Maggie or Thatcher? What was the root of her popularity despite the vicious hatred she stirred up?

Despite the mood music of British politics, dominated by those who found Margaret Thatcher despicable, it seems a majority of English people still admired, even if they didn't particularly like, her. Why? Given that the Left has attributed to her all the evils of the modern era, and blasted her as the cause of a legacy of wanton destruction to everything that is good about Britain from the demise of the NHS to the growth of child poverty, how on earth can anyone 'decent' have a good word for her?

Perhaps the answer is simply in what she was: the embodiment of something fundamentally attractive for the post-war British: the embodiment of a nation of aspiring shop keepers, who put making a profit as a moral duty at the centre of their lives. It was an ideology that the British Empire was founded upon. It wasn't about glory and nationalism such as in France. It was very mundane. It was about bringing home the bacon.

The British Empire was a loss, post 1945, that the British have taken absolutely ages to come to terms with. The whole big British mythology crumbled almost over night. Once the dust of war had settled, the victors found that their markets had been usurped by the Americans, and in time by the Japanese and the Germans of all people. Starting with India, the jewel in the British Crown, the Empire rapidly drifted away. And having delivered Europe from conquest and occupation, she was excluded from the new European common market by of all people the defeated French. And back home the post-war reality was not all NHS success stories and never having had it so good. It was rationing, ruined cities, bereavement and widowhood on a vast scale. Despite the propaganda films and the bunting, Britain post war was a crippled, shrivelled, humbled place where the whole point of being British, that is economic success, was lamentably absent. This was the world of which Margaret Thatcher was a part.

This was a world where socialism was the new dominant force, one which claimed to offer hope for all in a decent, equal society and looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration. As the old certainties of nationalistic empires crumbled across Europe after the first world war, it was socialism which was seen as the great threat to the Christian west. This in part explains why the Catholic Church was so equivocal in its condemnation of National Socialism and so close in parts of Fascism: atheistic communism was a massive and violent threat to its very existence. With the fall of the British and French empires during and after the second world war the stage was set for a new global, soviet dominated, world order, one where the working classes came to triumph by a process of political evolution. In Britain these forces re-shaped the Labour Party(ironically culminating in the leadership of Michael Foot) and dominated the political agenda through their grip on organised labour. 

Mrs Thatcher touched this political nerve but not just with her tough, no-nonsense, Iron Lady image. It was precisely her articulation, in a very simplified form, of the British entrepreneurial spirit that had driven the Empire, which so enthralled the masses. National identity was in steady crisis, and while the Scots and even the Welsh coped by re-inventing their own national identities in the political forum, the English in particular seemed left with the blame for everything that had gone wrong, unable to celebrate their past, and uncertain about how to manage the present as there was no vision for the future unless you bought into the utopia of socialism which for most English people was just not conceivable. This in part explains why Maggie appealed so strongly in England, but Thatcher became a hate figure on a par with Guy Fawkes in Scotland. She was a totem of Englishness at a time when Scots were defining themselves against England and the imperial past. She was the plucky, indominatable shopkeeper's daughter leading a rather bedraggled nation of English shopkeepers. 

So, Maggie was a somewhat imperial figure. All that use of the royal 'we' when she announced the birth of her first grandchild was perhaps its apogee, but despite the farcical lengths that it reached nevertheless there was something with which the rather battered English self-image could identify. If it had been just dressing up I don't think it would have had the hold it did, but the re-taking of the Falklands, and her ability to walk alongside President Regan as a much admired ally, gave the edge to the picture. The appearance of barn-storming Europe, of standing up to the alliance of the defeatist French and the defeated Germans also ran well for a generation raised on British Pathe newsclips and endless films about war time heroics. A

Furthermore, Maggie was always taken more seriously by world leaders such as Gorbachev than by the news pundits at home. She wore being British very, very well and in a way which made other countries sit up and listen. The English in particular needed that, to feel somehow that despite everything we still had a special place in the world. After two hundred years ruling the waves, having suddenly lost the command of the oceans the collective British psyche was in trauma and Maggie's brazen self-confidence and unstuffy, no nonsense approach with the trappings of a posh BBC type accent such as found in the post war films from out of Ealing Studios, and that rather typical dose of British arrogance, Maggie, the first woman prime minister in British history and a product of the new wave of grammar schools, who cut through the remnants of the Colonel Blimp brigade and so gave England at least a sense of how it might just be modern and yet sit comfortably with its past.

Comments