History and Memory: Thatcher and the lens of perception

On Monday 8th April 2013, I was interrupted whilst outlining an article on religion by news of the death of the person who had been on the front cover of my A-Level British History textbook. Actually, Margaret Thatcher had not been on the cover of the textbook; she was the cover of the textbook.


The course, which covered political and social history from 1945 to 1990, was visually represented not by an architectural or thematic fixture of postwar politics – the reconstructed House of Commons, an NHS hospital, a motorway under construction etc – but by a single Prime Minister. Of the names which the sixth form students of 2010 learned in studying British governments of the twentieth century, one was already known even to those previously uninterested in political history. Whilst Baldwin, Attlee and Wilson were new and unfamiliar, Thatcher is the name that everybody knew.

The memorialising of an established political icon is tinged with semantics and unspoken priorities; for the 24-hour news providers in the UK, BBC News Channel and Sky News, a semblance of balance and impartiality is the most obvious. Under the surface, the need to convey the importance of the life and work of an individual to those too young to remember them firsthand is another concern. For those under the age of twenty-five, there is virtually no first-hand ‘memory’ of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership accessible, and for those uninitiated in the mores of political history, new understanding must be constructed, in many instances from scratch.

to be totally unaware of Margaret Thatcher as a political figure and an iconic personality was a near-impossibility

What is more notable about the coverage of Baroness Thatcher’s death for historians (by which I mean greenhorn History students like me as well as amateur history buffs) is the presentation of the events which shaped her time in office. Either that, or the inverse, with her premiership and personality being accredited for the complete ‘transformation’ (an already vastly overused favourite by the self-consciously ‘objective’) and the very redefinition of the British political landscape.

As the news channels loop footage of Thatcher in her later years meeting more contemporaneous politicians in some of her final public appearances, we are shown the formative events of her political career in near-hagiographic retrospective show reels.

we are shown the formative events of her political career in near-hagiographic retrospective show reels
The grainy footage of 1978, the uncollected rubbish and the unburied dead in Liverpool, the out-of-control unions and Britain, the ‘sick man of Europe’, going cap in hand to the IMF. All with an air of legitimisation and a justifying tone, even by the centrists. Though not all went as far as David Cameron’s explicit statement that Thatcher “saved our country”, the consensus around the Prime Minister who smashed the postwar consensus was that her ascent to power was, on some impermeable level, necessary.

In addition to the formation of new understanding in the young and those without any direct experience of the Thatcher years, it will be important to see how those with first-hand recollections now perceive the period from 1979-1990. Orwell’s timeless aphorism of “who controls the past” via the political present, and consequently the future is pertinent here if only for the extreme rose-tinting of lenses applied by print, television and online media.

While Margaret Thatcher is referred to in almost every tribute and obituary as ‘divisive’, a courageous character is built up around the Iron Lady for her crusades against enemies internal and external, reflecting her own view – The Independent’s obituary states that “her own self-image was of an outsider battling with an inert establishment." Through this overt emphasis on her personal character, reinforcing and redoubling the cult of personality around Thatcher indulged in by her supporters and opponents alike, a singular historical focus is the result.

Less than one week before her death, Private Eye mocked a “new and pervasive tendency” in modern British historiography for right-wing revisionism and a deeply Thatcher-centric view of postwar politics. In the Books and Bookmen section of Eye 1337, the efforts of Dominic Sandbrook and Graham Stewart in recently-published narrative histories of the 1970s and 1980s which do little more than make Margaret Thatcher the central subject, glossing over or ignoring completely the presence of other substantial figures of the period.

However comical the efforts of her admirers to place her at the centre of everything, even when it requires the greatest stretches of the imagination, there is a disturbing element of historical distortion present in the Thatcher-centric view of recent history. We can expect it to become more visible during the inevitable coming months of commissioned biographies and the personal memoirs of others which emphasise her presence and their proximity to her.

The news that her ‘ceremonial’ funeral will align her posthumously to the state of Princess Diana should prompt concern in its twofold implications. Beyond the practicalities of the funeral itself, placing Baroness Thatcher with the religiously-revered Diana will only elevate her further beyond criticism and above all, critical judgement of her character and policies.

The aborted religion article turned out to be a useful template. History, historians and the British public will be the worse off if a former Prime Minister is deified and deemed beyond reproach. To speak ill of the private dead is a legitimate concern. To silence and self-censor accurate appraisals of a once-powerful public figure is a grave error.


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