Margaret Thatcher: The philistine PM immortalised in culture

Margaret Thatcher will be cremated tomorrow following a military funeral. The Daily Shift’s Roisin Peddle takes a look at her long shadow cast over culture by her tenure as British Prime Minister… 

Margaret Thatcher in 2004

Margaret Thatcher in 2004

Pity those without art in their soul; they know not what they lack. The late Margaret Thatcher was happily oblivious to almost anything outside politics. Her favourite song was either ‘Tornado’, a throwaway sixties instrumental, or ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window?’ (The latter a preference shared by our own Bertie Ahern). She had little time for theatre, film or literature; she did once star in a self-penned sketch based on the popular BBC comedy Yes, Minister, but it has been whispered that Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, actually wrote the words.

Thatcher didn’t much care for writers, once asking her biographer Hugo Moore why he didn’t get a real job. To be fair to her, she did realise, on writing her own memoirs, that it could be gruelling work.

Her sense of humour was charitably called “not highly developed” by Nigel Lawson, one of her ministers. Indeed, it’s alleged that the wit of the famous “the lady’s not for turning” speech had to be explained to her, and she constantly made unintentional double entendres, not understanding why the press burst into sniggers.  Yes, she may have been the most famous British Prime Minister since Winston Churchill, but she shared little of his quick wit or timing.

Yet, she can safely be called one of the most influential figures on pop culture of the last three decades. Everyone from J.K. Rowling to the writers of Doctor Who, to The Smiths, to Billy Bragg and to Oasis can cite the Iron Lady as a source of inspiration and/or funding. Funding, you say? Surely Maggie would have despised public money going to scruffy layabouts who spent their days messing with guitars? Well, funnily enough, a Tory initiative called the enterprise allowance scheme gave budding business people a £40 weekly grant to get them started; something taken up by the founder of Oasis’ first record label, and the Happy Mondays, among others.

However, artists in Britain really hated Margaret Thatcher. Apart from the re-appropriation of ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’, other songs that celebrate Thatcher’s demise with glee include Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, Morrissey’s ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ and Pete Wylie’s ‘The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies’.  Books like GB84 (which reimagines the 1984 miners’ strike as a civil war), Money by Martin Amis and Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! capture the individualistic, wealth-obsessed 1980s. Doctor Who depicted a planet ruled over by an evil female alien called Helen A, who outlawed unhappiness. Former Doctor Sylvester McCoy said in 2010: “Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered.”

Clever Harry Potter fans have worked out that the events of the series take place in the 1980s, and J.K. Rowling has said that Harry’s horrible Aunt Marge (the one he accidentally blows up) is named after Thatcher, and channels some of her attitudes and beliefs. So too, does Dolores Umbridge, the pink-bow obsessed Ministry doyenne who is as hard and unbending as steel.

On this side of the Irish Sea, Thatcher is probably best remembered for her mishandling of Northern Ireland. Gerry Collins, who was in government at the time, recalls that Thatcher did not consider the Republic of Ireland a real state in any meaningful way; she did not understand why the British could not pursue the IRA over the border, not seeming to realise that such a thing would be construed as a foreign invasion. Indeed, her “out, out, out!” speech was a masterclass in how not to handle Irish people; our hackles rising almost instinctively whenever patronised by an upper-class English accent.

But Irish artists, outside of republican circles, studiously ignored Thatcher, probably grateful that they didn’t have to deal with her. She was something of a running joke; witness Christy Moore’s throwaway “that ould hoor in Number Ten” joke during ‘Delirium Tremens’.

One of the infamous Spitting Image puppets... (via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the infamous Spitting Image puppets… (via Wikimedia Commons)

Thatcher’s Britain was undoubtedly a grim place for many, yet there was a seam of rich comedy found in her reign. There was plenty to be mocked in Margaret Thatcher; her strident manner, her drawling, grahndly-accented speech, her handbags. Spitting Image was cruellest of all, with the infamous puppets that played up her prominent teeth and hawkish nose; but if Thatcher was even remotely bothered about being depicted in a man’s suit she never let it show. The staff of the satirical magazine Private Eye might have secretly wept when she was pushed out in 1990; they found so much material in Britain’s first female PM, including the Dear Bill letters, written from the point of view of Thatcher’s long-suffering, anything-for-a-quiet-life husband Denis. Another Private Eye initiative was the Thatch card, to be carried in case of serious injury by those disconcerted by Maggie’s habit of turning up unannounced at hospital beds.

My mother, who left Thatcher’s Britain in 1989, is capable of shaking with rage when she remembers some of the Tory government’s policies (especially with regards to Northern Ireland). She still chuckles though at the memory of her local MP changing his holiday plans when he found out the Swiss resort he wanted to visit was sometimes frequented by Margaret Thatcher. He told the Western Mail that he didn’t give a flying fig whether it gained him votes; he just wanted to enjoy his time off in peace.

One of my favourite books as a young teenager, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, was written under the shadow of Thatcher; and the sensitive and perpetually unlucky Adrian considered her one of his mortal enemies. He even committed his ire to poetry; “Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep? Do you wake, Mrs Thatcher, in your sleep? Do you weep like a sad willow on your Marks and Spencer’s pillow? Are your tears molten steel? Do you weep?”

Was any art sympathetic to Thatcher? Apart from the hagiographical biopic The Iron Lady, there seems to be few examples. The Spice Girls repeatedly cited Margaret Thatcher as an inspiration, but the suspicion is that this was under some vague girl power pretext, rather than any admiration or even knowledge of her policies. Indeed, Geri Halliwell deleted a tweet mourning her heroine when she realised the extent of antipathy towards her; she wondered, bewildered, whether she knew enough about Thatcher’s politics.

For someone who possessed a razor sharp brain and vast memory, Margaret Thatcher spent her last years in a fog of dementia. Some of her friends and former colleagues remember her as being bitter about her lost leadership; it’s clear she didn’t have much to occupy her. Not for her, the jazz music so beloved of Bill Clinton, or Mary McAleese’s theology, or Winston Churchill’s writing and bon vivant life. No, Margaret Thatcher was single minded. And yet her single-mindedness, her disregard for anything seemingly unimportant, has made her live on in the very media she dismissed.

*Lead image via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Thatcher will be cremated tomorrow following a military funeral. The Daily Shift’s Roisin Peddle takes a look at her long shadow cast over culture by her tenure as British Prime Minister… 

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