The death of Margaret Thatcher this week is a story that lives up to its hype. For anyone in their 40s in particular, she (with a little help from Spitting Image) remains the prism through which we perceive politics and society. In the hours after her death, it was pointed out that this was the moment that newspapers, with their informed, trenchant analysis would show their worth. I was encouraged to reacquaint myself with the habit of getting newsprint on my fingers. We were all about to realise the folly of Leveson.
So I went to the newsagent. But when I got back, I soon realised that for every word of informed, fair, thought provoking analysis I was reading a paragraph of straight propaganda – and I’d paid for this drek.
There were exceptions. Ian McEwan (a novelist rather than a journalist, but we’ll ignore that for the moment) wrote honestly about his anti-Thatcherism, Russell Brand (a comedian rather than a journalist) was at least offbeat and original. Peter Oborne in the Telegraph made a brave but staggeringly obvious point about the dangers of state funerals and Grace Dent managed to be that rare thing, someone capable of holding two opposing ideas in her mind simultaneously. For what it’s worth, her views and mine are pretty similar.
But the rest – oh dear. The Guardian didn't rate her but The Daily Telegraph thinks the girl done good. I am bowled over with surprise. The highlight of the Telegraph's online offer was a blog asking if right wingers were nicer people than left wingers. If you say so, but in a short life, do I really need to read this? The Daily Express sort of floated before my eyes, but I don’t remember much written from the perspective of a miner’s wife from the Welsh Valleys, a Liverpudlian jobseeker circa 1981, a South African freedom fighter or a gay person politely, valiantly explaining why Clause 28 was so outrageous.
The Sun’s front page revealed to an unsuspecting world that the passing of Baroness Thatcher meant less to many Labour MPs than to Tories. Well I never. Rupert Murdoch’s henchman Trevor Kavanagh was dispatched to the BBC to complain that some of the left-wing response to Maggie’s death was below the moral standard one would normally expect. Listening to this, the nation’s drivers pondered his paper’s treatment of the Dowlers, gay people, asylum seekers, the Hillsborough Families, the McCanns, Chris Jeffries, the Liberal Democrats and a cast of thousands more and drove into the central reservation slack-jawed with astonishment at the man’s gall.
And then we get to the Daily Mail. Because the Mail told us so, it has a total right to fearless expression and damn the consequences, and that statutory underpinning turns us into slightly less of a democracy than North Korea. I’m glad that’s clear. However, such privileges do not apply to drama teachers from Brighton who want to organise parties in questionable taste. I don’t agree with death parties and won’t be partaking myself, but as long as the neighbours are squared off, I’ll fight for their right to party in the manner of someone who’s influenced by both Voltaire and the Beastie Boys – two cultural references I would thoroughly recommend to Quentin Letts, Simon Heffer, Richard Littlejohn Mad Mel Phillips and the rest of the Mail’s Barmy Army.
I need to reassure the Mail that it shouldn’t worry, I get the message. As far as you and your editor Mr Dacre believe, the BBC’s failure to launch an immediate global campaign for the beatification of St Margaret, a woman who makes Abe Lincoln look like a cross between Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, means that the entire payroll is on the Politburo of the Islington and Hampstead Revolutionary Communist Party. You told us. I‘ve heard. Please, please, don’t tell me again. I’m getting a headache.
Whatever you think of the politics, Glenda Jackson’s ferociously written and furiously but skilfully delivered speech in Parliament laying out the case for the prosecution of Thatcher is surely the one moment of the last few days that will be remembered. That will be the gobbet history students of the future are examined on – and they will get extra marks for saying that in amongst the fanfares for Thatcher, a huge proportion of the country agreed with her every word and cheered her to the echo. This clearly hasn’t occurred to the Daily Mail, and we’re past the point of ever being able to explain this to them.
The last few days have reminded us all in so many ways of the 1980s, but for me it’s reminded me most of what it was like to be a student at that time. On my northern campus, let me make one thing completely clear. The word “Tory” was a bullying term of abuse bandied about in a not dissimilar manner to the word “Gay” at the boys’ school I had previously attended.
To be a “Tory” was completely socially unacceptable. It would reduce a young man’s possible friendship circle by ninety per cent and his chance of finding a girlfriend by a figure somewhat higher than that. To make this worse, the word was on far too many occasions used at best lazily and at worst interchangeably with words like “racist”, “fascist”, “British National Party” and even “rape”. The political space to the right of Gramsci and the left of Paolo Di Canio was not acknowledged.
The idea that one’s thoughts about the government could be equivocal were treated as heresy. You were either with Maggie or with us. If you were neither, well you’re a Tory, so you keep your head down and keep quiet. My personal views in those days would fit comfortably into the modern Labour Party, and in the heyday of Blair wouldn’t even have been particularly to the right of the party, but I was too much of a freethinker for my own good, so therefore my political orientation was presumed to be known.
And so it was – albeit inverted by precisely 180 degrees - in the right-wing press this week. Anyone capable of considering the way in which Thatcher was widely perceived in Wales, Scotland, Liverpool, South Yorkshire or the North East is of “the left”. It’s in some way morally wrong to remember that even if Thatcher didn’t actively support apartheid, her policy towards South Africa was proven hopelessly incorrect. The difference is that the students of late 1980s Yorkshire have grown up into respectable members of society and I am sure almost all of them cringe at the memory of their use of the word “Tory”. The Heffers, Kavanaghs, Letts and others have no such excuse.
In the aftermath of Leveson, these right-wing newspapers made an enormous amount of self-serving noise about their central importance to democratic life in the UK. Well this week was an opportunity to demonstrate this and instead of insightful comment and analysis, they brought nothing to the table beyond their and their paymasters’ reheated prejudices. In a desperate attempt to get away from the wall to wall regurgitation of this stuff on the BBC, I turned the dial to Talksport and within five minutes heard that noted political expert Ronnie Irani talk with more honesty and intelligence about Thatcher’s legacy than platoons of the Sun/Mail/Telegraph punditocracy.
These people and their organisations offer nothing to democracy. They are rather unpleasant businesses, should be regulated hard and if they refuse to submit to regulation, should have VAT imposed on their sales like any other non-essential product. They had their chance this week and they’ve blown it.