Debating Margaret Thatcher’s Legacy

Photograph of a placard at a protest march, drawing a connection between the poll tax and the bedroom tax

Scottish Parliament protest in March 2013, by Brian McNeil (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

More than twenty-five years after she left office, Margaret Thatcher remains a controversial figure, and recent political events suggest that her legacy continues to be felt today. We asked Antony Mullen, organiser of a forthcoming conference on Thatcher and Thatcherism and founder of the Thatcher Network, about the challenges and advantages of reevaluating the history and influence of the Iron Lady. 

Sitting as we are in Durham, a city where many people still feel anger about Thatcher’s perceived role in the collapse of mining and industry, an obvious question springs to mind: is it not a bit risky to organise a conference looking at Thatcher’s legacy here? Or is this actually the ideal place to assess a figure who elicits strong opinions to this day?

It’s an interesting question for a number of reasons. I was born in Sunderland and studied at Newcastle University before coming to Durham, and I think it’s safe to say that the sentiment can be extended to the North East more generally. There is an ill-founded perception that Thatcher single-handedly closed down the mines and the shipyards for ideological reasons. Actually more mines closed under her Labour predecessors. Nonetheless, she does inspire a particular reaction in many people from the area, and the reasons and justifications for such reactions are worth considering.

As for hosting the conference in Durham: all views are welcome. When I set up the Thatcher Network I had two aims: never host an event in London and don’t exclude the Marxists, tempting as the latter may be. By hosting the conference here and inviting perspectives from across the political spectrum, as well as from across academic disciplines, I think I’ve achieved both. I hope the conference is a good example of what academia should be like, as opposed to the recent trend we’ve seen with speakers being ‘no platformed’ because their views are different to those of their hosts and therefore deemed offensive and punishable with silence. It’s a conference that works for everybody!

Covers of the novels Money, The Child in Time and The Line of Beauty

Your own research looks at the way novelists have handled Thatcherism since the 1980s. Does the stereotypical assumption that most authors are “left-wing luvvies” have a basis in fact? Have most novelists indeed tended to be critical of Thatcher?

To an extent, yes. Perhaps a better way of looking at it is that they are critical of certain ideological elements of what we understand to be ‘Thatcherism’, rather than Thatcher. Ian McEwan’s gender-less Prime Minister in The Child in Time is clearly Thatcher, though he never names her. Martin Amis’ Money similarly draws attention to the ‘PM having PMT’. Her sex is used to identify her without naming her. It is much more common though to find novels which question and challenge her ideas of freedom, national identity and what she sees as the moral underpinning of market economics, than it is to find those who set out to simply criticise her. This is quite interesting because it shows that, since the early 1980s, fiction has posited an understanding of Thatcherism as something bigger than Thatcher herself (and not all political commentators at the time acknowledged this).

So there are no more positive views of Thatcher in fiction?

I have not yet come across a positive representation of Thatcher in fiction, though in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, written in 2004, she appears vulnerable amidst a group of Tory sycophants. She attends a dinner party and the guests are so excited for her arrival that they have overlooked the fact that she is already there, dancing in the garden. One of my favourite representations of Thatcher is in the Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. After Bond has saved the world in one way or another, he receives a congratulatory phone call from Thatcher. Too busy to listen, Bond dangles the end of the phone next to a parrot and she unknowingly has a conversation with that instead.

 We in the UK now have our second female Prime Minister, but the aftermath of the US election has seen some doubt that a woman will ever break the hardest, highest glass ceiling in politics. This makes the conference especially timely. Is gender going to be on the agenda? What do you think Thatcher’s legacy was in this area?

Gender will be on the agenda at the conference. One paper in particular will consider Thatcher’s political style and her personal relationships with other key figures of the period. Another will compare the discursive patterns of Thatcher and Theresa May. Martin Farr, one of our keynote speakers, has previously pointed out that Thatcher has become an international symbol for a certain kind of female leader.

