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2 December 2020

From the NS archive: Masochism for the masses

3 June 1983: Angela Carter on the Thatcher phenomenon.

By Angela Carter

In the week of the 1983 British election, the novelist Angela Carter surveyed Margaret Thatcher, who was running for re-election, and asked: is she a governess, a magistrate or a superwoman? She analysed Thatcher’s strange voice, her role as “Class Enemy Number One”, the media’s infatuation with her and the “youthful radiance” of her appearance. “One of the wickedest things Thatcher has done is to make other Tories seem tolerable,” wrote Carter, who went on to describe her as “the madwoman who’d always been gibbering in the Tory attic”, and who now has “the keys to the whole asylum”. The election would give Thatcher’s Conservative Party the most decisive victory since Labour in 1945.


Of all the elements combined in the complex of signs labelled Margaret Thatcher, it is her voice that sums up the ambiguity of the entire construct. She coos like a dove, hisses like a serpent, bays like a hound; a protean performance that, on occasion, rises to a clarion call or rallying cry. When she clarions, one imagines she can hear herself crackling over the radio waves to outposts of the empire: “Britain calling.”

It is, in a real sense, a voice from the past. Apart from anything else, it has adopted a form of “toff-speak” now reminiscent not of real toffs, but of Wodehouse aunts. A voice as artificial, both in its well-modulated, would-be mellifluous timbre and its overprecise diction, as that of a duchess in a farce or a pantomime dame. In itself, a voice with connotations so richly comic it’s a wonder her perorations aren’t drowned by peals of mirth each time she opens her mouth, and unpleasantly significant that they are not. Because just what makes her sound so ludicrous are the barbarous echoes of past glories that shape her vowels and sharpen her consonants; yet it is also these echoes that make some of us, as a reflex action, snap to attention and touch the forelock.

But how come the voice’s perpetrator is not sometimes helplessly overcome by its funny side? Rallying the Scottish Tories at the election campaign kick-off: “Let us go forth from Perth. . .” How did she manage to spit out that phrase from the elocution class with a straight face? God knows, there’ve been sufficient pompous windbags at the helm of this nation before, but never one who’s combined a script straight out of The Boys’ Own Paper circa 1909 with the articulation of Benny Hill en travestie. And got away with it. That’s the grievous thing.

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But, when Thatcher modulates from the dulcet if bellicose contralto with which she cajoles her own side to the shriek, as of ripped linen, with which she subjugates the Commons – and which, interestingly enough, she also uses to address open-air meetings, so it may be involuntary – then, it chills the blood. For, then, hers becomes the very voice of the implacable, arbitrary, irrational authority known and feared in childhood. Voice like a slap on the wrist. Voice that broke in on your game with the little boy next door: “What are you doing? Put your knickers back on, this instant!” Small wonder, then, she is widely known as “the nanny” and, on television during the campaign, has given the impression that if you don’t vote for her, she’ll tan your bottie. (She’ll tan your bottie even if you do, unless you’re very rich, but as is well known this is le vice anglais and the rich have always got it in the private sector; certainly Thatcher has democratically extended the joys of masochism to the entire population.)

The nanny. Although Anthony Barnett scrupulously refined the image – rather, the governess who feels a cut above the rest of the staff whilst despising her bosses, and has now kicked out the squire since she knows far better than her employers what’s good for him.

But, of course, we’re not the rest of the staff and though the squires in the Tory Party might have been foolish enough to first promote her within their enclosed little world, they are no longer her employers. We are. Her contract is up for negotiation again, now, and it is, perhaps, characteristic of the overweening upper servant that she appears to believe there is no chance it will not be renewed.

But most of us have little direct experience of hiring staff and have seen nannies and governesses only on television, the medium, of course, by which she has infiltrated every home. A rather less cosy association, and one which gives the client less choice in her appointment, is with the lady magistrate who sends the menopausal housewife – as it might be one’s mum; or, oneself – down for two years for shoplifting. (“Society must be protected from women like you.” Thatcher is fond of protecting society from people, as if people did not constitute societies.)

Certainly she rams home the point of the atavistic middle-class authority figure with her lady magistrate’s two-piece costumes and her lady doctor “sensible” shoes. Never one to miss out on the exploitation of her gender by fair means or foul, she, unlike Shirley Williams, has always known what garb intimidates. Yet, even when you cannot see her, even on the radio when she’s occupying the Jimmy Young Show like an army with banners – and what other politician than this Housewife Superstar would have spotted the potential of the Jimmy Young Show – her scourging voice identifies her instantly as Class Enemy Number One.

