Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!
A week or so ago, I was kindly taken by the Northern Echo to see the biopic of Margaret Thatcher, 'The Iron Lady'. I was to be accompanied by a Tory councillor, who, I was reliably informed, was a fan of Thatcher. The idea was that we would watch the film and have a good, old fashioned ding dong afterwards, with the journalist frantically scribbling away as we traded insults about the legacy of possibly the most divisive figure in British politics. I agreed to do it, despite the fact that many of my friends and political compadres were pledging to boycott the film. It shouldn't be too difficult to summon up a bit of bile for the woman, I thought. After all, she is so hated in the north east that no one, beyond some gloriously out-of-touch local Tories, batted an eyelid when Florence Anderson, deputy leader of Sunderland City Council, said last year that she hoped Thatcher would 'burn in hell' for what she had done to our part of the world.
That's not quite how it worked out, however. I'm not about to declare that I have secretly gone out and purchased a gaudy portrait of Maggie to hang in the People's Bookshop. No the flame of hatred for everything Margaret Thatcher stands for burns bright in me yet. However, as I said in the interview afterwards, it was difficult to feel that justified hatred during the film itself. It was essentially a film about a woman I didn't recognise - someone lonely and lost in the fog of dementure. It was a gentle yet dull film. It covered her early years, when she was undoubtedly less ideologically driven (that came later when her alliances with the shady hard right of the party, including people like Keith Joseph, gave theoretical justification for an almost pathological hatred of the trade unions). The film not only glossed over these details, it airbrushed them out of the picture. Instead what we had was this weak portrait of a tragic and misunderstood figure.
After the film it was difficult to have any reaction except for a feeling of having been cheated. Even the Tory councillor seemed a bit bemused (see the article here) Here was a film about Margaret Thatcher which failed to mention Arthur Scargill by name (gasp) and had the miners wheeled on in the smallest of bit parts (splutter - I think the 1984-85 Miner's Strike, widely acknowledged as the defining battle in Thatcher's premiership, was swept away safely under the carpet in less than a minute!). The Poll Tax was dealt with in a similar manner, with some completely decontextualised footage of the riots in Trafalgar Square and poor old Maggie's car being rocked from side to side by those savages outside. At no point did the 'Iron Lady' attempt to deal at any serious level with the bitter divisons in society at either those times.
The question, then, is not about the film. It's not even, in my view, about Thatch herself. It is about the legacy of Thatcher-ism. This is what we still live with, especially so in County Durham and the North East: de-industrialisation, the erosion of the manufacturing base, the attack on workers rights and the casualisation of employment. Lets not let Maggie off the hook, though. She may not have been the only architect of this ideology, but she was certainly it's willing figure head in the UK. Thatcher brought a personal vindictiveness to a much broader movement for neo-liberal, laissez faire economics. Tony Benn, of course, has put it as well as anyone:
"Her whole philosophy was that you measured the price of everything and the value of nothing - and we have to replace that...there is good and bad in everyone and for 10 years it is the bad that has been...promoted and the good that has been denounced as lunatic, out-of-touch, cloud cuckoo land and extremist".
It is worth watching his full speech at Thatcher's departure - a fantastic dissection of Thatcherism
She had a particular hatred for union militancy and came to power with the aim to 'smash' the trade unions. She made it a personal mission to destroy the NUM. To me, this hits at the heart of why she is so hated in the North East. I was recently reading Peter Crookston's 'The Pitmen's Requiem' - a book about Gresford (the miner's hymn, which commemorates the 265 miners killed in an explosion there in 1934) which beautifully explains the sense of solidarity which developed between miners who literally depended on each other for their lives in incredibly dangerous conditions. This sense of solidarity extended to the pit villages themselves and when people say 'everything revolved atound the pit' they really did mean it. What Thatcher and her hard right ideologues and spooks set out to do was to smash that solidarity and to do that they also had to destroy those communities. Not only did people lose their jobs and futures, many of them lost their friends, their marriages and some their lives (suicides in pit villages during and in the aftermath of the strike were far too commonplace). So the heart of these Durham communities have been ripped out. Nobody connected with mining will ever forgive Maggie for branding the miners 'The Enemy Within'.
Of course, Margaret Thatcher was also the political leader who supported Apartheid South Africa while describing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist; who was a close ally of General Pinochet and invited him to Downing Street; who privatised our national assets; who introduced the Poll Tax; who led us into the Falklands War principally for electoral gain and who said there is no such thing as society and meant it...not that you'd guess any of this by watching 'The Iron Lady'. However, up here it is for her destruction of the coal industry that she will be remembered - and hated. When she dies, I'll probably get a 'carry out' rather than party in the streets, but the best memorial for Thatcher would be to rebuild a strong and vibrant trade union movement - both in the former Durham coalfield and beyond. She would hate that.