Within hours of Margaret Thatcher’s death, some concerned voices on the Left expressed hope that their comrades would have the self-possession to remain reasonably dignified in reacting to the news, bearing in mind that this was not just the passing of an obviously towering political figure, but also of a frail 87-year-old lady. You’d think such an appeal to decency would be unnecessary, but that is to be unfamiliar with the more unhinged elements of the British Left, which, in the former prime minister’s declining years, have boasted of the parties they would throw when the day finally came. As I write, the ugliness is already evident: the hard-left Member of Parliament George Galloway has taken to Twitter with the message “Tramp the dirt down,” and the Durham Miners Association has declared Thatcher’s death “a great day” for coal miners. Not far from where I sit, the long-running stage musical of the film Billy Elliott—set during the 1984 miners’ strike—features a song celebrating the future death of the hated lady. I wonder what will happen when it gets performed tonight. Will it be left out of the show from a sense of decorum, if nothing else? Or will it be sung with even greater gusto? Perhaps the latter, given the cultural and artistic establishment’s abiding hatred for a woman whose greatness often seemed better appreciated outside Britain.
That Margaret Thatcher inspired loathing as well as adoration—that she was what the media habitually call “a divisive figure”—is beyond doubt. But the nature of that loathing is revealing. Its intensity derives not just from opposition to her policies, or even to the fact that she trounced her opponents in three straight elections. It stems from bitterness among the formerly entrenched Left about something more fundamental: a realization that it has lost the argument.
Some of the criticisms of Thatcher by the great and good of the cultural elite went beyond pure political antipathy. They were marked by naked, unashamed snobbery and sexism. They hated her not just for what she believed, but also for what she was, a grammar-school-educated meritocrat from lower-middle-class origins. This is partly a characteristic of British society. Whereas few, if any, Americans knew what Ronald Reagan’s father did for a living, everybody in Britain knew Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter.
Her name is still spat out in London’s bien-pensant circles. While still in office, she was famously denied an honor by her own university, Oxford. Being knee-jerk liberals of the typical European sort, establishment movers and shakers had an instinctive antipathy for her. But the obsessiveness of their hatred had also to do with their own fragile egos—for Thatcher not only didn’t agree with them, she also didn’t care what they thought. Since she was politically terminated by her own party in 1990, those who have always wielded cultural influence in Britain have done their best to strike back. Their narrative of the Thatcher years as a time of shocking social and economic degradation has made some headway.
But it will not take. The public has longer memories than it’s often given credit for. You do not have to be especially old to remember Britain before Thatcher: the accepted, managed decline, the sense that we were living among the ruins, the sordidness of our national landscape. You do not have to be old to recall the sudden, renewed sense of national purpose, the almost palpable sense of coming back from the dead, the dawning realization that Britain was, within the span of a decade, no longer regarded as a tatty afterthought on the world stage, but was once again a serious country.
And there is this: a genuine admiration, and possibly an increasing nostalgia, for a leader who said what she believed and believed what she said. Even her most implacable enemies have never criticized Thatcher for her political insincerity, for she had none. She was a conviction politician before the term was coined, a leader motivated by a love for Britain and its people and a desire that they should once again achieve the heights she knew them capable of. As leaders across the British political spectrum prepare to line up at her funeral in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, they might ponder this: hardly a British voter would believe such a claim if made of them.