Why Margaret still makes the boys sweat

Earlier this year, she was hailed as an unlikely fashion icon. Now we're told that she's sexier than Denise Van Outen, at least as far as politicians are concerned
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The Independent Online

There is, it seems, no end to the media's fascination with Baroness Thatcher, whose capacity to drive other celebrities off front pages is similar to the Beckhams.

There is, it seems, no end to the media's fascination with Baroness Thatcher, whose capacity to drive other celebrities off front pages is similar to the Beckhams.

The latest revelation about the former prime minister is that MPs reacted more strongly to her photograph in tests than to other stimuli, including pictures of Tony Blair, Ms Van Outen and a semi-naked man. This was in contrast to members of the public, who were aroused by more conventional erotic images, including two women kissing.

As the researchers were quick to point out, their equipment is designed to measure arousal in the broadest sense. MPs may not have been lusting after Lady Thatcher, as some excitable commentators suggested last week, but displaying fear and loathing. Nevertheless, one of the conclusions drawn from the research was that MPs are different from the rest of us, a thought no one followed through to its logical conclusion.

Politicians of both main parties are still more likely to have had a public school education than ordinary people, a generalisation that is even more true of peers, who also responded powerfully to Lady Thatcher's image in the tests. Maternal deprivation, and an ambivalent attitude to women, are among the most troubling legacies that public schoolboys carry into adult life, a phenomenon that has not been sufficiently explored in relation to the extraordinary dominance Margaret Thatcher achieved within the Conservative Party in the 1980s.

Worshipped, eroticised, reviled and loathed, Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) embodied the distant, powerful mother figure little boys long for and repudiate in equal measure. It was almost always public schoolboys, on the left as well as the right, who boasted about how much they fancied her, with all the bravado of adolescents. Even Ted Heath, the grammar school boy who sulked in his tent for years after she ousted him as party leader, appeared to be working out some weird mother complex as well as brooding on genuine ideological differences.

This is not to suggest that there are not good reasons to despise Lady Thatcher. Her most famous declaration, that there is no such thing as society, is largely responsible for the mess we are in now, with national assets flogged off to ghastly private companies, the environment collapsing from over-use of fossil fuels, and thuggish minorities threatening to hold the country to ransom. That's Thatcherism for you, boys, and we are still suffering from the way she turned us into competing tribal groups.

Yet this does not explain her unique place in our culture. No one talks about Wilson chic, endlessly reprinting pictures of the former Labour prime minister in his Gannex raincoat, while John Major is a joke. But Lady Thatcher just keeps on coming back, in ways that suggest a link with Freud's theory of the return of the repressed. The founder of psycho-analysis believed, as you may recall, that repressed emotions come back to haunt us in the form of neurotic symptoms. That is surely the function of all these essentially content-free stories about the auction of Lady Thatcher's handbag, or her supposed emergence as an influence on Miuccia Prada and other designers who probably haven't given her a thought in years.

It demonstrates that we - or, more correctly, our political class - have yet to come to terms with her, for reasons that are not hard to fathom. Even for her admirers, she represents the triumph of free market economics in a context of what must often have felt like infantile submission to overwhelming female authority; look at Michael Heseltine, flouncing out of No 10 over the Westland affair like a teenager who has quarrelled with his mother too many times. Let me quickly say that I don't think this is an inevitable response to female politicians: Mo Mowlam's style in Northern Ireland was very different, and it will be interesting to watch Hillary Clinton's political development if she wins a seat in the American Senate.

But Lady Thatcher is, for the moment, the only template we have for a woman prime minister in this country. That doesn't mean others are not possible, but it should act as a warning. A male-dominated political process is not just unfriendly to women, as so many of the female MPs elected in 1997 have found out. It is also stuck in the past, psychologically as well as in terms of its rituals and institutions. Margaret Thatcher's ability to make our legislators sweat is a sad reminder that many of them have yet to resolve their feelings towards matron.