Well, didn’t she divide opinion? As “sour as old milk” some tell us. Others complain of her launching a “searing assault”. Strangely, given the week that we’re in, I’m not referring to Thatcher, but the new poster-girl of the left and the finest parliamentary viral video since Deputy Paul Gogarty’s now legendary use of unparliamentary language in Dáil Éireann.
The right are apoplectic at Glenda Jackson for a speech which they view as having “blown apart” the mannerly atmosphere of Wednesday’s debate on Thatcher. Without a hint of irony the Tory benches cried “shame” at a woman following the strength of her convictions while they stood moments later to praise the ultimate conviction politician. If we set aside the fact that yesterday’s recall of parliament was not a “tribute” at all, but a debate like any other in Westminster, and the rank hypocrisy of the right (Sunny Hundal’s piece here is well worth a look, though) then yesterday should still concern those who hope for a future without the Thatcherite consensus of the past 30 years.
From Newsnight to Channel 4 News, the beatification of St Margaret of Finchley has begun in earnest. Knowing that the statistics do not weigh up in their favour, the Tories have stuck to the truisms which, after being put into hibernation for a decade or so, are back with a vengeance in support of the current government. There’s talk of “rescuing the economy”, helping Britain “stand tall again”, being “lion-herated” and other central tenets of Tory myth-making.
By delivering her speech yesterday, Glenda Jackson did the rest of us a favour by inserting the facts into the discussion. While Jackson was undoubtedly partisan, she set aside the rapidly assembled hagiography for the hard truth of the era of Thatcherism. More learned writers than I have recounted the misery of the Thatcher years but, if there was any doubt about life under her governments, the Observer’s datablog provides the gory details – Unemployment up 5.6% to an almost unprecedented 12%, two recessions, the widening of the gender pay gap, increased unemployment and a sad return to the sight of homeless on the streets of major cities. By any analysis, that’s quite a record of economic mismanagement.
Far from understanding Glenda Jackson’s reasoning for her speech, we should be standing foursquare behind her. And I do not refer solely to the hard left to which Jackson belongs, but to all those who are troubled by inequality and poverty. To fail to speak out is, by default, to accept that the ideology of Thatcher and the aforementioned statistics of woe are not perverse. To not rail against the Thatcher years is to be apathetic about great swathes of the country wasting away in unemployment. We are told that the statistics arose from the need to make hard decisions in a national emergency; that the country was on the brink of peril due to the Winter of Discontent and union bosses holding democracy ransom. If this was the case then why, twenty years on from Thatcher leaving office, do the measurements of equality continue to point towards inequity?
Those who heckled the speech did so because they believe this state of affairs to be the new normal – we are naive for expecting a utopia in which poverty and inequality would fall. Glenda Jackson ensured that this procession of platitudes met resistance. Afterall, this was not a debate with a spirit of solemn reverence but one in which the ideology of Thatcherism was proclaimed as though it was now cast in stone. Thatcher’s ideologues are not asking critics to bow their heads and keep quiet out of respect for her family, rather we are being asked to swallow an alternative history whole and to provide no resistance to a woman whose cabinet considered letting one of our cities, and its inhabitants, fall into “managed decline”. Between statues in national landmarks to naming airports after her, we are, in fact, being asked to accept the impact, legacy and ideology of a woman many are appalled by.
By proclaiming Thatcher as the deity of neo-liberalism, the right should have expected a backlash from those who campaign for a politics in which no section of society is cut adrift to decline. Neil Kinnock famously said “we are democratic socialists. We care all the time”. It was in that spirit that Glenda Jackson spoke and, to borrow a phrase from the Prime Minister’s tribute, we can only hope that she’ll make the left “stand tall again”.