â€” Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) April 17, 2013
With the passing of Margaret Thatcher, many obituaries have been written (or at least dusted off and had the dates filled in) alongside as many pieces about her time in power and that word that hangs over every politician, legacy.
What many of them will do at some point is refer to her as â€œThe Grocer’s Daughterâ€ (and this is the title of the first volume of John Campbell’s definitive biography of her, a book I highly recommend and this post is heavily influenced by) and that is rather characteristic of both how she governed, and how she is remembered.
It’s a nickname, obviously, which is a pretty rare status symbol in British politics; if being known by a single name is a sign of being properly known then a nickname is a step beyond even that (and Thatcher has at least a couple that are instantly recognisable). It speaks to one of Thatcher’s great strengths, her understanding of the power of image.
What many of the pieces will also do is drop into a personal recollection of how they experienced Thatcher, and I might as well indulge. I was born near the end of Thatcher’s premiership, so I have no memory of her time in power; I encountered her through second hand accounts, historical works, and news references, through the way people described her and the images they used.
This goes beyond the changes she made to her surface image; hair, clothes and vocal lessons (it’s become almost a rite of passage for prominent Tories to be portrayed with the Thatcher halo) to an identity she portrayed and a narrative she built onto it. It is this that makes her surprisingly hard to pin down, even what we know of her early life is clouded by a layer of public relations polish.
The Grocer’s Daughter was always her background, but it was burnished up and brought into the political arena for the 1975 leadership election and (as she would do more than once) wrong-footed her opponents as she slipped past them to victory, fighting on different ground that her opponents struggled to handle.
During her time in power she used this identity to great effect, she may have been banging the works of Hayek on the table but it was with shopping bags she made her case over inflation. It’s also the narrative of an outsider, ‘Margaret goes to Downing Street and continues to speak past and around the established channels direct to the ordinary people’ (as opposed to say the much more establishment identity as lawyer and wife of a millionaire businessman).
Her conversion to the economic policies that she’d become known for was a late one, sparked as it was by Keith Joseph in the mid-1970s after she’d already been an MP for 15 years, but that reality gave way to the narrative of principles learnt at the shop-counter and from house-wife budgeting leading to economic theory in parliament (never mind that until recently those experiences had pointed her in a very different direction).
If that identity was one she crafted, the second nickname that filled the obituaries was initially meant as an insult, but she adopted The Iron Lady moniker and she ran with it. Whether pictured in a tank or of the many representations of her that called back to the representations of warrior-queens, Boadicea, Elizabeth I, Britannia; she portrayed the matriarchal mother in a breastplate, doling out the tough medicine needed at home, and tougher vengeance on her enemies, but always in charge and ready for battle.
This image of the Iron Lady, armed with her handbag and always ready to take someone on is one that has resonated amongst her supporters and her critics ever since, whether they are praising her for her courage, or castigating her for her harshness. It’s also a further victory of narrative over reality.
To take the unions as an example, few now remember that in the early 1980s she faced a number of strikes where she either compromised or avoided battle. At one point she declared she’d resign rather than raise Civil Service pay more than 7%, some expensive strike filled time later she agreed to a 7.5% rise (a small but significant distance past her line in the sand).
Later on she was actually a restraining hand on some of her cabinet who wanted to go even further, the lesson of her clashes with the unions was not ‘fight them on the beaches’, it was ‘pick your battles’ and that sometimes a tactical retreat is the best option.
Politics is the art of the possible, as an Iron Chancellor once said, and in her career Margaret Thatcher was very aware of that fact, she negotiated, she compromised, and she did in fact u-turn. That she is remembered as unattainably great by her supporters (and created an unreal measuring stick to hit her successors over the head with) and implausibly awful by her opponents is an indication of the strength of her mythology, she is a legend in every sense of the word, devil and saint.
Her demonisation and canonisation are a testament not just to the long shadow she casts over British politics (that all leaders must wrestle with, and some of her successors have found a burden) but also to the strength of the identities and narratives she portrayed both in power and out.
Her legacy is as built as much upon these creations as the reality, so that stripping them away reveals more and more about Thatcher but less and less about Thatcherism. But the ability to exercise such power over the memory of her shows her as the master communicator she undoubtedly was.