So where were you when you heard Lady Thatcher had died? Lady who?
“Her shadow is very long,” someone said on the Huw Edwards special which took over the afternoon schedules – and if you’d been watching the rolling news coverage since the announcement of Baroness Thatcher’s death, you would have felt every inch of it.
This wasn’t, like 9/11, one of those events that take news organisations completely unaware, and it showed. The instant reaction and off-the-cuff eulogies were held together with packages and profiles that had been sitting ready for this moment. But there was a sense that a significant chapter of British, even world history, was being closed, and that the schedules should buckle to acknowledge it.
Was it one of those moments that gets underlined in everyone’s personal calendar? Well, Lady Thatcher’s children may always remember where they were when they heard the news, but some of the children of Lady Thatcher’s children – as Twitter demonstrated – were not entirely sure who it was that had brought normal service to a standstill. If this was an epochal moment, it was so only for a certain generation.
After the first extended bulletins, the coverage was largely confined to BBC News and Sky News, each of them taking it in turns to press the same commemorative quotes out of the same familiar faces. What you saw on screen was largely men standing in front of doors – the glossy black of 10 Downing Street which so often served as a backdrop for her own most famous soundbites; the door of her London house; the constituency office in Finchley; and the Grantham health food store which now occupies the site of her father’s grocery shop.
“On a personal level, was there a lot of warmth for her in the City?” asked the BBC’s Emily Maitliss, who had presumably been listening to something else while the reporter had cautiously explained that there wasn’t. Outside the back of The Ritz hotel, a hapless BBC reporter appeared to be on “hearse watch” – though mercifully we never cut back for the “significant event” that he suggested was imminent.
Charles Moore pinned down the reason why this would be no ordinary political passing, pointing out that she was the only British Prime Minister who could have an “-ism” added to the end of her name. And though Ed Miliband cautiously said that “now is not the time for party politics”, the truth is that nothing else was really possible. The Labour leader restricted himself, with an almost comical wariness, to statements of the obvious. She was “a unique figure” he said. She had won three elections. She had been the country’s first female Prime Minister.
Lady Thatcher’s former colleagues and current supporters, however, had no need to guard their speech. The conventional duty to speak well of the dead coincided with their own instinct to push an advantage home. “She rescued this country, in my view,” said William Hague, bluntly echoing a refrain that sounded throughout the afternoon: that privatisation and the liberation of market forces had pulled Britain back from the brink.
Two sorts of people were conspicuous by their absence. The first was Labour politicians, who were either celebrating in a locked room somewhere, or simply turning down the undesirable invitation to bite their lips as Conservative opponents hymned a former enemy’s virtues. In the BBC1 special, the studio guests were exclusively Conservative – dissenting opinion being restricted to a National Union of Mineworkers’ man during an interview from a former Durham pit village. The result – despite the repeated nervous references to Lady Thatcher’s divisiveness and the strong feelings many still harbour towards her – was an implicit consensus about the necessity of what she’d done back in the1970s. The thought that there might be a connection between the Big Bang she so eagerly ushered in and the banking crisis which currently besets us was never voiced.
The second kind of people who were missing were women. Lady Thatcher might have been the first female Prime Minister but, watching a virtually unbroken parade of elderly male politicians summing up her achievements, you could have been forgiven for thinking that her pioneering example had had no effect whatsoever on the complexion of British politics. Along with the footage of Orgreave and rubbish in the streets and boisterous city traders it gave the coverage a distinctly archaic feel.
The note inside the solitary bunch of flowers outside her house read, rather oddly: “You make Britain what it is” – as if its writer couldn’t bear to acknowledge that she now belonged in the past tense.
It would be hard to deny that she did transform this country, for good or ill – and nobody who lived through that remaking could be indifferent to her passing. But the froth of instant reaction that governed the first hours of coverage was never likely to produce a decent analysis of exactly what her achievement was. “One of the defining figures of modern political life,” said one commentator in a typical formula. We’ll be fighting about what she defined for a long time yet.
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