NS Essay - 'We have a softened Thatcherism in public life, combined with a pretence that 1980s values have been overthrown. It's having it both ways. It's living in sin'

No one could deny that the Conservatives lost the culture war - just look at the hatred our novelist

The nine novels of Christopher Brookmyre are worth reading even if slick comedy thrillers aren't to your taste. Eight were published after new Labour came to power, but for all their contemporary references, what they show is the persistence of the nightmare of Thatcherism in the liberal imagination. So strong and inera-dicable is the memory that in Be My Enemy, published in 2004, the hero, Jack Parlabane, confesses that he can't help but feel nostalgic for the certainties of the 1980s:

I miss the ideological simplicity of back then. No grey areas, no middle ground, just them and us, the good guys versus the bad guys, on every issue. East versus west, left versus right, rich versus poor, the Tories versus the miners, the Tories versus CND, the Tories versus homosexuals, the Tories versus Bob Geldof. I mean you really knew who to hate in those days.

Brookmyre must have forgotten that many who were for CND were ready to find the illusory middle ground between east and west, but otherwise his list rings true, and it has made him a rare kind of bestseller. His thrillers appeal to readers who don't believe the ultimate enemy was the Soviets or the Nazis, but the Tories.

We - "My name's Nick and I'm a Brookmyre addict" - are usually old enough to have been politically conscious when the Conservatives were in power, but young enough to understand pop culture. Every 12 months or so we greet his latest book like an old friend who has turned up on the doorstep with plenty of wine. Everything is always as it should be. The title and author's name always appear in lower case, as if to emphasise the hipness of what lies inside. The covers come in simple colours, as if to emphasise the straightforward nature of the pleasure ahead. The villains are always the villains we remember, or the ones we imagined when we were young: life-denying Tory ministers, cold-blooded press proprietors, pond-life tabloid editors, two-faced born-again Christians, murderous MI5 officers and megalomaniac CEOs.

Stephen Lime in Brookmyre's first novel, Quite Ugly One Morning (1996), is what we thought the Thatcherites were truly like. He's a psychopathic privatiser who organises the murder of bed-blocking pensioners. As he gazes on the Edinburgh hospital he wants to turn into a business centre, he thinks:

The National Health Service was . . . just one huge, amorphous, unanswerable entity, running its own ship, its spending dictated almost entirely by patients' healthcare needs. No familiar faces at the top with the power to award hefty contracts; indeed precious little in the way of external contracts at all. No six-figure executive posts with company Beamie . . . It just swallowed up public money and circulated it within itself until it needed more.

Nightmare.

Aberration.

The basic fact of the matter was that if public spending could not

be avoided, it should at least be spent in the private sector.

I can't see Brookmyre turning his attention to al-Qaeda crashing planes into tower blocks or George Galloway sucking up to Saddam Hussein. It's not that he is soft on either, just that they don't fit into a rogues' gallery whose cast was recruited in the 1980s. More surprisingly, new Labour is never attacked. Indeed, in Boiling a Frog (2000) Scottish Labour ministers are the innocent victims of a conspiracy by the Catholic Church and a Fleet Street bully-turned-PR man to destroy the liberal possibilities of devolution. (Trust me, it reads better than I make it sound.)

With the exception of Parlabane, a leftish James Bond who combines extreme violence with a respect for the dignity of women and gays, the heroes are ordinary people. Brookmyre is Scottish, and in Scotland, Wales and parts of the north in the 1980s it was possible to believe the Conservatives were an occupy-ing power rather than a party that had won free elections.

Time and again, his characters find strength when they are thrown together in conflict with the forces of reaction. In One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night (1999), old pupils who meet for a school reunion forget their grudges and unite against the mercenaries sent by an American corporation to blow up the unprofitable hotel where their party is being held. An attack by a death squad led by renegade MI5 officers in Be My Enemy forces a former Tory and a former Trot to find love (and to agree to vote Liberal Democrat in future). It's as if the battles of the 1980s were being fought again, but this time with the good guys winning.

