Maggie's Martyrs: Mapping Lady Thatcher's Legacy

04/16/2013 04:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013
  • Kevin Childs Freelance lecturer and writer on culture, art and history

What is it about women and power? The furor around Lady Thatcher's death and funeral once again magnifies how we respond to powerful women. It's an age-old dilemma. Margaret Thatcher was the first woman leader in the Western World and at the time the longest-serving British prime minister in recent memory. These are significant achievements, and ones that deserve to be marked. But why the disproportionate commotion from all sides? Is it because she was a woman? Powerful women have always attracted particular opprobrium. It reminds me of John Knox, otherwise celebrated as the founder of modern Scotland, but who's better known as the author of a shrill piece of misogynist mischief, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women. To give him his due, Knox had in his sights a bevy of Catholic queens whose brutal religious and social policies, around 1555, were threatening the Protestant Reformation and the nurturing of freedom of conscience and democratic values he cherished.

What then would Knox have made of Lady Thatcher? Recent tributes have compared her to Boudica, that peculiar representation of Britishness, Britannia, even Queen Elizabeth I. These are not always drawn by natural Tory supporters. Thatcher's political opponents have also cast her in the light of glorious women of the past. Lady Thatcher will have her place in history for sure, but with all due respect to Simon Schama et al, she was no Elizabeth I. Elizabeth died loved and revered by her country, having steered it through more than 40 years of social and political upheaval, shifting international alliances, war and as inclusive a settlement of the collective conscience as was possible then, to found its future greatness on the world stage. Lady Thatcher was booted out by her own party as electoral damaged goods after 11 years. Her legacy is a country divided by a morally dubious promotion of free-market capitalism which has already proven to be economically and socially bankrupt. Abroad Britain is more isolated than ever as the 'special relationship' with America has shown itself to be nothing of the sort and our membership of the EU, the only federation that offers any meaning or security in the region, slides into chaotic contradiction and missed opportunities. I can't see the analogy with England's Gloriana.

I do see an analogy with another female ruler from our past, and one who was very much on Knox's mind when he wrote his ill-tempered diatribe. Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's half-sister, was the first woman to rule England in her own right. Her short reign was not a happy one, characterized by ill-judged theological fanaticism dressed up as conservatism and international misadventures, another one-sided special relationship with the then-superpower, Spain, torching dissent and short-circuiting international prestige. Lauded on her accession, she was loathed by the majority of her subjects by the time she died. Knox condemned her rule as "avarice" devouring "equity and justice." And perhaps that's why I'm reminded of Lady Thatcher, whose term in office saw the promotion of greed and selfishness as civic virtues and along with it social inequality, alliances with tyrants abroad (let's not forget her refusal to condemn South Africa's apartheid regime) and persecution at home through legislation such as Section 28 (Thatcher did nothing for her LGBTI fellow citizens) and the 1986 Public Order Act targeting peaceful protest and assembly rights. Mary Tudor's aim was to turn the clock back. Lady Thatcher was similarly motivated. Her governments held back the opportunity of equality. Women were expected to appear like her, but despite being Prime Minister she reinforced women's stereotypes whereby she was the exception and not the rule. Unlike Good Queen Bess, Lady Thatcher was busy making windows into the souls of people just trying to save their jobs, their futures, their identities, the miners, Greenham women and other anti-nuclear campaigners, students and Travelers who found themselves with criminal convictions as a direct result of her government. Lady Thatcher, like Mary Tudor, has her catalogue of martyrs.

In 1558, the year Knox published his First Blast, the loss of Calais led chroniclers of Mary's reign to imagine her sighing as she lay dying about that town being engraved on her heart. Should anyone cut open Lady Thatcher, they might find another place writ large: Scotland. There are now more giant pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs; what's more, if the SNP wins next year's referendum on independence it will be due in no small part to Lady Thatcher's failure to comprehend the strong communitarian drive within Scotland that never wanted to be part of her campaign for a nation of discrete, home-owning, "right-thinking" philistines. To go back to an earlier theme, in a famous exchange between Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, the old firebrand declared that people had a right to restrain and remove unjust governments and laws. After the introduction of the Poll Tax, in the 1987 election Scotland did just that, returning no Conservatives to Westminster. They may have kept the Falklands British, but the Tories have lost Scotland and the Union may do too.

Not all Lady Thatcher's policies were bad and the passing of the first woman to be elected as prime minister should be marked, but this semi-state funeral feels too like a cynical attempt by an unpopular government to borrow some of the late Baroness' perceived glamour and persuade their rank and file that they are her actual heirs; for since her death there's been an unseemly scrabble between Labour and Conservative leaders for that particular mantle. So I come back to John Knox, whose love for both England and Scotland is well documented and whose own distinctly anti-Thatcherite testament claimed "none have I corrupted, none have I defrauded; merchandise have I not made." The First Blast may read like an awful old reactionary letting off steam today, but his feeling for the sort of freedoms we aspire to, and on which the USA was later founded, and his hatred of injustice still ring true even if he was wrong to target women per se: "for assuredly her empire and reign is a wall without foundation," was his final judgment on Mary Tudor, "... underpropped ... with the foolishness of people, and with wicked laws." Time will tell, but like Mary, Lady Thatcher is likely to be a contrary character in history, a first yes, and it's hoped to be followed by someone with a greater vision of what Britain and the communities that live within it might become. Lady Thatcher is no Elizabeth I. If she's to be compared to any figure from Britain's past it should be Elizabeth's unfortunate sister.