Thatcher's funeral v Olympic Opening Ceremony - which is the real Britain?
After a week of media battles over Her legacy, BBC Newsnight opted to report Margaret Thatcher's funeral in an unusually useful way. Rather than take part in the central debate - She was divisive, no She wasn't - Paxman chose to focus on what the nature of the event said about Britain today and how accurate was it?
This question did a lot of useful things all at once. Firstly, it drew attention to the energetic framing activity going on since her death on 8th April. It's hard to believe it has only been a week since Alistair Campbell - the mould from all which spin doctors are cast - sat in that very same studio wondering why Cameron had recalled Parliament early to eulogise his old boss. We now know that was merely the starting pistol for a week long spectacle of Thatcher love which took most of our newspapers by surprise. Caught in a classic double bind - you wouldn't want to lose readers / voters by speaking ill of the dead, would you? - only those with nothing to lose spoke against her.
Secondly, Paxman focussed on three institutions that underpinned the event - the army, the Royal Family and the Church - and asked to what extent these represented the state and its citizens, thirteen years into the 21C? It's a good question which opens up a can of worms: are we still a nation defined by our military prowess, rigid hierarchies and a singular religious narrative? Will we always be comfortable re-visiting the sinking of the Belgrano, even post Iraq? Can we go on applauding strength in the face of the Unions, even as unemployment reaches 2.56 million? Do we still accept that pomp has to be paid for when people are homeless and starving - simply because it was once core to our identity?
While The Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror continued to draw swords on whether She was loved or hated, Newsnight did well to challenge what amounted to a full scale heist of our collective identity - our image both at home and abroad and the font of our soft power.
If you are not sure what I am talking about here, cast your mind back to the Olympic Opening Ceremony less than a year ago and remember how Danny Boyle did the very same thing - only with a completely different message. He spent £27 million telling the world that Britain was a complex, caring, artistic nation, embracing the world's cultures at home. Not only was the NHS presented as the nation's favourite institution, but mixed marriage as our typical 21C romance and Tim Berners Lee as our natural elder statesman. The international media lapped it up signifying a shift in the way Britain was seen by the rest of the world: less a power to be reckoned with, more one to cosy up to. It was audacious but captured the audience's imagination not only because is was realistic, but because it was updated for a networked, interdependent world.
Despite the ceremony occurring on a Tory-dominated government's watch, it was Labour's day: I wouldn't be surprised if Cameron had started planning Thatcher's revenge even before Chris Hoy won his first medal.
It's a salutary thought that no matter which present moment you are occupying, it is possible to re-write and own the past. Not so much in terms of statistics - 88 million people will always have died in the World Wars, no matter how you feel about it. But in terms of meaning, any good story teller can re-cast history for good or ill. Try it yourself: take any devastating incident of your youth and narrate it as a key learning moment for your adult life and you will be grateful, in some way, that it happened.
However, if you were to re-visit that moment, remember in detail the context in which it happened, assess the innumerable small consequences - from its effect on your confidence to the loss of possibilities in the environment - you might decide that it was not a good lesson you learnt that day: it might have been the day you learnt to bow to fate.
What makes Cameron's Thatcher-funeral narrative so jarring compared to Boyle's however, is its lack of emotional coherence - something we have learnt to expect from major spectacles since Diana's funeral. Diana's funeral struck a major chord because it was the thing she would have wanted more than anything - full on, emotional attention. But Thatcher was different.
Everyone has a Maggie story and this is mine: a woman I know well - a conservative voter - lived in Thatcher's Finchley constituency, opposite a successful businessman who made his fortune during her government. He invited my friend to a garden party at which Mrs T was to be guest of honour. Unfortunately, it turned out that the party fell on the same day as the troops were sent to war in the Falklands. My friend planned to drop in briefly, expecting a no show from the PM, but found instead Mrs T in full flow, laughing and drinking champagne as the ships set sail. My friend never voted Conservative again.
Despite her famed mental clarity, Thatcher's campaigns were largely built on nominalisations - verbs masquerading as nouns, described here (http://www.hgi.org.uk/archive/abstractions.htm) by social-psychotherapists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell. Quoting Francis of Assisi on the steps of no 10, she promised harmony, truth, faith and hope - as any evangelist would, regardless of their methods.
Most controversially, she offered freedom - but whether that was freedom to choose or freedom to starve was also not clear. The purpose of nominalisations, according to Griffin and Tyrell is to arouse our baser emotions (anger, greed, selfishness) and make us 'stupid' - that is to say, unaware of the environment in which we are acting. But it wasn't a shallow trick on us - she herself was driven by ideology and context blind: she could sense the goal, but not the complex terrain she had to destroy to get there.
The Conservative Party is content to present her victories - against the miners, against Russia, against the Argentinians - as zero sum games with clear victors, in the hope one imagines, of aligning the present troubles with past glories. But the fall out in each case - the devastation of the North, the decimation behind the Iron Curtain, the sinking of the Belgrano, each with its own long term consequences - would today prompt the question, wouldn't a more complex politician have handled it better? I use the term complex carefully: not in opposition to simplicity, but in contrast to what her own daughter called her Mother's tunnel vision. Like many individualists, she could see society, but not acknowledge it; she could see poverty but not allow it its own domain of experience. In this age of emotional, social and - yes - spiritual literacy, she would be exposed as somewhat lacking.
For this reason, despite the tsunami of money, effort and attention lavished on Thatcher's funeral this week, I fear it will have been a waste of taxpayers' money. The world will not suddenly sit up and take note again of Britain's global authority. The British people are unlikely to reframe the bedroom tax or other brutal cuts as signs of Thatcheresque strength and vision. Instead, the funeral is more likely to be fondly appreciated as a moment of nostalgia - maybe the last time we will so flagrantly display the unacceptable gap between the rich and poor, the free and the trapped or the ignorant and the aware.