By: Stewart Lee
Baroness Margaret Thatcher died on Monday. Or so they say. Whenever an important figure passes away, the usual marijuana-muddled conspiracy quacks are quick to suggest they faked their own death.
But the demise of Baroness Margaret Thatcher has been accepted without question, even by friends of mine who love Nordic jazz fusion, live on houseboats, ride unicycles, and eat only smoke. Can I, then, be alone in suspecting that, while she certainly did not fake her own death, perhaps someone faked Margaret Thatcher’s life? Consider.
The reported death of Mrs Thatcher could deliver a serious blow to the Labour party’s gradual comeback. The Conservatives know they can consolidate this possibility by making themselves appear as the natural heirs to the late Lady Thatcher, but only if the perception of the baroness is micro-managed to appear unambiguously positive. By Wednesday the Thatcher years had been spun so enthusiastically that the proposed parliamentary celebration of her life that afternoon looked from the buttock-shaped space in my sofa like a man trap designed specifically to snap off Ed Miliband’s testicles.
Cameron batted first, using his eulogy as an opportunity to reassert key Conservative ideals unchallenged, as if their efficacy were a matter of historical fact rather than critical interpretation, and knowing that any interruption from the left would be perceived as disrespectful to the dead. This was a genius move, displaying previously absent degrees of cynicism and cunning that suggest Cameron might yet make a great modern politician. Lord Tebbit was even able, in a Shakespearean speech in the House of Lords later, to compare Mrs Thatcher not unfavourably with Christ (in their shared ability to differentiate ruminants), to only a few polite chuckles from astonished Church of England bishops.
The pro-Thatcher consensus had reached critical mass to the point that even suggesting something as innocuous as the baroness being “divisive” brought accusations of bias and bad taste. But I must have lived through a different 1980s, because I remember Lady Thatcher being actively despised. For whatever reasons, united in their hatred of the baroness were massive and vastly different sections of the population, and not just the imaginary Trotskyites Michael Gove is currently trying to resurrect from within their dusty donkey jacket winding sheets.
I wasn’t on the miners’ picket lines in the Thatcher years, nor was I blown up on the Belgrano, and neither was I battered at the Battle of the Beanfield. In the 1980s I was, respectively, a middle-class charity bung public schoolboy, a full-grant Oxbridge literature student, and finally a freelance plant taxonomy researcher and would-be standup. I could only imagine what hard work looked like, though I had seen an arts cinema screening of Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 Soviet propaganda film Earth, about the hardships of Russian agricultural labourers, which gave me a fair idea.
Back then, I knew nothing about anything, admittedly. Maybe Margaret Thatcher was right to hasten the demise of an outdated mining industry, to sell off nationalised concerns to private investors, to enfranchise council house occupants with the right to buy, to neutralise the National Front by appropriating some of its rhetoric, and to leave apartheid unopposed. I was a teenager. I don’t know. At some point in the middle of the decade I discovered alcohol and I wasn’t paying attention. I experienced and understood the world exclusively through the passive assimilation of culture. And culture, it appeared, hated Thatcher. Musicians hated Thatcher. Comedians hated Thatcher. Writers hated Thatcher. There were even aliens from the future in 2000AD comic strips who hated Thatcher. And yet she still managed to get elected. Three times.
From my adolescent bunker the opposition seemed overwhelming. In 1982, 28,000 anarcho-punks had bought Crass’s coruscating How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of 1000 Dead? 7-inch by the time Tim Eggar MP tried to ban it. Indeed, Eve Libertine’s Thatcher impression on Crass’s Sheep Farming in the Falklands single is so convincing that had Meryl Streep not been available for the recent hagiography, Libertine would have made an excellent replacement.
At the other end of the spectrum, in 1983, I remember a swinging Birmingham Odeon full of ordinary-looking couples, come to smooch to the newly pop-friendly UB40’s chart-topping version of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine. Nonetheless, all were happy to sing along to the band’s spectacular 13-minute Maggie-loathing dub workout Madam Medusa, during which MC Astro advocated unequivocally, and to general approval, the assassination of the prime minister. The refrain “Madam Medusa. She can’ offer anytin’, gotta shoot her dead!” seems especially tasteless now, given Thatcher’s targeting by the IRA, her fear of snakes, and the problems she had with unmanageable hair. But these blood-baying punters weren’t Class War bombers. They were normal brummies with babysitters on a bostin’ night out.
One of the glib criticisms of 80s alternative comedy was that all Ben Elton had to do to make a mid-scale theatre full of Friday fun-seekers laugh was to diss the prime minister. Indeed, there was a genuinely terrible comic turn, whose name I forget, whose set consisted solely of working himself up into a berserker-like frenzy of incoherent fury whilst cursing Thatcher and the often overlooked Denis, in a scatological Jamaican patois, spiced with deeply personal and sexually and medically explicit imagery. In retrospect, his act was much better, and more genuine, than anything Ben Elton has ever done, but it is hard now to imagine what anyone saw in it.
I’m not saying these violent and rude responses to Thatcher’s reign were valid, tasteful, or justified, and I hope the Daily Mail message boards don’t decontextualise this piece and say that I am. But they are tiny samples of a massive swath of opinion so unrepresented by last week’s media coverage, I began to wonder if I had imagined the entire 80s, and perhaps even Thatcher herself.
Was there really a time when a grocer’s daughter could have afforded to go to Oxford University, and then find her way into the Bullingdon boys’ club of the Conservative party? All movements need their genesis myths, and Cameron’s Conservatives are no exception. But even the staunchest Scottish nationalist will admit there’s now no evidence for the existence of Ossian, the invented bard whose legacy stimulated the 18th-century Gaelic revival. The idea of a Thatcher is a very useful one, and she continues to be useful to the Conservatives, even in her artfully timed absence. But that footage of her in the gun turret of the tank… the flag that flaps across her face… slow it down. I swear it’s unfolding in opposition to the direction of the wind. And that’s just the start of it all.