I have never been a Conservative Prime Minister but I have been, for a brief period in 1967-68, a two year-old and this has given me some insight into the nature of a Tory PM.
Life is hard for two year olds. Really, really hard.
As you may remember, for that first hundred weeks all of your investigations have gone to prove one thing: that you are cosmically important. You are the centre of literally everything that happens. Your confidence in this matter cannot be shaken. However, just as you are developing the language skills to explain your philosophy and to start to advance your next proposition, that some more things – all of the things, really – should be brought to you for your entertainment, people stop taking an interest and drift away.
They are lost like individual bits of poetic imagery in a Blade Runner script.
This infuriating state of affairs is temporary for most of us. We grow to accept a more realistic idea of our place in the universe. We make an imaginative leap and start to consider that maybe the insides of other peoples’ heads are bit like the inside of our own. We learn about empathy. We realise that life is finite, and that en route from the cervix to the catafalque maybe it would be quite nice to experience what other people have to offer, and to share with them what we have in return.
We rejoice in the similarities. We savour the differences. We observe our responsibilities and we are mindful of the dangers. We read, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” or, more mangledly “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”
What happens is we grow up.
Some of us buy tea towels with The Desiderata written on them.
It is the personal equivalent of the Copernican revolution, that glorious scientific paradigm shift that gave us the philosophical humility to ditch the infantile favoured-child shtick in favour of a more mature view of the universe.
I don’t know whether or not Margaret Thatcher went through this process. If she did then it is hard to see any evidence of it. Her policies had no human compassion in them at all, no indication whatsoever that she understood or cared that other people have interior lives with their own complexity and fragility.
One of the things that most impresses me about the United Kingdom is the way that after the Second World War there was an engulfing wave of common sense. The country worked hard, and built things, and set up a system where, without succumbing to totalitarianism, people put into the state what they could afford and took out what they needed.
By the time Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 some of this idealism had been squandered. Decades of prosperity had left the country with a hangover of mild complacency and inertia. It is not the case, however, that the country was a dead man walking. There was still a salvageable manufacturing base and there was still a responsible citizenry who wanted to work for their wages.
Some of the propaganda I have read since Thatcher’s death is astonishing. If you don’t remember the seventies first hand please check anything you read in the newspapers at the moment with a creditable source. The stuff that you think couldn’t possibly be true isn’t, in fact, true.
What Thatcher did is, I think, contemptible. She took the perfectly reasonable notions of personal responsibility and accountability and warped them into a cult of self-will. A charnel house of carnivorous abandon. A society in which the loudest-voiced, sharpest-elbowed, and philosophically least-inquisitive got everything, whilst the meek, the ill and the unfortunate could, frankly, fuck off.
I find this disappointing in a human. We are better than that. I find it disappointing in a woman. An opportunity to redress gender imbalance got pissed up a wall there. And I find it disappointing in a scientist who should really have understood how society has evolved. How individual selfishness is tempered by a degree of adapted flexible social altruism, which is what prevents the species’ disintegration.
The idea of propulsive self-will, her big thing, is problematic in itself. Our lives, our consciousnesses, our society, all that stuff we claim responsibility for isn’t really of our personal doing at all. Some of us are tall and symmetrical but don’t understand sentence structure. Some of us look like Doctor Who monsters but can put together a decent cryptic crossword given enough coffee and Wagon Wheels. Some of us can put up shelves, and some of us can fart the theme tune to Van Der Valk.
That’s all stuff that came pre-installed. It’s not really something we can be congratulated for. We feel like we have the ability to work hard and develop our factory settings into something even more elaborate, but is even that any of our doing? Isn’t it more of a legacy of our early influences?
My point is, everyone’s got stuff they can and can’t do, whence-so-ever it springs. My feeling is we move forward more easily if we’ve got each other’s backs covered than if we haven’t.
Thatcher saw things differently. In her worldview you started with yourself and then moved outward, protecting those that are the most immediately like you and throwing the rest to the wolves.
Her advice to us to “rejoice” in the Falklands victory, a conflict many of us at the time found ambiguous at best, had at its core a fundamental belief that Britain was objectively correct, and that Argentina’s case was nonexistent. This was reflected in the USA at the same time with Reagan persistently traducing Russia as an “evil empire”, an absurdly reductive moral reading of a somewhat more complex political reality.
That inability to establish a rapport with other human beings possessed of a different ideology; that indignant, temper-tantrum way of insisting that you are right and they are wrong; that total failure to understand that other people have a right to be different from you. These are the things I found despicable about Thatcher.
Her foreign policies and her domestic policies boiled down to the same thing: an absolute insistence that she was correct in her opinions about self-reliance, and that any nay-sayers were to be ground to dust, and the dust pissed upon by chortling acolytes.
Right and wrong. Us and them. Hatred and intolerance. It was as though the 1974 Tomorrow People story “The Blue And The Green” had taught us nothing.
The country turned, under Thatcher’s aegis, from the equivalent of a roomful of gauche twenty year-olds all doing their best into a roomful of self-centred two year-olds. A shrieking, grabby, unsustainable mess. The result today is that we have a country in the developed world in which some people are having to choose between eating and heating their homes, whilst other people are getting their moats cleaned at the tax payers’ expense or investing in floating duck islands. Despite the fact, as I have written on many previous occasions, that DUCKS CAN ALREADY FLOAT.
It’s not even as if her policies had any validity to them. The trains, the phones, the postal service and the supply of energy were all taken out of public ownership. The argument was that the services would become leaner and fitter in the competitive world of the private sector. That did not happen. We now have a shambles of a system where in each of these cases the actual provision of a service is the last thing on the minds of the staff as they try to squeeze money out of you to fund their bonuses.
Of the arts (particularly the BBC), or sport, or anything that contributed to the aesthetic quality of life in our country she could not have been more contemptuous. All she was concerned about in that sour, dusty, Gradgrindish way was that people should accumulate personal wealth. The idea that money was a means to an end rather than an end itself would have been alien to her.
Anger is not really my business. It trips me up. It brings me down. Before I know it my brow is furrowed, my finger is wagging my dudgeon is high, my self-righteousness is off the scale and I have morphed exactly into the thing I purport to be against. So I was glad when initially Thatcher’s death on Monday left me unmoved. Obviously there were no tears. There was no grief. Neither though was there the swooping giddiness or relief I might have expected. No rage. No gloating. Nothing.
I thoroughly enjoyed the unfiltered emotional honesty of Twitter through the two days that followed, and I felt cosy and smug at how easily I was able to let it all unfold without feeling the need to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in.
Different today though. The dishonest, civilised trappings of rectitude and decorum have been dismantled today and I have discovered an angry glowing core behind them that I didn’t suspect and I don’t really know how to deal with.
MPs travelling to pay their grovelling respects will be able to claim up to £3750 expenses from the public purse. The ceremonial funeral itself will now cost somewhere between 8 and 10 million pounds. That’s all real money to someone trying to scrape by on DLA. And all in celebration of someone who did more to kick the decency, humanity and gentleness out of this country than anyone else in history.
I am angry about this.
My supposed code of love and tolerance is ragged and unconvincing today.
Thirty-four years. Still hate Thatcher.