As I write this the lettering on the board of the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, normally reserved for film titles, reads "Margret Thatcher Dead LOL." It is hard to imagine any other politician in the history of Britain provoking so much celebration simply by ceasing to exist and yet almost nobody else would warrant the shear level of praise and admiration that came pouring in minutes after the announcement of her death. If there is one adjective we all seem to be able agree on it is 'divisive' and this isn't just because she was the most influential British prime minister of the last 60 years.
One thing I have noticed about this divide is age. While the newspapers devoted themselves to tributes, a sizable portion of the anti-Thatcher appeared to be written on twitter by people too young to have experienced Thatcherism directly. This also appeared to be true of the party-goers popping champagne bottles on Brixton high street at 1am on the morning after the night before. I spent the night at a poetry slam in Camden watching young poet after young poet stand up and joke about Maggie "privatising in hell." It almost seemed as if those with a second hand experience of Thatcher's Britain were the most verbally hostile. This is probably because we have been told an awful lot about how, in one way or another, Thatcher was responsible for almost everything wrong with Britain today but little about the Britain that Thatcher inherited.
Granted, from our extortionate gas bills and train fairs to our cynical and destructive financial services industry, she does appear to have left her blue fingerprints on almost everything worthy of our collective anger. But the Britain Thatcher found herself in towards the end of the 1970s was so far removed from where we are today, that it is almost impossible to understand her motivation without knowing something of that alien island.
This is a world where the government provided almost everything. They built our cars, they sold our petrol, they sold our heating, our water and even offered to organise our holidays. Just imagine all the irritating private companies, which exist to frustrate us all on a near daily basis, but compressed into one massive bureaucratic behemoth. This I can imagine would be antagonising enough if it worked slowly, but if appeared to work badly and against the interests of the taxpayer, as it did when we suffered rolling black outs, rubbish and unburied coffins piling up in the street, it would conceivably give cause to some rather radical solutions.
But don't take my word for it; I was born in 1991, the same day Bart Simpson made it to number one in the pop charts. If you really want a window into that pre-Thatcher world then look towards Brazil, not the country but the film. Art, thoughtful art at least, usually serves as a revealing barometer of the age that inspired it and Terry Gilliam's Brazil is a perfect example.
Set in a semi-Orwellian dystopia of ubiquitous litter and inefficient bureaucracy, the film's luckless protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) battles against the government department for whom he works while fending off harassment from the box-ticking heating maintenance personnel from 'Central Services'. All amidst the near-constant disruption of an IRA-like terrorist campaign. However, the film's real hero is Tuttle (Robert De Niro) an illegal hero, wanted by the state, who fixes the heating without asking you to fill in a form. This is played out within a bleak and grey industrial landscape of high-rise council flats and concrete. The fear of this future gave birth not only to the inspiration for Gilliam's film but also, I believe, gave birth to Thatcher, who, like most politicians, was a product of the habitat she grew up in.
As for her Iron categorization on the periodic table, this was probably the result of a backlash against a slow and seemingly self-serving civil service. One of Thatcher's advisers, Sir Antony Jay, even wrote a sitcom about Whitehall called Yes Minister, which sees the fictional James Hacker MP forced to compromise his political ambitions by a swollen civil service made up of out-of-touch Ox-bridge elites. In the series Hacker starts as an idealist but is eventually ground down and by the end he just wants to make government work. In the mean time nothing changes but for the further empowerment of Whitehall's vested interests. Yes Minister became known as Thatcher's favourite program. (It's not often that satire is admired by the powerful) In one scene Hacker's antagonist, Sir Humphrey Appleby explains, (that) "if the right people don't have power the wrong people get it, politicians, councillors, voters... British democracy recognises that you need a system to protect the important things in life and keep out of the hands of the barbarians. Things like the opera, radio 3, the countryside, the law, the universities... both of them... and we are that system."
Ultimately, the wrong people did attain power. Because instead of reforming the inappropriate elements of our government, Thatcher simply sold them off to the highest bidder. As a result the forces that were worth resenting in Brazil remain, hidden behind a wall colourful logos each with a commitment to profit but not necessarily the people they are contracted to serve. But Thatcher, far from being a lone over zealous social vandal, acted as the figurehead, representing a popular distaste for the worse aspects of our badly run, big government.
And for all the anti-Thatcher of the 21st century, we must remember that she won three elections in a row, most of us were, at least at the time, at worse willing and at best complicit.Suggest a correction