[see also: From the NS archive: Europe’s white laager]

Well, it does to me. It does to the bloke next door, who doesn’t believe in hanging because it’s too good for her. It does to all those who are not dissipating their energies during this election campaign by engaging in the voluptuous but non-productive luxury of Thatcher-hatred – I’m told the Bingo callers in Sheffield say: “Number ten, Thatcher out” – as though she were somehow greater than the sum of her party and, if she saw the light and joined the Poor Clares tomorrow, the Tories would be perfectly all right. As they used to be, under decent, magnanimous, welfare socialists like Heath. (Remember Heath, who gave us the three-day week?) One of the wickedest things Thatcher has done is to make other Tories seem tolerable.

Yet she and her media advisers, and how odd it is one should discuss a British Prime Minister in terms of those who tell her how to powder her nose, have worked damn’ hard to blot out the Class Enemy bit, to turn the Tory Party’s greatest liability, both in terms of gender and fanaticism, into a comicbook superheroine. (“Superwoman”, as Jean Rook of the Daily Express calls her.) They’ve done this, not by toning down her patent absurdity but by playing it up. If colonial war helped, then it did so only with the aid of the most cynical manipulation of blood lust and militaristic nostalgia of a kind we can ill afford. By turning the absurd into something ineffable, something glorious.

All the qualities that make her like the “bad guy” in wrestling, the “Man you Love to Hate”, like Mick MacManus, have gone into the resultant Thatcher package. She is loathsome for precisely those reasons for which she is most admired. For conviction, read monomania. For strength of purpose, read pig-headedness. For cleverness, read low animal cunning.

If the media were as besotted with Michael Foot as they are with Thatcher, he could be transformed overnight from the shambling loony as which they now present him into a lovable eccentric, vastly wise, figure of almost saintly heroism, whose sheer greatness of heart – there’s Jean Rook’s headline! “Mr Great-Heart” – shines through the somewhat out-moded rhetoric originally designed to address a packed Welsh mountainside rather than to suit tête-à-tête with a television camera. (In fact, that’s all that’s wrong with Foot on TV. He persists in addressing it as if it were a public meeting, while Thatcher knows very well she is partaking in a soap opera, with a role somewhat like, say, Alexis Carrington in Dynasty.)

Indeed, if Foot were Tory leader and not Labour leader, think what the notorious Jak, the Standard’s cartoonist, would do with him. Every time he tripped over his terrier’s lead, it would be proof his mind was on higher things, such as saving the working class from the rapacity of the trade unions or voluntarily repatriating Siamese cats to Bangkok. All this is to do with the artificiality of the presentation of Thatcher, which is stressed by the constant emphasis on her personal appearance, in which she appears enthusiastically to condone the sexism of the media, gladly giving information about her tinted hair and the hours spent in the dentist’s chair (what courage!) having her teeth capped.

We are told exactly how she does it and the invited to applaud her appearance of youth: “Four years on and looking ten years younger,” by Jackie Modlinger, Fashion Editor, Daily Express, Monday 23 May. Even if one might be forgiven for assuming that, like a latter-day Elizabeth Báthory, the Countess Dracula of Hungarian legend, she retained the appearance of youth by bathing every day in the blood of unemployed school leavers.

The ends to which this youthful radiance are put are balefully ironic. That face of Thatcher is more stylised than even her voice, and nothing about it is comic, especially its striking Aryan quality. The blonde, immaculate hair; the steel, blue eyes glittering like bayonets, and always with a glazed expression as if fixed on the vision of some high Tory apotheosis such as the crucifixion of Arthur Scargill. The up-thrust chin, as if cresting the waves, like the figurehead as which Steve Bell has so often depicted her. Possibly, hideous thought, to her secret satisfaction, since, for Thatcher, the image is more important by far than the meaning behind it and a figurehead remains a figurehead, whatever its satirical intent.

It is the face, and the pose, too, of a Person of Destiny – and there seems no denying she has personally associated herself with that “fulfilment of our nation’s destiny” of which she spoke to the Scottish Tories, no doubt in serene confidence there was not one devolutionist amongst them who might have queried the appropriateness of the possessive pronoun.

However, the nature of that “destiny” is as imprecise as the location of the “Shining city on a hill” invoked as the destiny of the US by Ronald Reagan during his pre-election debate with Jimmy Carter on American TV. Possibly her destiny and his destination are, in fact, the same city, luminous with radioactive dust and no longer identifiable.