It’s interesting to compare Thatcher and May with Hillary Clinton. When Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition she was a relative unknown. She was best known as ‘Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’, the Education Secretary who ended free school milk (though fewer people know that she did it to fund the Open University, as Thatcher archivist Andrew Riley told me). May was a well-established politician and known as the modest-but-competent Home Secretary, but we know very little about her personal life. Hillary Clinton was in a different situation altogether – experienced and competent but also seen to be untrustworthy and part of a political dynasty that has been at the top for over two decades. In many respects this is what harmed Clinton rather than her sex. Her experience was seen as baggage and proof that she was a member of some kind of elite. To some, she was also a continuity of her predecessor without her own style or anything new to offer – the same was not true of Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton

Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton

With the recent election of Donald Trump, some commentators have suggested that we will now see the Thatcher-Regan alliance rebranded as May-Trump. What (if anything) does a look at the legacy of Thatcher suggest about how things will pan out over the coming years?

Ronald Reagan often spoke to, and about, Thatcher with a certain charm and warmth of which I suspect Donald Trump is entirely incapable on a basic human level. Theresa May is also much more explicitly feminist than Thatcher, and I think she will always be cautious of Trump’s attitude to women. What we have seen already when May has spoken about Trump is an attempt to guide him. She’s emphasised their shared commitment to certain values, liberal democracy and free trade, things to which Trump has previously shown no commitment at all. However, if Trump is seduced by the idea of the Thatcher-Reagan relationship it could work in May’s favour and afford her greater influence over him than, for example, Angela Merkel.

As someone who looks at the continuation of Thatcher’s ideas in culture and society since her time, you’re in a better position than many to judge what Thatcher might have made of the Brexit vote. If Thatcher were here today, would she be a Remainer or Brexiteer?

I think Thatcher would certainly sympathise with a lot of what Vote Leave proposed. Many of the Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party, such as Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith, take influence from Thatcher’s later years when she had become much more ambivalent about the European project, despite her immense contribution to it. I’m not sure how she would have voted. If she was Prime Minister she would probably have negotiated a better deal than David Cameron did and, on the basis that she had negotiated it, advocated remaining (as it would have been a reflection of her ability to do business with Europe). If she had been a member of the House of Lords and the referendum was held by John Major, I think she’d have probably been driving the Brexit bus.

In addition to organising the conference, you have also recently set up the Thatcher Network, to bring together those interested in researching Thatcher, Thatcherism and the Conservative Party. Why was this necessary? Has there not already been much effort to study the legacy of someone whose ideas and image, as your earlier answers suggest, continue to be so significant today?

My PhD research is very interdisciplinary. I’m generally interested in the history of modern conservative thought, nationalism, and the relationship between the free individual and the state. What interests me is that these debates and concepts emerged around the same moment as the novel did, in the 18th century, and so the novel has historically been concerned with these ideas. My thesis asks how the novel continues to interact with these ideas as they are (re)articulated as ‘Thatcherism’.

As such, I read a lot of political theory and political history and so I became aware of how many academics, working in vastly different disciplines, are currently working on new ways of thinking about Thatcherism. I assumed that there would be a group to bring these academics together, which I could just join, but there wasn’t one. That is why I set up the Thatcher Network: not because she is understudied, but because she is studied so much, from so many viewpoints, and I thought it would be good to bring people together. I honestly don’t think I was the right person to set it up, but I’m genuinely very pleased with how well it’s going and grateful to everybody who follows @ThatcherNetwork on twitter or who has subscribed to the website. Of course if there are others out there who would like to get involved in running it and organising future events, I would welcome that…

Registration for the conference Thatcher and Thatcherism: New Critical Perspectives, taking place on 19th and 20th January 2017, is now open; places are limited, so register by 6th January here. The conference programme and speakers’ abstracts and biographies are available online at the Thatcher Network. The conference is supported by the Institute of Advanced Study and the Social History Society


3 responses to “Debating Margaret Thatcher’s Legacy

  1. Pingback: ‘Give a hand to your neighbour’: Margaret Thatcher and Pornography (Public lecture, 14th February) | READ Research in English at Durham·

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  3. Pingback: Thatcherism Now (Call for Papers, 3rd November) | READ Research English At Durham·

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