A Great Briton? The national myth of Margaret Thatcher by Ellie Roberts

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.

Daily Mirror front page 9 April 2013

Daily Mirror front page 9 April 2013

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.

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4 Responses to A Great Briton? The national myth of Margaret Thatcher by Ellie Roberts

  1. Alun says:

    A lot is said in the media about contemporary Germany’s uniquely temperate political culture, a legacy of its experiences during and after the Third Reich. They currently have their first female chancellor, but from a distance Merkel seems to carry herself very differently from Thatcher, who governed one of the countries which won WWII. Could a national myth of Thatcherite proportions take shape in places like Germany, do you think?

  2. elroberts says:

    An interesting question there Alun. If it concerns Merkel specifically, then I don’t think she would ever be mythologised in the same way. I’ve always thought that the nature of coalition government in Germany – and of federal versus state government – prevents the media/public focusing on one politician in the same way as they do in Britain. Although Merkel was the focus of attention as Germany’s first female Chancellor, she has a very different style of leadership. If there’s such thing as a myth of moderation and pragmatism, she could perhaps embody that! Part of it is definitely to do with the past in the present – Margaret Thatcher’s self-confident patriotism is something that Merkel would never emulate, at least in the same way.

    I think to some extent there is a (self-)mythologising of important figures in the 1968 student movement, many of whom still like to relive their glory days (though they seem to be sober grey-suited politicians now…) and also of the Red Army Faction, the 1970s terrorist group. It’s interesting that there is still such a fascination with these groups who rebelled against authority in different ways. But as for politicians, I’m not sure the same kind of thing could happen…I’d have to look into it.

  3. elroberts says:

    Reblogged this on eloiseroberts's Blog and commented:
    I’ve been slightly overwhelmed by all the media coverage over the past few days, so I wrote this on Thatcher for SLC Postgrads. Enjoy.

  4. Ruthie says:

    Really interesting post Ellie. It seems to me that the most mythologised political figures are those that take the reins in a period of crisis and create great change, either for better or for worse. Considering that Germany is the most powerful and stable economy within the EU at the moment, it seems fairly unlikely that Merkel (at least at the moment) will achieve this kind of cult status.

    As an aside, I would like to say that I quite like Merkel. Not particularly politically but more as a feminist. It makes me want to tear my hair out that our only female Prime Minister in Britain made such a titting mess of it (in my opinion!!), but Merkel is proving that a woman can lead a country to success, wealth and stability.

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