I read with some mild amusement of the criticism of the BBC’s Radio 4 for selecting for broadcast a book by (twice Man Booker Prize-winning authoress, no less) Hilary Mantel, that features a fantasy about a woman killing Margaret Thatcher. In a time when BBC journalism has lost its teeth since the departure of Greg Dyke (if not the arrival of John Birt), when Government toadying has become the norm…do we really have to look to ‘Book at Bedtime’ to find the last vestiges of the BBC’s political independence and integrity?
It brought back fond memories of the 1989 ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ controversy, the comic produced by Grant Morrison and Paul Grist for Trident Comics (with no sense of irony), where an individual plans a fake assassination of Margaret Thatcher as she visits a technical college. Even the fact that the denouement shows him pointing a finger at Thatcher and saying ‘bang’ did not diminish the howls of outrage from Conservatives, The Sun leading with the headline “DEATH TO MAGGIE BOOK SPARKS TORY UPROAR”, and questions asked in Westminster were recorded in Hansard about it.
People seem to forget the real feelings that people had at the time towards her, provoked both by her actions and the attitude of contempt that accompanied them, whether engaging in conflict over islands in (arguably) a cynical attempt to retain her premiership, or decimating the mining industry. People forget how easily the phrase ‘vile and evil woman’ followed her name in the 1980s – they look bewildered at the pictures of celebrations in Glasgow last year at the announcement of her death, uncomprehending. Well – maybe you had to be there. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister throughout my secondary and tertiary education, and I can remember coming down to breakfast one morning, to hear the news from Brighton that the Grand Hotel (where the cabinet was staying for the Conservative Party conference), had been blown up by the IRA: you didn’t have to have any interest in Irish politics to feel exultation on hearing the news, and the thought of the possibility – just the possibility – that she was finally dead. I remember t-shirt designs with a picture of the wrecked hotel and the slogan ‘So near – and yet so far’; a working-men’s club in South Yorkshire discussed having a ‘whip-round’ to pay for the bomber to have another go; Morrissey echoed the feelings of a large chunk of the population when he said “the only sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher escaped unscathed”. You may not have been political, but you knew enough to hate Margaret Thatcher.
Eventually, it was another form of political violence that brought her down: as much as Scotland protested against the poll tax for the preceding year, it was only when the Battle of Trafalgar Square took place in London that the poll tax was seen as ‘a bad thing’, and it is now portrayed as what led to the end of her premiership (although opinion polls stated that her handling of the NHS and water privatisation were far more unpopular, and Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech that precipitated her 3 week downfall was about differences over European integration). I remember the news coming in at the time of her resignation, while I was working at the student union offices in Edinburgh. A colleague was writing a student paper editorial on Thatcher’s resignation, and had written ‘noone could fail to be moved by those last moments as she got in the car to drive away from Downing Street for the last time…’. I stopped her short: ‘You can’t say that.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I think the only way that she should have left office was with a bullet in her head.’ (The editorial was rewritten: ‘almost noone could fail…’)
That may seem a hugely extreme over-reaction – and maybe you really did have to be there – but actually the way she has been beatified since her (galling) death from old age, to become untouchable and beyond any form of besmirching criticism, for me actually emphasises exactly why an end that expressed the fact that she was deeply, deeply unpopular and reviled would have been far more appropriate, and honest, for how history recorded her. ‘Gunman ended Prime Minister’s life’ requires an explanation of ‘why’ – even if it is to dismiss as ‘clearly deranged’, or ‘loner’ (as in St. Swithin’s Day, with the obligatory US assassin’s copy of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in their pocket, mythically supposed to be used by CIA-programmed killers in the more far-fetched conspiracy theories). But this way? ‘She died, peacefully, of old age – in The Ritz Hotel’. O, Rest in peace, you poor, dear, dear, little old lady: all her mistakes, her unpopularity, can be swept under the carpet and ignored, in the face of final frailty and weak capitulation to final oblivion. And now, she has become a sacred cow, where the idea that people did not like her is barely allowed to be uttered – she even received what was tantamount to a state funeral – and is put on a pedestal with Churchill as yet another ‘untouchable’ – beyond question.
Back to the BBC under attack for a short story scheduled for ‘Book at Bedtime’ (which I fully accept the BBC to cave on before broadcast). I find it slightly amusing, buried amongst the outraged criticisms, that one individual (Lord Bell) stated that the decision to broadcast it five months away from a General Election “is inevitably going to be accused of political bias.” Against whom, exactly? Have people suddenly forgotten how much Thatcher is lionised by the Labour Party these days? They do not criticise her legacy or openly condemn her actions for fear of losing another single SE of England vote – oh, no, that ‘radical viewpoint’ is left to be espoused by…the SNP.
Given the current generally right wing state of the UK Government since Blair, Thatcher’s stain extends far into the present, and is much to be reviled. Her example, it seems fair to say, engineered the death of the Left in UK-wide politics, and the birth of Tony Blair. What did she say her finest achievement was? “New Labour.” And it is true – ever since the Labour Party came to power, they have increasingly attempted to out-Conservative (if not out-Thatcher) the Conservative Party: the British Government’s policy on torture changed from Thatcher to Blair: it expanded beyond what was done in Kenya and Northern Ireland, to become far more broadly acceptable policy in the lead up to the first Iraq War. CIA and MI6 operate a mutual exchange of all information – which means that they can spy on each other’s citizens, then report back, so that MI6 (via the NSA) and the CIA (via GCHQ) can keep their respective hands ‘clean’ regarding their own citizens by not having done it themselves (as Snowden revealed). Similarly, they can get third parties to do the torturing for them, while informing them of the sort of information that they are wanting. It was the Labour Government that oversaw the change in that policy to become far more systematic (if not industrial) in scale: ‘Cruel Britannia’ came into being at the same time as the marketing people were throwing the slogan ‘Cool Britannia’ around. (See revelations by Snowden, and listen to Craig Murray, on: http://tvi-media.com/batemanpodcasts/141212_db026_craig_murray.mp3 ).
Which – perhaps inevitably – brings us to Jim Murphy. Is it true that Jim, that arch-Blairite currently trying to reinvent himself as more socialist than Keir Hardie, gets expenses from the Henry Jackson Society, a ‘thinktank’ (allegedly partly-funded by the CIA) that actively supports foreign military interventions as standard policy? That dismisses what it cares to consider as the opinions of ‘non-democratic’ states, or organisations that include such states within their members (that would be the UN, then…)? What…Jim? What…Trident-supporting, pro-Iraq War Jim?
“We all know here in Scotland that Labour ceased to believe in anything approaching socialism a long time ago, and has largely ceased to believe in social justice. The Labour Party has really become a mechanism for people to advance their political careers. That’s what it is: it’s a mechanism for people to make money out of politics. And you have people in the Labour Party like Jim Murphy, for example, many of whose views are to the Right of an awful lot of people in the Conservative Party….so you have a party which has abandoned its roots, stopped working for ordinary people, which talks about austerity, which says that not only does it want to keep welfare reforms, it wants harder welfare reforms than the Tories, and abroad has simply agreed to be a servant to American NeoImperialism, and to spend a huge amount of our GDP on the weapons to back that up, so… I find the Labour Party morally disgusting.” (Craig Murray, Former British Ambassador, in conversation with Derek Bateman, 13/12/2014)