The death of Margaret Thatcher this week, aged 87, has predictably led to a re-opening of almost tribal divisions, in which a mawkish triumphalism has been equalled in unpleasantness only by the opposing frivolous vitriol. The irony of her famous pronouncement on entering Number 10 in 1979, promising that ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ has been more in evidence in the last few days than in the almost twenty-three years since she left office. Even in death, it seems, she divides the country in two: either ‘one of us’ or not.
Personally, I am aware that the personalities and policies of the Thatcher years have shaped my life. The society we live in is defined by the confusion (so characteristic of the Thatcherite view) between individual interest and individual gain. Whether in the form of section 28 or the Poll Tax, energy privatisation or her failure to oppose Apartheid, the society she created (while denying there was any such thing) tended to be like her policies: nasty, brutish and short-sighted. And those who deplore the (admittedly unedifying) spectacle of jokes related to The Wizard of Oz ought to cast their minds back to 1982. How many of those asking the BBC to ban ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ this week complained at the Sun when it decided that ‘Gotcha’ was an appropriate summary of the deaths of Argentinean sailors?
What has also struck me this week, however, has been the power of the symbol. The ingredients – a hairdo, a handbag, a particular shade of blue – are instantly recognisable: a true icon in that they continue to signify the meaning even (perhaps especially) in the absence of the content. There is particular irony in the resemblance of David Cameron (when kitted out as Thatcher) to Michael Heseltine.
Christopher Wren’s epitaph (in St. Paul’s where Thatcher’s funeral will take place next week) ends with the words ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice’ – if you need a monument, look around. In the few days before her funeral, let’s look at her monument – in the NHS, in privatised and ineffective ‘public’ transport, in companies that perpetuate the ‘trickledown recession’ by not paying enough tax, in the lack of social housing, in the growing gap between rich and poor, even in the coarseness of the rhetoric surrounding her passing – and ask if we really like what we see. But let’s make it a true monument, by consigning the selfish and aggressive bluster to the past. The lady wasn’t for turning, but the world and the times must.