Lately, she’s been sporting a silver and enamel Union Jack on her lapel, as emblematic a jewel as the accessories in the portraits of Elizabeth I as Gloriana. She’s also developed a tendency to look vaguely red, white and blue, all over, unless the strain of all this is beginning to tell on me, as it is on Steve Bell’s Guardian penguin. Union Jack jewel, patriotic colours – all convey the same story, that hers is a transcendent Britishness rising above mere sectarian strife such as the class struggle. Her cult of the personality, establishing her as an emotionally unassailable figure divorced from the sordid business of party politics, peaks on the cover of the Economist for 14-20 May. This shows her (up-thrust chin, commanding eyes, as ever, but with a new, positively Mussolini-esque meditatively brooding expression she must have practised in front of the mirror for ages) beneath a rampant Union Jack. The flag, for once, is out of focus, either an oddly tasteful touch or an indication that Thatcher is even more patriotic than it. The legend on the cover of this self-styled centrist publication: “The issue is Thatcher.”

For the point of the Economist cover, constantly emphasised by Thatcher’s appeal to the metaphysics of Britishness, is that a vote for Thatcher is a vote, not for the Tories, but for Britain. If you believe in Britain, clap your hands, and Britain, like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, will rise from her deathbed. And. And then, do what? But what Britain will do after this, to change the metaphor, Lazarus-like resurrection is also left vague, except, like any revenant, she will be less corporeally substantial and presumably, no longer need nourishment, health care, education or employment.

[see also: From the NS archive: Characters in history]

The scarcely credible words of the Thatcher campaign song –  and it is a Thatcher campaign song, not a Tory campaign song – concentrate on those undoubted qualities of leadership she shares with charismatic lemmings. The song also leaves unstated the place to which she proposes to transport us. “Who do we want, who do we need/It is a leader who is bound to succeed – Maggie Thatcher/Just Maggie for me.”

Yet the issue in this election is most emphatically not Thatcher, who is no more than the representative of certain vested interests, and it is only her ambition and readiness to use the dirtiest resources of right-wing populism that give the illusion she is “Mrs Big”, as Jean Rock calls her. Me, I’m only a writer of fiction and a coarse semiologist by profession and must use the words of a far greater person than I, Theodor Adorno, to sum up adequately what Thatcher represents and a vote for her means:

“Whatever was once good and decent in bourgeois values, independence, perseverance, forethought, circumspection, has been corrupted utterly… In losing their innocence, the bourgeois have become impenitently malign… The bourgeois live on like spectres threatening doom.”

He saw it all, years ago, and said it in Minima Moralia.

And here she is, spectre not at the feast but at the famine, symbol – though only a symbol – of our bane and, possibly, an eventual enlightenment, like the plague in Camus’s novel, except we may more easily be rid of her than Oran could purge itself of pasteurella pestis. She can be exorcised with a mere cross on a voting slip. However, what then?

Years ago, during the February 1974 election campaign, the cover of the French news magazine, L’ Express, carried the question: “La Grande Bretagne: Chile ou Suède?” Curiously enough, this is the very choice Thatcher herself has offered us in this campaign, between “a society coerced and a society free under the rule of law”, although she might not agree the former phrase is an apt description of Chile under Pinochet while for me the latter sums up Sweden, with all its petty regulations and amazing virtues, well enough. In those days, the electorate pondered, wavered and finally plumped for the Swedish option. And the Labour government they put into power blew it. Blew it so badly that, as a result, this time round, a real choice might no longer exist.

Perhaps it was inevitable that in our post-imperial anomie, the hangover after the 200-year spree, Britain should throw up the apparatus to create a twopenny halfpenny demagogue of the kind known and feared throughout the Third World. Should release the madwoman who’d always been gibbering in the Tory attic, with its lugubrious lumber of Union Jack draped gallows, the personification of the Tory lady who’d grounded successive Tory Party conventions in a morass of meanness and cruelty. And should give this symbolic entity the keys to the whole asylum.

But nothing is inevitable; history seems inevitable only by virtue of hindsight. There is a conspiracy to create the impression that Thatcher is the kind of leader who goes down in the history books. I rather suspect that, should these islands survive so long, the ethnically complex, polyglot, joyously egalitarian inhabitants of these islands in 2083 will think of Thatcher only as a footnote to the history of graphics. “Gave inspiration to Steve Bell, Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe, q.v. See, also, under Mere Ubu.”

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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