The Witch Is Dead

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The hag has been put in hagiography. U.S. coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher has been uniformly fawning, revisionist drool. I awoke to the news this morning, accompanied by Joe Scarborough’s fatuous and specious claims that anti-Thatcher sentiment was, and is something that could be confined to his classist idea of ‘the North’ of England or to isolated pockets of reactionary Liverpudlians. This he continued through venal allusions to Churchill, aided and abetted by that sage of class-based mythography and ancestor worship Chris Matthews, and by Amanda Foreman who blamed the malaise under which Britain labored in the 1970s squarely on the working class and the trade unions. They were joined in their dumb celebration by a host of others, uncritical in their desire to confuse Thatcher with Saint Meryl of Streep. If my sense that excess Anglophilia in the American imagination is a mental illness or a mass psychosis had waned (actually, it had not), it waxed forth in nostalgic tides of bullshit from the media this morning, before I had even finished my first cup of coffee. Let us make no more bones about it: Margaret Thatcher is welcome to her grave. Further, let us dispense with some of the distortions and lies that are being perpetrated in the obituaries of the so-called Iron Lady, that callous shade of Britannia.

The context in which Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of what was euphemistically and officially known as Great Britain was indeed grim, but not due to some suicidal socialist instinct in the working class, as the television news would have it here in America, but rather because the country was enduring the fallout not only of World War II – wartime rationing of food, clothing, and fuel continued almost unbroken until 1957 – but was still utterly bewildered by the collapse of the mythic ‘certainties’ of British Imperialism. Walking between the bomb craters that pocked our major cities, in the ruined shadows of the Blitz, the people of Britain had been lied to for such a sustained period that now there was a genuine and profound existential confusion, a national crisis of identity: whether Britain should investigate, dejectedly, a nascent socialism; or to continue to try to warm its hands by the embers of the cigar butt of Empire.

British identity oscillated somewhat. I say only “somewhat” because between the period of 1934 to 1997 and the election of the Thatcherite ‘new’ Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, of fourteen British prime ministers, all but four were Conservative in a country that has never quite abandoned its imperial strut. Thatcher represented the reassertion of old-fashioned class-stratified nationalism. Too many of those who might have made a difference to the direction of the nation otherwise caught a whiff of that old cigar smoke and turned right. Joe Scarborough in his mawkish nostalgia for something he has never known and that never existed said that the rot truly set in when Churchill faded from the scene in 1945. What Scarborough omits is that Churchill was of course re-elected in 1951, in quite bizarre circumstances, only to preside over the penny-ante imperialism leading to the Suez Crisis a year after he retired (replaced by his Tory deputy Anthony Eden), and the return of fuel rationing across the nation. Thatcher had her version of Imperialism on a shoestring with the Falklands War; a shoestring that is unless one counts the incalculable value of lost lives. But, no, the television obituaries claim: all that was glorious about Great Britain was undone by a few years of agitating trade unionists. The hagiography of Margaret Thatcher this morning continues what she set about in office, namely the scapegoating of the working class.

Thatcher infamously declared: “There is no such thing as society.” This was music to the ears of her half-wit conspirator Ronald Reagan (with whom she fulfilled the Orwellian nightmare that Britain should become ‘Airstrip One’ for the U.S. nuclear arsenal), and the mantra of the Tory, the GOP, and the social Darwinist strain of American libertarianism. Thatcher demonized the unemployed and the working poor, and those struggling to provide and receive education, health and mental health services. The Thatcher years were dominated by jingoism, corporatism, the privatization of national assets to, in many cases, foreign corporations. Her mythology sustains the far right and neo-fascists of a nation that has been eviscerated and stupefied by Conservatism and resuscitated dreams of Empire. Under her auspices, both ‘the Troubles’ of Ireland and the apartheid regime of South Africa were sustained. The 1980s, under Thatcher and Reagan presented a perfect collusion of selfishness, stupidity, mendacity and cruelty, the ‘legacy’ of which we are all still suffering, unless we are of the class that merely became richer and more aloof under their rule. The marriage of the absurd (Charles) and the simpering (Diana) is a metaphor for Britain’s relationship with its own myths during the 1980s in particular, spectacularly exported to the conservative thinking of the United States in William Buckley’s crazed vision of Diana, that “If a more beautiful woman ever existed, she was never photographed.” So it went with even Christopher Hitchens’ anecdotal hard-on for Thatcher after she spanked him with a cane of rolled up parliamentary papers. It’s all very silly: ideas best sustained when looking away from the facts. Let’s give the gorgon our gaze. Thatcher was the so-called “greengrocer’s daughter” who made certain that no young woman, or young man, would be able to claim any such inheritance in contemporary Britain; there are simply no greengrocers left.

 

James Reich – Author of 'Bombshell' (Soft Skull Press, July 2013) and 'I, Judas' (Soft Skull Press, Oct. 2011).