The Wizard of Oz has had yet another revival today, as people across the UK sing “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”. The rule is not to speak ill of the dead, especially the recently departed, but the usual niceties will clearly be waived in the case of Margaret Thatcher.
We’ve already had one such moment: November 22, 1990 was, to my generation, as the shooting of JFK was to my parents’. That was the day Thatcher was dumped by her own party and exited Downing Street in tears; the Iron Lady melted down for scrap. I was on the Tube at the time, and the platform indicators were wiped clean of train arrival information to carry the news to all passengers – the first and only time I have seen them do that.
Three men high-fived each other. A young woman broke into song: yes, it was “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”. It was the happiest Tube carriage I’ve seen since I chanced upon a party on the Circle Line. Only a couple of old dears sat in near silence, tutting and scowling at the revellers, clearly Thatcher fans but not wanting to speak up about it too loudly.
My teenaged son has been studying Thatcher in History (!), and it’s hard for him to comprehend the sheer venom that so many have for the frail elder stateswoman. Especially after seeing the recent biopic, The Iron Lady. That employed, quite deliberately, the tactic of framing the historical action with present-day scenes of her as a dotty old dear in her lonely dotage. An unsympathetic lead character is the kiss of death for a film, and that was the only way they could think of to get the audience on side.
The film also tried to present her as some sort of feminist heroine. If she was, it was only by default, by the virtue merely of smashing the glass ceiling. She actually got on by being more macho than the men: lowering her voice an octave, leading the country into war, pronouncing “This Lady’s not for turning”, drinking whiskey, sleeping only four hours a night. As the film Made in Dagenham showed, Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle did far more for women’s rights when she ushered in the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
Altogether, The Iron Lady was heavy on relationship drama, and light on politics. So what should Thatcher’s legacy be?
It’s more complex than her detractors will admit. Yes, she abolished the GLC in a magisterial fit of political pique at seeing Red Ken grinning across the Thames at her from his leftie enclave at County Hall, and that’s hard to forgive. Then again, look east as you cross Waterloo Bridge, and her legacy is clear to see (memorably enshrined in the peerless gangster pic The Long Good Friday).
As a jobbing journalist, I can only lament the NUJ’s toothlessness when it comes to implementing minimum pay scales for freelancers. (Many of the places I write for, when I’m lucky enough to write at all, now pay half what they used to. The others pay nothing at all.) Then again, I worked in Wapping for six years, and it’s striking when you read the history of The Times to find how utterly paralysed the paper once was by the print unions, who would halt production pretty much on a whim. They were also a notorious closed shop, passing jobs on from father to son (rarely was it from father to daughter).
And yes, Thatcher led the country into war. But at least it was a war with some justification (in a referendum this March, 99.8% of Falkland Islanders voted to remain British), and far less damaging than the ‘phoney war’ recently perpetrated by a Labour Prime Minister.
And yet. I lived through that corrosive, divided era of miners’ strikes and Poll Tax riots and “there is no such thing as Society”. I was Editor of Time Out on that wild wild night when Tony Blair finally ended 18 years of Conservative rule, and we all watched it on the big telly on Time Out’s eighth floor with artist Tracey Emin, and cheered when Michael Portillo lost his seat, and dared for a short while to believe, as the campaign song had it, that things could only get better.
If I hear anyone singing “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”, don’t blame me if I hum along.