tory party hagiography of Thatcher is that her policies were so successful as to transcend politics. They entered the fabric of the nation and so became part of what it means to be British rather than simply what it means to be Conservative. Even though that is largely true it doesn’t actually help the Tories politically. The dispersal of Thatcherism into the cultural and social ether over a generation or two doesn’t make it a better weapon in today’s political debates. On the contrary, it diminishes its currency.

Specific policies of the period 1979-90 are, as a point of historical fact, obsolete. British Airways cannot be re-privatised. Bob Crow is not Arthur Scargill, neither is Len McCluskey much though many on left and right wish he would be. Only battles whose outcome was unclear can be re-fought. Thatcher’s victory was so comprehensive that craving re-enactment is a pursuit for hobbyists in fancy dress not a credible programme for government.

The renewable portion of Thatcherism is not its prescriptions for the economy but its spirit of political insurgency – the will to impose change; the capacity to turn a partisan agenda into an election-winning movement for national renewal. That element does not belong to any one party or wing of politics. Indeed, it is arguably hardest of all for modern-day Thatcher disciples to possess and re-animate it precisely because the Revolution they celebrate became an Empire to defend – as tends to happen with successful revolutions.

That which became the established consensus cannot, by definition, be the basis for anti-Establishment upheaval. Whatever the next Thatcher-style disruption in British politics may be, it is just as likely to go against the grain of what Thatcher achieved as with it. That is how history tends to proceed.

The problem that poses for the Conservatives is made all the greater by the confluence at the very top of party – incarnate in David Cameron - of the post-Thatcher economic consensus and a pre-Thatcher cultural and social class hierarchy. Cameron, a second-generation Thatcherite with patrician Shire Tory sensibilities and royal relations is about the least plausible candidate you might find to lead a transformative economic, social or political revolution.

Cameron’s strategy for re-election in 2015 relies not on an offer of epic change but of grim determination to continue as before – a steady-as-she-goes appeal to the stoical side of Britain that takes austerity on the chin, surrenders to its inevitability, makes do and mends. It presumes that, faute de mieux, when the Labour counter-offer is either scary or implausible, Britain defaults to Tory rule. That was true once. It clearly wasn’t true in 2010 otherwise Cameron would have won a majority. There isn’t any evidence it is true today, not before a week of national mourning for Margaret Thatcher and, in all likelihood, not after it.