Monday, May 04, 2009

30 Years of Hurt

On May 3rd 1979, Britain went to the polls, and the next day the Conservative party swept into power, giving Britain its first female prime minister and a sea change in politics that has dominated the country, and by extension, my life, since that day. It is perhaps only right, as the country suffers from the effects of the credit crunch, that the policies and personalities of that 30 years seem to be almost entirely played out, at least in the west. A year later, Ronald Reagan would become the American President, and 1979 would see the invasion of Afghanistan by Russia, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Both the Gulf and Afghanistan remain crunch points in the geopolitics of the world, yet with Obama's election in the US, and the crisis now affecting global capitalism, perhaps 2009 will see the end of the "shorter 20th century" - an epoch that began in 1914 with the murder of Archduke Ferdinand.

Historical epochs are defined by historians, and long after the fact. I find literature - and the other arts - are a better judge in many ways, in that it written of, by and for the contemporary age in which it is written. So rather than begin with an unfortunate shot in Sarajevo, you can begin with the premiere of "The Rites of Spring", as Alex Ross does in "The Rest is Noise", or perhaps the publication of "Des Imagistes" in 1914. A writing life, an artists life; these are both shorter and longer than a political life. Sometimes the writing and life is brief - like Keats - other times, the life seems to last beyond its historical place...

The catalogue of atrocities that Margaret Thatcher and her administrations laid on this country are great, and continue to resound. The idea that we needed to change with the times, would be a true one; yet Thatcher was an opponent of change in many ways, she seemed to need rupture, not change, with all its fallout. There's something of the scientist about her unwillingness to see or appreciate the consequences. Perhaps we needed a chemist at Number 10 in 1979, but it was an experiment that frequently killed the patient, with a laissez faire shrug of the hands, rather than a hearfelt mea culpa. The need for change, yes, of course, the century was all about change, but in our industrial partners, German, France, the other European nations, the commonwealth democracies, this change didn't require such a leader :- a wartime figurehead when there was no war. (Except, the one's she manufactured, in the south pacific, and the coalfields of the north.)

Worse, I think, and ironic in a way, from such a critic of the permissive society, was the permission that Thatcherism gave to some of the greatest enemies of a small country's social democracy; the powerful, the monied, the casual. The permission to make money any-which-way, is the call of the pirate, the robber-baron, whether in post-communist Russia, the East India Company, or Britain after the fall (of the Labour Party in 1979, and, yes, The Fall band, an offstage chorus throughout this time.)

In action and reaction she changed the Labour party more than she changed the conservatives (who still go to Eton, remember). I don't think its fair to blame her for the worst parts of the Blair years (no more than I'd thank her for Blair's very un-Thatcherite aim for ending child poverty), though you can blame her for the disastrous Major administration - who gave us the railway privatisation we never wanted, and, moreover, the incorrect sense that we as a country could not afford to do what's right. If there are some Majorian traits in Brown of late, it is a political hubris - ID cards for Railway privatisation, for instance.

Culturally, it is the great sweeping works, "Our Friends in the North" for instance, that best contextualise Thatcher. Recent novels like "the Northern Clemency" and "The Line of Beauty" sidestep, in very different ways, the reality. Her longevity gave us a sub-genre of art that existed at the same time as she did - an agit-prop sountrack from a myriad of musicians; contemporary satire from "Spitting Image" and "The New Statesman" - yet there's very little sense that we've come to terms with the epoch. For what she brought forward more than anything was the spreading of the self-absorbtion of the political moment into all aspects of life. Everything had to happen fast, and be unreversible, whether the council house sales or the bombing of the Belgrano; the long play of history was where she failed, dismally, utterly, temperamentally to make her mark, since she could not understand it. Thus, the political settlement of Northern Ireland took a different type of politician (perhaps one, fatally, with his eye on posterity rather than the moment) in Blair, and the devastations reaped up on the North, and the other nations of these islands, were left for others to somehow gather up and fix. Like a farmer who despairing at the weeds left by his lazy tenants, she came in the middle of the night and scorched the earth, not realising those tenants were at a wedding, or looking after their children, or leaving the land to recover, in the longer season of an average life.

That there will be no celebrations of this anniversary is partly a political one - perhaps Gordon Brown would be best having one, as a reminder of what we risk losing by giving another chance to the Conservative party still hankering for Thatcher's voice - but perhaps its also a sign that history has already begun to make up its mind. Literature and art may well be best served by no longer remembering her, ditching her into the history books like a Lord Liverpool, Thatcherism confined to a dustbin where all -isms eventually rot.

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