Thatcher’s Cultural Impact in Britain: Some Thoughts

Usually, I feel incredibly uncomfortable opining on foreign leaders, particularly foreign leaders who were before my time—if I haven’t lived under them and had their decisions impact my life, anything I can contribute is just academic analysis—worse than academic really, since I have no basis in reality whatsoever for my thoughts.  As a result, for any leader with a track record less than that of Castro/Pinochet/Saddam Hussein in terms of sheer inhumanity, I tend to hold my tongue.

However, given that all the political oxygen here in the UK has been absorbed in the debate about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in the wake of her death, I think I have some license to say a few words—if not about Thatcher’s life (for which I was not present either in the sense of being in the UK or in the sense of being alive), then about the debate concerning her legacy—for which I am present.

In the US, whenever a political figure dies—Reagan, Ford (both of which I remember) or even Nixon—any contention concerning their ultimate impact of their legacy is delayed, put on hold, or simple ignored.  America places a high premium on providing for a graceful sendoff—which I most certainly don’t have a problem with!  That said, from my perspective at least, there’s not a similar reticence here in the UK.  Magazines and newspapers (certainly a minority, it should be noted) have felt free to run with headlines such as “Margaret Thatcher: The Ruin of Britain,” and people—cartoonists, leftists, union people and the like—have felt free to make their feelings felt.  There is a difference between doing that in a classy way (sternly written eulogies, say) and doing it in a less than classy way (dancing on drawings of Thatcher’s grave, say), but that’s neither here nor there.

Thatcher acquired a sort of cultural status at the time of her death.  In a land that has always been in love with strong leaders—or at least, recognized their value, in some sense—Thatcher has occupied a special modern role.  While many focus on her policies—with those who do usually thinking poorly of her—those who reflect on her personal characteristics (her resolve, her toughness, her strength of character) tend to like her.  This is a pretty common feature in politics—voters prizing personal characteristics over policy decisions—and it’s interesting to see that it’s a common theme in electoral politics.

I attended Thatcher’s funeral yesterday—at least a part of the procession—and the atmosphere was entirely unique—unlike anything I really have ever been a part of before.  It was much more crowded than I would have thought, and the atmosphere was almost just one of curiosity.  Thatcher’s life was controversial (something no one would disagree about), and her death has created several miniature controversies itself—over the BBC’s decision to play “Ding Dong!  The Witch is Dead!” as part of its weekly Top 40 rotation (the song got put there as part of a campaign by anti-Thatcher protestors), as well as over funeral costs (in a time of austerity, there certainly are a lot of other things ten million pounds could be paying for).  For people actually watching the procession go by, there was a feeling of intrigue—is this really what all of this fuss has been about?

Americans have long been the beneficiary of uniquely close relations with our politicians, including our presidents—ever since the age of Andrew Jackson.  We go to state fairs with them, we watch as they eat corn dogs, if we’re so motivated we can hear them speak.  The relationship people in the UK have with their politicians is different—partially for structural reasons (Thatcher never had to be directly elected by the country as a whole), partially for cultural reasons (other countries don’t necessitate that their politicians eat deep fried food every time they want to win an election).  Thatcher benefitted from this distance to acquire a mythic status in the US popular imagination as much (even more so!) than in the British one.  As a result—with the future of British politics somewhat uncertain—it appears Thatcher will have a long cultural afterlife, whatever the ultimate fate of the politics she championed.

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