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15 November 2010

Laurie Penny: What Margaret Thatcher means to my generation

We are living in the shadow not of Thatcher herself, but of Thatcher the icon.

By Laurie Penny

Why do young liberals hate Margaret Thatcher? It’s a fair question, given that many of us, myself included, were still potty-training when she left Downing Street 20 years ago. We weren’t on those picket lines. We weren’t in those riots. We weren’t even old enough to understand why our parents had lost their jobs. So why the drunken half-jokes about dancing on her grave? Why, after two decades, is it still so personal?

It could hardly be anything else. Today’s young people are living in the shadow not of Thatcher herself, but of Thatcher the icon. Thatcher for us isn’t a real politician with convictions and committees to attend: she is an image, the wicked witch in the woods, the rubber mask of neoliberalism in drag gurning down at a generation just beginning to understand how it has been cheated. In most respects, we still live in a Thatcherite society, atomising itself into marketable units at the expense of the social. Thatcher has become part of the creation myth.

Young people who weren’t born during the poll tax riots focus their alienated rage on the image of Thatcher, because, in neo-Thatcherite Britain, images are all we have. The Iron Lady and her cronies instigated the junk-food principle of politics, whereby hungry, needy people will invariably swallow something that isn’t good for them if it has a recognisable cartoon face on it – even if, as the coalition cabinet proves, it is sickeningly rich and stuffed with yellow preservatives.

Handbags at dawn

For young women, Maggie casts a second shadow over the entire notion of female empowerment. Twenty years after she left office, it is depressing rather than encouraging that Thatcher is still the enduring Anglo-American model of a woman in a position of political power, one to which all women seeking public office, from Sarah Palin to Harriet Harman, are eventually expected to respond.

Thatcher was no more a feminist than Bradley from S Club 7 was ghetto, but she created a brand of female empowerment – all heels, warmongering and expensive handbags – striking enough to replace the erstwhile aspiration of real woman-power.

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There were good reasons for her stylistic self-management; the electorate was always far more likely to accept an Iron Lady than a woman of flesh and blood. But that handbag hovers over today’s ambitious young women like a sartorial guillotine, reducing feminism, along with progressive politics, to a lifestyle choice, and neutralising it in the process. As the recession has given the lie to the dream of perpetual growth, young people have begun to develop an idealised, almost pantomimic understanding of what was lost.

Ask any 20-year-old for a Thatcher slogan and they will tell you, “She said there’s no such thing as society.” We understand, and painfully so, that we now live in a country where community has been replaced with an image of community that can be broken up and sold back to us at a profit.

This is what the “big society” is all about: not cuddly One-Nation Toryism, but the logical conclusion of Thatcherism, with the corporate iconography of society replacing the social even as the welfare state is destroyed. It is no accident the Camerons have employed a stylist and a photographer at public expense, while it has been decided that “wasteful” quangos such as the Youth Justice Board ought to be axed. In personality politics, image is everything.

We may be too young to remember Thatcher high-heeling it out of No 10, but our leaders still dance to the rhythm of her politics and our aspirations are still dominated by her project. The mythology of Thatcherism is more than mortal. When Elton John is called upon to sing her eulogy, he will no doubt conclude that the country burned out long before her legend ever will.