The England we see in the Thatcher funeral coverage bears little relation to the real England

There has been self-generated media excess, disconnected with the level of interest of even the most ardent Conservatives, and we've all been swept along

Share

In an emblematic pre-funeral interview, David Cameron declared “We are all Thatcherites now”.

The words were not uttered triumphantly. Cameron’s tone was politely defensive. He had been asked whether he was a Thatcherite and avoided a direct answer by claiming that we all were. His evasiveness was complex not least because he was partly expressing what he believes.

The current Prime Minister thinks genuinely – but wrongly – that some of his more Thatcher-like policies place him on the centre ground. He has lived with deeply embedded Thatcherite assumptions for so long that he acts partly as if we all share them. So, on one level, Cameron was not being evasive at all, but expressing a view that explains how at times he can sound like Harold Macmillan while acting like Margaret Thatcher. Presumably, he believes that if Macmillan were still alive, he would be a Thatcherite, too, given that Thatcherites are what we are all supposed to be.

Yet, on another level, Cameron knows that we are not all Thatcherites and that he cannot win an election by being one. He is sharp enough to sense the danger were he to deliver the stark comment: “Yes, I’m a Thatcherite.” So he was being evasive, too, in an interview that opened a day of deep ambiguity. The Prime Ministerial interview to mark a funeral was itself an ambiguous act – an opportunity to field some soft questions when normal politics has ceased, and yet at the same time  a challenge not to make it appear like such an opportunity.

To some extent, Cameron has been trapped by the frenzy of the past few days – not choosing to generate hysteria but having no choice but to respond to it. No doubt there is a part of him which hopes that he and his party will benefit from the largely reverential coverage, nearly continuous for more than a week and reaching a peak of uncritical reporting today. But part of Cameron’s thinking will have been prompted by a fear of being seen not to be doing enough. As the tidal wave erupted, he had no choice but to swim with it.

Everyone became similarly engulfed. Journalists I have spoken to from across the political spectrum have expressed surprise and concern about the level of coverage since the death, while continuing to feed it. Politicians, including some Tories who are great admirers of Margaret Thatcher, have also told me they had not anticipated such an excess of nostalgia and re-heated passion.

A prime ministerial death is, of course, a big moment. But once a death has happened, there is a limit to the number of “breaking news” stories that can arise. Thatcher could not die twice. Instead, a self-feeding news fever erupted, partly authentic in that some newspapers and some of their readers idolised her, but also, like Cameron’s reaction, partly defensive, a fear of missing out in some way or another on the funereal party, of not being part of the pack. In the case of the BBC, there was also a fear of offending those newspapers that terrify its more insecure senior managers, only for the BBC to still be attacked by those very newspapers. Overall, there has been self-generated media excess, disconnected with the level of interest of even the most ardent Conservatives.

The strange sense of ambiguity reached a climax with the funeral, a dignified service with contributions more restrained and nuanced than the public interventions of the lady being mourned. Yet it was preceded by a jarring military focus and generally felt over the top. I do not blame Cameron for giving the go-ahead for the no-expense-spared event. Imagine the furore if he had suggested a lower-key ceremony. Similarly, I do not blame John Bercow, the Speaker, for granting a recall of Parliament for a full day of tributes, although I know he did not want to do so, aware of the absurdity of MPs paying tribute late into the evening, many of them having never met her. He knew that the same papers that slaughtered the BBC would seek to destroy him, too. Even those senior newspaper and broadcasting journalists who had doubts about the level of the coverage were swept along in the tide, unable or disinclined to resist.

The result is an image of England (Scotland and Wales were different political countries in the 1980s, and still are) conveyed on TV screens that bears little relation to what England is, and in some ways, was. The Falklands War was a freakish one-off that became a rather pathetic echo of Churchillian glories in the Second World War. The Argentinian invasion in 1982 arose because of cuts in military protection around the islands, and also followed Thatcher’s ministers signalling, sensibly, they were willing to negotiate a handover. If the supposedly great war leader had not taken the military option, she would have had to resign as Prime Minister. But England is growing tired of war as a way of asserting “strength”. To Tony Blair’s surprise, the conflict in Iraq remained unpopular even when he hoped for a “Baghdad bounce” after the fall of Saddam. There is not even a political consensus about the renewal of Trident. Michael Portillo, a former Defence Secretary and Thatcher fan, is one of those who is opposed.

I hope those watching today, from outside the UK as well as within it, remember that there is more to this country than military-style prime ministerial funerals and early summer Jubilee celebrations in the freezing cold – the equivalent event from last year. There is also the country of Danny Boyle, David Bowie, the Beatles, punk rock, Fawlty Towers, The Office, free art galleries and museums, great theatre. No wonder England has a confused sense of itself.

Though there was a mesmerising, Shakespearean edge to today's beautifully choreographed ceremony, the mourners from Thatcher’s Cabinet who had killed off her leadership were all there, along with her immediate successor, a man she subsequently turned against. There was no hint of the old, intense battles today. Most funerals give only a limited impression of the life being mourned. And Thatcher’s told us little about a long-serving Prime Minister and the country over which she ruled.

Twitter: @steverichards14

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine