The Heritage of Margaret Thatcher

The death, this week, of Margaret Thatcher has brought many reverberations of the past starkly into the present. Reading the press and watching the news coverage, we are reminded again and again both of the key events of the 1980s (Miners’ Strike; Falklands war; Poll Tax) and of the structural jolt of lived experience that occurred – a frightening reminiscence rather than a nostalgia trip, for in more ways than one we still seem to be haunted by this name-tagged decade of ‘Thatcherism’. Rather than a (now dead) personage, however, as an item of heritage the invocation of ‘Thatcher’ brings a tremendous force to bear – positive for some and negative for many more – and this power has nothing much to do with the past. It can be used to explain many present-day problems – of housing shortages, stunted local government, reckless banks, millions in poverty and extreme inequality. Many people would argue that the seeds for many of these ills were sown in the 1980s. The critical heritage angle in all this demands us to look not towards parallels or antecedents, however, but to examine the process of how elements of a perceived past are actively being used now, for present-centred and future-orientated purposes.

Much of this works through language as much as in deed: notions of deserving and undeserving poor; that extreme denial to some people is a national requirement, while conspicuous indulgence and stern lack of regard to fellow citizens is a market imperative for others. Much of this seems to garner a tacit ‘heritage support’ in the way that a notion of austerity has become automatically accepted as a positive thing, harking back to the spirit of the Blitz, where certain emergency measures to do the right thing seem obvious and must not be questioned, lest one might be regarded as ‘the enemy within’. Embodied and commodified through such devices as the Keep Calm and Carry On slogan, which has circulated through posters, mugs and T-shirts. The combination of an affectively re-assuring type-face and crown logo seems to invoke the idea of being part of an imagined community that can withstand a vaguely perceived threat; it is an imperative towards personal conduct – that each one of ‘us’ has a responsibility to act in accordance with a perceptibly ‘national’, yet specifically ‘everyday’ brand of common sense that is founded upon a supposedly shared sense of heritage that ought to trump all other axes of identity. This is the heritage of Thatcher.

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