Fighting with Ghosts: Thatcher’s Legacy and post-politics

This is not a discussion of the ‘legacy’ of Thatcher in concrete terms – plenty of ink has been and will be spilled on this point – but rather the way in which the debate is being framed. Arguably, it’s a worrying reflection of the British version of ‘post-politics’.

And on it goes. Day three of Thatcher’s death, and it’s still breaking news. There are the debates over ‘respect for the dead’, understandable outrage at the seemingly extortionate state funeral being arranged for an enemy of the public sector, and obviously both shrill and measured discussion over the legacy of the women herself.

What, for me, sticks out in most of these exchanges is a basic asymmetry between the anti-Thatcher camp and the pro. While there tends to be a degree of specificity to the attacks on Thatcher herself, those rallying to her defence have generally kept things pretty vague. “Courage”, “Unwavering attitude” and, most crucially, “Conviction” have been the prominent cries of those looking to mark the occasion with respect. This is quite reminiscent of conversations about Blair and the war in Iraq, wherein the Prime Minister’s conviction was far too central to proceedings. 

Not that this hasn’t also been seen on the left. While there have doubtlessly been many nuanced and well grounded discussions, there’s also been a number of discussions that have focused on the woman’s ‘evil’. Without wanting to repeat too much of what’s been better said here, this is not a great approach.

Overall, this isn’t anything new. In our post-political era, it’s de rigueur for leftists to bemoan the fact that conversations about candidates style have largely trumped concerns with their concrete policies. From Blair to Obama, the importance of marketing an ‘image’ has clearly taken precedence in a time of mass communication. And there is no better image that ‘toughness’, at least in the realm of political characteristics. At the same time, it’s a sad situation. Grown men and women have been reduced to discussing their own decision makers in terms better used to described professional wrestlers. ‘The Iron Lady’ moniker is a case in point.

Another important dimension is something that is hard to put your finger on. Throughout discussion there is an emphasis that Thatcher saved ‘us’ from something ill-defined but troubling. Being ‘proud to be British’ has remained central to this legacy. The parallels with Reagan are clear. At a moment when some of the actual, real tensions of the social arrangements were becoming clear, a figure emerged who was willing to coax us back into a relieved slumber. Of course Britain is a Great Country. Or, as she put it when the Falklands war ended, with my italics “Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the marines. Rejoice.” Put another way, don’t think, just enjoy. 

The Living Dead in the Attic” by Adam Curtis offers a rather good account of this. The “pride and moral righteousness” that accompanied the 1983 election campaign after the Falklands war is strange and surreal to watch. It makes the recently announced Falklands war theme of the funeral make a whole lot more sense.

The notion of reclaiming British identity, or at least re-articulating it in a way that was avidly opposed to reflection, was one legacy. The left has been unsuccessful in combating this. Unlike Scotland, where independence has at least tangentially invoked a national identity based around solidarity and support for the poorest, the claim of Britishness has never been able to take this on. Whether this was ever possible, it’s certainly un-achievable as long as an illusion remains central to our self-conception.

In the context of the domestic policies, there is arguably more to play for. As Zizek argues, while Thatcher’s premiership was characterised by rather haphazard and chaotic policy choices, it was only with the emergence of Tony Blair that the complete retrenchment of UK politics, with Thatcherism as the middle ground, was achieved. What is at stake in the creation of Thatcher as a non-political great statesmen is precisely the idea that neo-liberalism represents a non-controversial middle ground.

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