by Kevin Meagher
In the Thatcherite spirit of free enterprise, the chamber of the House of Commons was leased out yesterday for a private wake as Tory MPs used the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death for what is becoming a familiar riff on How She Saved the Country.
As if the gap between the governing and the governed is not enormous enough already, our parliamentarians gathered to not to discuss the perilous state of our economy, but to trade lame anecdotes and hear boilerplate rhetoric about how dead-eyed Britons, existing on a diet of gruel, shuffled through a monochrome landscape before the brilliant new dawn of Thatcherism began in 1979.
This was the Commons at its private school debating chamber worst. History revised without question, assertions pedalled as fact. Guffaws all round.
When Tory MP Christopher Chope said Mrs. Thatcher was “not only a passionate Conservative but a compassionate Conservative” the dial on my irony-ometer whipped round to eleven. Compassion from the same woman who proclaimed there was “no such thing as society?”
Later Tory Daniel Kawczynski brought us the important revelation of how he once sat next to Thatcher at dinner. “I was mesmerised. My heart was beating.” Move over Cicero.
For the most part, Labour MPs sat there like lemons. A hardy few said what we needed to hear more of; that Thatcherism wrought a terrible price for the people and communities at the sharp end of her ideological crusade.
The faux outrage from the Tory benches in response Glenda Jackson’s biting remarks proved George Orwell’s old maxim that in an age of cant telling the truth is a revolutionary act. Plaudits are also due to David Winnick and Dave Anderson from Blaydon for having the guts and good sense to remember their job is to represent the people who send them to Westminster.
Alas, other Labour MPs seemed content to go with the flow and listen to partisan Tory-politicking masquerade as unctuous tribute-making.
I caught Frank Field warmly reminiscing about what an “extraordinary person” Mrs. Thatcher was. We can only wonder if that view is shared by constituents in his impoverished Merseyside seat.
Then came Edgbaston’s Gisela Stuart who was making some obscure point about how she agreed with Thatcher that her favourite book, Frederick Hayek’s ‘Road to Serfdom’, should be sent to every school.
Meanwhile Barry Sheerman seemed more bothered about slagging off the quality of the Labour opposition in the 1980s (hardly the point though Barry!)
It’s a shame some of Labour’s newer stars couldn’t bring themselves to help with the task of providing a more rounded assessment of Mrs. Thatcher. The point about yesterday was that the counter-argument should have been put. We needed to hear about the victims of her policies, about lost human potential and how former industrial heartlands are still trying to recover from her shock economic therapy thirty years on.
Hearing this in Parliament is all the more important because the circumstances of Thatcher’s exit from politics robbed her opponents out in the country of the chance to boot her out in 1992, as would surely have happened. She was “ousted” from the premiership by her own colleagues (a point the ever reliable Sir Gerald Kaufman gleefully made). Her death has therefore served to reignite the entirely justifiable anger so many still have about her.
The simple, unarguable truth is that Margaret Thatcher was the most divisive Prime Minister we have ever had. Great leaders – a Franklin Roosevelt for example – take a divided country and heal it. Margaret Thatcher’s entire ethos was about doing the opposite; dichotomising Britain between those she regarded as “one of us” and, well, those she didn’t.
Those who benefitted most from Thatcher’s policies were well represented in the House of Commons yesterday. What we needed – deserved – to hear from Labour MPs were the voices of those who didn’t.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut