I guess it was to be expected with the release of new film The Iron Lady that a lot would be written about Margaret Thatcher in early 2012. One can’t help but presume that Thatcher herself would appreciate the all-out forms of hype and marketing which surround the release of contemporary mainstream films. While I’m not a fan of the Labour administration that preceded or followed the 1980s Conservative period I can’t help but take exception to any piece which paints an entirely positive picture of Thatcher’s administration. Conrad Black’s gushing and fawning commentary falls squarely into this category. Quoting himself (no excessive ego there) Black refers to the former British Prime Minister as “one of the great leaders who has arisen in a thousand years of British history.”
Anyone with a shred of balance would recognize that Thatcher’s relationship with media barons such as Black was highly problematic. For all of the claims that Thatcher was responsible for ridding
of the class system, the Prime Minister cultivated relationships with some pretty lofty, wealthy and influential people. As well as Black, think Jeffrey Archer and Rupert Murdoch. One can’t help but notice, to put it kindly, the shaky legal ground Black and Archer have occupied and Murdoch seems to be sinking into. Regardless, they do share a certain single-mindedness and an ability to maintain their morality-tinged rightness even when facts suggest contradictions. Why let pesky particulars get in the way? Even while Thatcher was in office she utilized her relationship with Conrad Black in an attempt to influence leadership outcomes within her own party. England
If one can get through all of Black’s over-the-top praise the most relevant information comes at the very end of his commentary. The disclaimer bit reads, “Margaret Thatcher was a senior member of the Hollinger International Advisory Board from 1991 to 2002, was Conrad Black’s sponsor at his induction into the House of Lords in 2001 and gave a toast at Black’s and Barbara Amiel’s wedding dinner in 1992.” Who says Thatcher hasn’t been busy since her time in office? As well, it is nice to see that everyone was keeping a critical and professional distance. As for Rupert Murdoch, well, let’s just say he is an even bigger Thatcher fan.
In recent days Black and others have made the point that Thatcher was a no-compromise and non-wavering leader. She is known and frequently praised for her single-mindedness. For some reason (even though one could argue that the essence of politics is compromise) these traits are presented as honorable and an indicator of clear vision. Is such a robotic stance on issues possible ... or even desirable? Either way, the former Prime Minister is presented as being steadfast against an ocean of communists, lefties and terrorists. Black assures us that Thatcher had a “starring role in winning” the Cold War. But even here a bit of retrospection gets in the way of simplistic claims.
One could argue that the Thatcher administration exaggerated the threat of the
Soviet Union to gain political loyalty. I seem to recall the Kremlin stronghold crumbling overnight without a shot being fired – something that would have been unimaginable if Reagan and Thatcher were taken at their respective words. As well, there is evidence that the so-called Iron Lady wavered on a number of topics from how to deal with the Apartheid administration in South Africa to appropriate measures when confronting the IRA.* Even Thatcher’s record on taxation and government spending is not as clear cut as the rhetoric of that time (and since) would suggest.
From the early 1980s, I recall a great deal of oratory about individuals and how there was no equality of ability merely equality of opportunity. All hard workers could, and would, succeed. A part of this logic entailed a paring down of the government and the deregulation of financial institutions (which, according to neoliberal ideology, were self-regulating and in no need of monitoring or correction). The economy was presented as a natural rather than human-made entity. Much of this market-oriented speechifying was ideological (and it is ideology rather than heaven sent) code for lower taxes and less accountability. One can’t help but laugh out loud when Black claims that Thatcher “forced democracy on unions”. What is willfully missed in my view? That ‘equality of opportunity’ is clearly a myth and that these forms of economic-speak promoted a type of dehumanized cynicism which continues to haunt us all. Anyone could also write a book about how the ongoing financial crisis has its roots is this era of less accountability and decreased regulation. What else do Black and the neoliberals/neoconservatives conveniently leave out? That Thatcher, in part, fell from power while trying to put through a tax increase.
Perhaps ironically Black and other Thatcher supporters seem to suggest that the so-called Iron lady had a monopoly on loving freedom. Of course this notion ignores such obvious questions as: freedom for whom? The perspective that freedom is subjective and multi-faceted is largely ignored. It is Black’s oversimplified and one-dimensional view of Thatcher which hints at the very problem with contemporary media – and ultimately does a disservice to the subject herself. According to this take, all of Thatcher’s foes were merely wrong-headed or worse, hated freedom. Needless to say Black (and a similar 2010 piece by Rupert Murdoch) avoids addressing the potential pitfalls within the cozy relationships between political leaders and media barons. Never mind, it is only democracy at stake. Also, one also wonders how Thatcher feels about receiving raves from her old friends/convicted criminals. She was all about law and order – but what happens when your friends and biggest boosters run afoul of the law? Perhaps these details just don’t matter. In Conrad Black’s commentary, and many of the articles I read around the new film, it is easier to rely on stereotypes and clichés than dig for potentially messy and contradictory details. Perhaps Black should go back to his day job.
* This blog is named after a song which, in part, addresses
’s highly dubious relationship with the IRA. While the Gang of Four song likely predates the administration in question it reminds me that there was ‘dirt’ behind the initial Thatcher ‘daydream’ that a sharp dose of law and order would solve all in Northern Ireland. Long Kesh was the Abu Ghraib of its day. London
“In some quite obvious and undeniable ways, the whole point of Thatcherism is to clear the way for capitalist market solutions, to restore both the prerogatives of ownership and profitability and the political conditions for capital to operate more effectively, and to construct around its imperatives a supportive culture suffused from end to end by its ethos and values. Thatcherism knows no measure of the good life other than ‘value for money’. It understands no other compelling force or motive in the definition of civilization than the forces of the ‘free market’.” – Stuart Hall
“Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business. As any number of radical theorists from Brecht through to Foucault and Badiou have maintained, emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be mere contingency, just as it must make what is previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” – Mark Fisher
“As neoliberlism converts every political or social problem into market terms, it converts them into individual problems with market solutions.” – Wendy Brown