I have walked past Margaret Thatcher's home in Belgravia every Saturday morning for the last two years. The only way the public would know it was her home was the solitary policeman with a big gun. On many an occasion it has made me think of who was inside. Her legacy is potent and ironically it has the potential to win the Conservatives the next election. At this point Labour has very nearly left it too late to convince the public of a clear direction. The Conservatives can retro-fit her legacy to give their current policies some meaning and identity.
Over the last twenty years little was seen or heard of her. The vacuum was filled by myth makers, movies with Meryl Streep and constant analysis in the press but we never heard much from the woman herself. It's curious to watch the interviews with Lord Cecil Parkinson, Ken Clarke and former members of her cabinet, who now try to say they did challenge her at cabinet level but, at the same time, will take no responsibility for the legacy.
What did she think of her legacy? Was she the veteran stateswoman who had become so obsessed with the game that she tended to exclude everything else, even the thought of a life after politics, family, marriage and friendship? Was she still obsessed with her demise and the Machiavellian betrayal which led to her downfall? What were her views on the world we live in today and the impact her government's Hayekian neo-liberal policies have had on the UK? I doubt she would agree that rolling back the state and selling all assets of the nation has left the UK weaker without money power or an economic future.
An industry has been built by commentators on right and conservatives longing for a second coming to answer these questions. The right has never stopped looking for someone to lead their movement to such emphatic victories. New Labour led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were so mesmerised by her control of the centre ground that instead of changing or rolling back the flawed ideologies and economics, they adopted them. They never built more social housing, they never focused on tighter regulation of financial markets or utilities. They rebranded the laissez-faire approach to taxation and regulation as the 'third way' globalisation. They took her legacy and ran with it. They inflated the economy, ignored the need for an industrial economic plan and they let the good times roll. We are now sitting under the avalanche.
It is this legacy that poses the biggest threat to Labour winning the next election. When Thatcher resigned Neil Kinnock warned the Labour shadow cabinet that they had been robbed of their 'biggest election asset'. In a strange twist of fate and as the nation goes into mourning and the Thatcher memorial industry kicks into gear her agenda and beliefs will be introduced to a new generation of swinging voters. Charles Moore and the Daily Telegraph are ready to unleash her serialised biography on the nation. The blanket coverage has started already. No doubt Lord Bell will play a strong hand in managing and airbrushing her legacy. George Osborne and David Cameron can use her iconic status to give the conservative brand meaning.
This poses a huge threat to Labour. The failure of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to be clear with their policies or what they will do for people makes it hard for the public to trust them or give them a chance. Those who keep an eye on politics and understand the Westminster village understand the subtle differences between the Coalition and Labour. This is not clear to the public who see them all as 'politicians' who are not authentic and therefore cannot be trusted. So instead of taking a chance they will support the brand owners of the Thatcher elixir.
We live in a world where we look back to find inspiration and authenticity. Steven Poole summarised this trend in his March 2013 New Statesman essay. Brands re-launch themselves loudly with a retro-feel to give them authenticity. Since the 1960s Coke has advertised itself as the 'real thing'. Marks & Spencer's men's underwear is branded as 'authentic' leaving the public wondering what an inauthentic pair of underpants feel like. The hottest ticket in rock music this year will be five septuagenarians, the Rolling Stones playing Hyde Park. This is 40 years since the last date they played there. They are still playing a 40 year old set but it appeals for its authenticity and the link with the past.
Authenticity is a useful pose in the political arena. Claiming to be a 'realist' with understanding of how to deal with 'tough economic challenges' handily implies that your opponents have nothing but utopian dreams. Posing as the people who have been in these 'tough times' before is a strong narrative. Presented with these two options the public are bound to go with and trust the tried and tested.
So whatever progressives and the left think of Thatcher she was an icon with a clear narrative. She is a figurehead which the 'sons and daughters of Thatcher' can rally around. She poses the biggest threat to Labour losing the election in 2015.
If the Conservatives successfully build a narrative around the Thatcher legacy and its perceived success, they will win the next election. Of course this means never admitting that the big bang and selling off the utility and energy companies to corporates and foreign government-owned companies was one of the worst things for consumers in the UK.
If Osborne and Cameron can hard-fuse the public's imagination of the economic challenges of 1979 and convince us that we are in a time warp faced with the same challenges and that the terrible pain is necessary, the next election will be theirs and the pain will be ours.
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