At first glance, my PhD has nothing to do with the furore – across the political spectrum – over the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after the news broke yesterday. But I was struck by the fervour of the criticism and the praise, how the chants of ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’ were contrasted with heartfelt eulogies to her conviction and leadership, and particularly how the political and social upheavals of the 1980s came back to haunt the 2010s. Last night people across Britain relived memories of her time in office, shared links to old newspaper articles and photographs on Twitter, discussed her personality and her politics and what this all means today. The Thatcher years, for the time being at least, are back.
So what does this have to do with my PhD research? I focus on nineteenth-century Germany, and I’m particularly interested in nation and the creation of national myths. A national myth can be a figure from the distant past such as Frederick Barbarossa, a Holy Roman Emperor from the Middle Ages who was adopted by many Germans in the 1840s as a symbol of national unity, or it can be someone closer to your own time. Looking at the front pages of the newspapers this morning, which all acknowledge the power she held – and still holds – over Britain, no one seems to have become more of a national myth than the self-proclaimed Iron Lady. Thatcher is larger than life, larger than the individual – she stands for a whole system of ideology, a whole period of social, political and economic upheaval. This myth is, however, adopted in very different ways.
The front page of the Daily Mirror yesterday speaks volumes. It points to how political factions adopt the myth of Thatcher in different ways, depending on their view of her policies. Thatcher is always a figure standing for something bigger than herself, used as a tool in an ideological argument. So for current Prime Minister David Cameron she was in fact the saviour of the nation, acting in its best interests; in his statement from Downing Street he called her a ‘patriot’ who ‘saved our country’ and who ‘made Britain stand tall again’, praising her achievements. Even those, such as Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband, who disagree with her politics, acknowledge her impact on the 1980s and Britain today, on Thatcher as a powerful figure in the national memory.
On the other hand, there is the visceral anger of those who felt they were never part of the nation Margaret Thatcher wanted to save – that, in fact, she was determined to save it from them. Ian Jack writing in the Guardian yesterday emphasises how fiercely Thatcher was hated in Glasgow, where she was known as ‘The Wicked Witch of the South’ and Monday’s Guardian editorial dispels the illusion that Thatcher could be a unifying national figure, asserting that Thatcher had no interest in the nation as a form of community, or society. This portrayal of Thatcher as a villainous, heartless witch still makes her into a kind of myth, however, a myth that forms part of a particular national narrative: of how her time in power changed Britain for the worse. The reactions to Thatcher’s death do not just show different ideas of Thatcher – they show different histories of the nation, excluding aspects that do not fit with their story.
The need for myths and stories to explain our actions and those of others is part of what makes us human, we cannot always escape them. My own research and the reactions to Thatcher show however that we need to be aware of their power and question their origins. Great Briton, Iron Lady, Wicked Witch – whatever else she has been called, Thatcher was, on some level, just Thatcher.