For all the smart dialogue and action-movie plots, it is clear that Brookmyre yearns for the half-remembered, half-invented solidarity of the social-democratic Britain that Margaret Thatcher shattered. He is not alone in that.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst, won the 2004 Booker Prize and is being filmed by the BBC. Hollinghurst invited comparison with Henry James for his story of a young gay student lodging in the home of a Tory minister during Thatcher's second term, and the critics didn't cavil. Nearly every reviewer said the exquisiteness of the writing and the subtlety of observation were worthy of "The Master". And so they were, in all respects but one.

Brookmyre does not pretend that he is doing anything other than creating pantomime villains, but I think he would think twice before presenting the reader with Gerald Fedden, Hollinghurst's Tory minister. Fedden is so desperate to please Thatcher that he has his front door repainted blue. Although an aristocrat, he is soci-ally insecure. Although a populist, he despises his constituents. "If only you didn't have to be an MP for somewhere," his daughter tells Nick, the hero, "Gerald would be completely happy."

Fedden's redeeming grace is a sophistication that allows the gay Nick to stay in his Kensington mansion. Inevitably, that cracks in the final scene. He turfs Nick out, after falsely accusing him of playing "an old homo trick" by letting the tabloids find out about his affair with his secretary, who happens to be the daughter of a former friend whose sweetheart he stole years earlier.

I, too, cried "Tory bastards!" and "Ditch the bitch!" on demos in the 1980s, but I didn't expect to win prizes for Jamesian irony.

It is 30 years since Thatcher took control of the Conservative Party. If she had been decisively discredited in the way that the policy of the appeasers was discredited in the late 1930s, the persistence of the hatred she arouses would not be surprising. But look around you. Thatcher won and her victory has been accepted. The left, or at least the left as represented in parliament by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, has not repudiated her legacy. On the contrary, all the privatised industries remain privatised - even the railways - and nearly all of the anti-union laws remain in place.

I sense that Brookmyre regrets this, but I shudder when I imagine how the fastidious Hollinghurst would react if he were confronted by 1970s-type picket lines. What his success shows is that we have a softened Thatcherism in public life, combined with a pseudo-leftish pretence that the values of the 1980s have been overthrown. It's having it both ways. It's living in sin.

How Thatcher should be seen was the cause of the culture wars of the 1980s. On one side were all the Murdoch, Express, Mail and Telegraph titles, which pumped out the most servile propaganda. They were either on their bellies before their mistress or smearing her enemies inside and outside the Conservative Party with a contemptible disregard for truth. On the other side stood just about every leading intellectual. Go back through the great novels of the time and you find that Thatcher was always present. Even The Satanic Verses (1988), remembered for the death threats from Ayatollah Khomeini, proves on rereading to be just as hard on Tory Britain as Islamism. Thatcher is "Mrs Torture", according to one character. When Saladin Chamcha, the hero, lands in Britain, he is forced to crawl in his own shit by her immigration officers, who use him as "guinea pig and as safety valve" when they beat him in a sadistic frenzy.

Martin Amis perfectly satirised the near-unanimity of the anti-Tory creative consensus in The Information (1995). Richard Tull, a believer in the serious novel, looks on with envious rage as a superficial friend wins ever-greater acclaim and ever-larger advances. He talks politics in his rival's beautiful home.

Of course, thought Richard, yeah: of course Gwyn was Labour. Obvious not only from the ripply cornices twenty feet above their heads, but from the brass lamps and the military plumpness of the leather-topped desk. Obvious because Gwyn was a writer, in England at the end of the 20th century. There was nothing else for such a person to be. Richard was Labour, obviously. It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour except the government . . . All writers, all book people, were Labour which was why they got on so well.

