Magazine article The Spectator

Maggie? She's an Icon

Magazine article The Spectator

Maggie? She's an Icon

Article excerpt

CONSIDER Thatcher. The word. Its associations. Its images. A woman who no longer matters. A woman who said cruel things like there was no such thing as society; who divided Britain. A pathetic has-- been who may occasionally be seen at parties with her husband Denis, imbibing just a little too much and not making much sense with it. In particular, a person of no relevance to the young.

This is how the media would have us see Margaret Thatcher. On television and radio she is either satirised, excoriated or written out of history. I have heard presenters refer to her variously as `that stupid old bat', `an evil woman' and `someone who doesn't matter any more'. How different is her position from that of Winston Churchill in his retirement. Then men of stature and fancy tycoons, including Stavros Niarchos, fell over themselves to lavish hospitality on him. Yet this woman who was so significant for Britain cuts a lonely, unappreciated figure.

Although lain Duncan Smith has claimed to be Thatcher's 'heir', the Tory party seems intent on hiding her away, to the extent of banning her from attending its conference in Bournemouth. A Central Office aide, who did not wish to be named, told me, `It's rather hypocritical behaviour. But they think her actual presence turns young people off. The leadership is desperate to get the young on board.'

While Blair and Duncan Smith do battle over her mantle, the received wisdom is that the younger generation regards Thatcher as a hate figure. But where does this received wisdom come from? Mostly from Labour-biased television or radio surveys on what the young really think about her. Is the Tory leadership being misled?

A couple of months ago, staying overnight at the Feathers hotel near Oxford, I struck up a conversation between two law students at Balliol - one male, one female. I asked what Lady Thatcher meant to them and was surprised by their answers. The young man, Damian, said that, though he intended to vote Labour at the next election, this was because all the Tory leaders after Thatcher `were so pathetic. At least Blair looks like a leader. He borrowed that from her. I mean, who knows what Duncan Smith stands for?'

His 19-year-old companion agreed. `She should be given icon status. Not only was she the first woman prime minister, but she revitalised the country, though she got a bit batty towards the end.'

I was inclined, however, to dismiss this couple as a fluke. They were both drinking champagne and were probably not representative of the country's undergraduates. So I asked a friend of mine, who is studying history at Oxford, to do a tour of the JCRs. His report tended to confirm my earlier findings. He spoke to about 50 undergraduates from varied backgrounds Their views on Thatcher failed to divide on 'class' lines. If anything, the undergraduates from poorer backgrounds tended to respect her more as a self-made woman. Roughly 50 per cent thought of her as a great historical figure, about 20 per cent were anti, and the rest didn't know enough about her.

Most undergraduates have little memory of the Thatcher years and rarely discuss her unless specifically asked to do so. Dr John Casey, the Cambridge don, said, 'I don't really talk to my students about her because she doesn't impinge on their world. She doesn't come up in their conversation much. As a result there are very few articulate Thatcherites. …

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