First, a disclaimer of sorts. Although it is virtually impossible to remove one’s own fundamental biases from one’s writing, this post is intended to be a brief discussion on the importance of developing an accurate historical representation of Margaret Thatcher going forward. On this little blog that I have, I actively avoid discussing politics, preferring to write about films and songs and other aspects of popular culture I find interesting. This post is not intended as an exception to this approach, but rather a brief comment on the mechanics of writing history, a topic I have been meaning to write about more often here and there. Normal service will be resumed presently.
I find the use of the term “revisionist history” an interesting one. It is fundamentally pejorative in the popular context: the historical record is being perverted for political or personal ends. Thus is the claim lodged against those eulogizing Margaret Thatcher this past week. They are engaging in “revisionist history” because they are saying that her reign (and I use that word most intentionally) was a benevolent one during which all boats were raised by the tide of her magnanimity. Those in opposition to this view rage and point to her treatment of all social classes of British life she deemed unimportant, such being the majority. Her failure to object adequately to Apartheid. The astonishing state of disrepair in which she left the National Health Service. And on, and on, and on.
All valid complaints. Indeed, if one is to say anything about Thatcher one could certainly say there are many valid complaints. A balanced history will present such complaints as part of portraying a complex human being and political figure. Leaving these issues out is indeed extremely problematic, not least because you’re completely ignoring the vivid cultural atmosphere of the time. During the 1980s, Thatcher was deeply unpopular with a large percentage of the people over whom she and her party governed. Her victory in election is testimony to the fact that Thatcher supporters did in fact exist as much as it is testimony to the impotence of her political opposition, but the existence of such people does not belie the fact that Thatcher was reviled by many and thus lampooned, criticized and generally maligned.
There’s nothing new in this, and so people complain that presenting the “Iron Lady” in hagiographic terms is extremely problematic. They have a point. But is it “revisionist history”? Is it revisionist if, in truth, the popular narrative around Thatcher within large sections of the British media and in a more general sense globally has talked up her achievements for quite some time now? Surely this is not revisionism but retrenchment of a conservative-led historical narrative that has been in place since the early 1980s. The true revisionist voice emerges from those who wish to air Thatcher’s flaws, mistakes and questionable decisions in the clear light of day. People who want to intelligently dissect her years in power, whether to examine how her policies could have been executed differently or to look at the central ideological dynamic of the 1970s and 1980s and question ourselves: had socialism in Britain rendered the state a barely functioning bureaucracy gasping for air as it held society’s entrepreneurial potential under the water? Were there elements of Thatcherism that were, and whisper this one, needed?
The reason we whisper is because so much of Thatcherism is difficult to stomach. For myself, the issue lies not so much with her specific policies as it does with her overall ideological outlook. Not the frequently misquoted “no such thing as society” comment. Forget that. My issue with Thatcher is her complete neglect of people she didn’t consider to be British. Being British meant sounding like her (or as she had come to sound as an adult). Worshipping the same deity as her, preferably in some form she found relatively familiar. Having the same “values” as her. Ah, values.
This dedication to a Britain that had not truly existed since the time of the Blitz, if even then, engendered astonishing policies that made little or no sense to someone not caught up in this revival of British glory. The impossibility of British sovereignty over the Falklands and the ridiculous military conflict that ensued. Her frequently boorish and arrogant treatment of Irish and continental European political leaders. The hunger strikers in 1981 are an excellent example of this. I am by no means a fan of the Irish Republican Army and their behaviour in the 1980s would only become more reprehensible as the decade went on, but Thatcher humanized the hunger strikers by refusing to be humane: by letting people die. Don’t fall for those who talk about the IRA as “freedom fighters”; at least don’t bring that term up with this Irish nationalist. But one has to wonder what kind of mindset permits such a hunger strike to continue and refuses to back down on the basis of principle, a principle determined by British imperial supremacy. A principle more suited to the nineteenth century than the twentieth.
She made mistakes. She was divisive. In many parts of the country she was elected to represent she was far more than divisive. The parties held to celebrate her death are macabre shows of a lack of interest in intellectual investigation, chants at football matches about her passing embarrassing for the sport as a whole. I find it interesting that so many would fulfill the stereotypical views that Thatcher had of people outside her carefully chosen elite. Acting like a thug and an uneducated clot will only reinforce the opinions of those that consider you a thug and/or an uneducated clot. Thatcher needs to be criticized intelligently, not railed against by people with the intellectual depth of a toddler’s paddling pool.
The revisionist history needs to be written. It needs to take into account all of the hatred of Thatcher both during her life and unleashed upon her death. It needs to take into account the shifted landscape of British politics in the 1990s and fully interpret her legacy. It needs to accept that the mining industry could not continue in the manner that it had, though it could also question why the farming industry was left alone (the British are by no means unique in subsidizing farmers, of course). A truly “revisionist” history will indeed revise, it will go over the historical record and it will discuss, and it will question. There’s nothing revisionist about the idea that Thatcher was wonderful and her country needed her; that’s an old idea. That narrative will not be challenged by a revisionism that is one-sided or that allows itself to be dismissed as bitter caterwauling from people that see themselves as losers in a political conflict. She must be humanized, as much as is possible. For years to come, the success of “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” in British pop charts will not make British society look particularly enlightened. It also, unfortunately, undermines the case against Thatcher and allows the supporters of her political message to imply that a crude vocal minority dislikes her but a silent majority benefitted and remembers her fondly. I’m not convinced that’s true, but that’s for the historians to figure out. The true revisionism starts now.