Thinking conservatives are as contemptuous as Amis. In his rip-roaring The Strange Death of Tory England, Geoffrey Wheatcroft has enormous fun dissecting the vanities of the 1980s intellectuals. He notes the class hatred: Thatcherism was the "anarchism of the lower middle classes" (Eric Hobsbawm), an "odious suburban gentility" (Jonathan Miller). He reminds us of the naked self-interest: "I'm impelled to vote Labour since it's the only party committed to doubling the arts budget" (Sir Michael Tippett). Yet he ends by mournfully concluding that one reason why the Tories are so far from office is that "those chatterers won the argument".

He can't admit that, for all their snobbery and fear of their own irrelevance, the chatterers were more right than wrong. It was realistic to describe as odious an incompetent government which degraded public services, introduced the poll tax and made an institution of mass unemployment. Nor is it so odd that novelists should win an argument with the newspapers. The press is ephemeral; what stays with people are the stories in television dramas, films, books and plays. And as the 1980s progressed, writers were showing the stock Tory as a man who would let your granny freeze to death if there was profit in it. The stereotype may not have been fair, but there was enough truth in it to make it stick.

But Wheatcroft is surely right to say that the caricature of the Tories destroyed the party. At the May election they were presented with a prime minister ripe for toppling, but still couldn't win a plurality of the votes of the professional classes. Voting Tory, once the mark of the respectable man, has not been something that respectable people have done outside the gin and Jag belts for a decade. The question for the future is not whether the Conservatives can throw off the albatross of their past (who outside Westminster gives a damn?), but whether whether an equally deadly caricature will condemn new Labour.

To be Labour is to be what these days? The pawn of control freaks and smirking hypocrites? A shallow fool who believes the spin and makes pathetic ex- cuses for cynicism? Modernity is about asserting your individuality, even when you're mooing with the herd.

The image of new Labour is of an anti-modern movement of automatons, and I am sure that that image cost the party many votes this year.

If you moved only in intel-lectual circles, you could be forgiven for thinking that no one in England was Labour - except the government. But that's not coming through in the big authors' writing.

Admittedly Ian McEwan is a rarity: a writer who knows what was done in Abu Ghraib before the Americans invaded. His main character in Saturday is a doctor who has treated a tortured Iraqi. He watches a million people mustering for a march to keep a fascist tyrant in power, with contradictory emotions.

Placards not yet on duty are held at a slope, at rakish angles over shoulders. "Not in My Name" goes past a dozen times. Its cloying self-regard suggests a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumers of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice. Henry prefers the languid "Down With this Sort of Thing". A placard of one of the organising groups goes by - the British Association of Muslims. Henry remembers that outfit well. It explained recently in its newspaper that apostasy from Islam was an offence punishable by death.

More typical is Jonathan Coe, who despised Thatcher and tackled new Labour in The Closed Circle last year. I guess that he hates Iraq and has no time for Blair, but he backs away from confrontation. Paul Trotter, his modernising Labour MP, is skewered by an improbable personal crisis rather than his politics. A N Wilson presents a vapid Blair in his underrated My Name is Legion, but I'm sure the Prime Minister can live with that.

I need to be careful before theorising, because television editors tell me that every vaguely political script they are offered these days presents new Labour as a bunch of lying mass murderers. But when it comes to the novel, my guess is that the true hatred will come from the young, and that writers over 40 will go on pulling their punches, for two reasons. First, you can't transfer the full loathing of the Tories to new Labour without accepting there is no hope in politics, which may be true but is a hard conclusion to reach. Second, the Tories were there for so long that anti-Thatcherism became pure opposition rather than a political programme. The left generation of the 1930s lost election after election, but for all its follies it knew what it was for as well as what it was against, and it came to power in 1945 with a positive programme. The opposition in the 1980s and 1990s ended up by knowing only that it must get rid of the Tories. There was no great movement, for example, demanding to give the trade unions back their powers.

Because it demanded so little, anti-Thatcherism as a cause will survive long after she is dead and will continue to unite people who agree on nothing else. To those of us who felt its bleak urgency, anything which is not Tory will remain better by definition.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Latin America rises up