The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death earlier this week was hardly a shock; given her age as well as the ability of social media to conduct miniature dress rehearsals of the event almost once a year since the creation of Twitter. As journalists, economists and politicians queue up to eulogise the Iron Lady, no one doubts her impact, especially as her ideology is still very much alive and kicking in Britain today.
Her death brought a certain catharsis for those on the Left, despite her frail physical and mental state meaning that she was unlikely to be making any public speeches or privatising anything from her bedside in London’s Ritz hotel. This outpouring of relief seemed strange at first, not withstanding that Britain’s current Conservative government is making sure that they pick up where Thatcher left off by ensuring that the poorest in society pick up the slack left by the richest. If anything, her death was a reminder that there is little to celebrate, given both the axe-wielding power of the Conservatives and the total lack of any coherent or believable opposition.
The success, if you can truly call it that, of Thatcherite ideology was to reach beyond politics, especially given its ability to infect the Labour Party at its core, and to change the mentality of British citizens. As Russell Brand writes in the Guardian on the 10th April, “what is more troubling is my inability to ascertain where my own selfishness ends and her neo-liberal inculcation begins…If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t.”
Thatcher re-defined what Britain stood for- self-serving and bullishly aggressive, both inside and out. We are still trying to decide if this is really us: are we people who marched in numbers against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (something that might never have happened without the US-UK relations forged by Thatcher) or are we the nation who grudgingly accepted the financial and moral consequences of the war as they cosied up to George W.Bush’s foreign policy?
Are we a nation who rejects the current government’s besieging of public services, or are we the people who turn their heads to focus on the concocted issues of immigration in the hope that will somehow keep the UK afloat? Most importantly: are we a country that sees value in the existence of community or are we people who will allow the riots that happened across England in 2011 to become a sadly inevitable occurrence?
Nothing showed the divisions in British identity better than the media gulf between the BBC’s coverage immediately following Thatcher’s death and the outpouring that happened via social media. Despite the BBC’s recent promises to increase its coverage from the North of England, the cameras bounced between interviews with elderly former constituents in Finchley, North London and the London studio, ensuring that criticism of the effects of Thatcher’s policy was extremely limited. Meanwhile, across Twitter and Facebook, residents from the towns and communities that Thatcherite policy decimated, posted pictures and videos of pubs full of revellers, singing songs to express the outpouring of relief. In effect, what the residents of the UK were doing on Monday evening was competing to grasp this moment as their own- seeing who could claim the moral high ground, and in the process questioning their own identities.
As the hangovers took hold and plans for a funeral, whose cost to the UK taxpayer is still unknown (some estimates have put it as high as £8-10 million), are unveiled, it is clear that this moment presents an opportunity. Thatcher’s death provides a moment for the residents of the United Kingdom to indulge in their favourite pastime, that being nostalgia with just a hint of self-analysis, and to truly decide if we want to allow her to define us. The pushback against David Cameron’s repulsive “Big Society” idea provides some hope, but the fight goes beyond a need to protest. This is, in its purest sense, a battle for hearts and minds- a fight that decides whether Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” adage is the prism by which we can choose to see society. In the process perhaps there even a chance to finally answer the question that Thatcherite ideology has caused us to ask ourselves while plagued with doubt: is there such a thing as British identity?
Ruth Michaelson is a journalist living and working in the Middle East. She has been published by Index on Censorship, Vice, The New Statesman and Reality Check among others. She’d like it if you followed her on Twitter @_Ms_R