Philip Hensher: 'Thatcherite' – an insult that's had its day

To accuse a front bench of being ‘Thatcher’s children’, when they nearly all unashamedly regard her asapost-war giant, seems peculiarly fatuous
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The other day, Ed Miliband stood up in the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Questions. David Cameron had just batted away a previous question, and with attempted scorn, Miliband said, "Mr Speaker, with that answer it's no wonder that today we learned the Foreign Secretary described this gang as 'the children of Thatcher'. It sounds just like the 1980s. Out of touch with people up and down the country. Why doesn't the Prime Minister admit that he is complacent about the recovery, complacent about the people who will lose their jobs, and it is they who will pay the price?"

Of course, the Prime Minister could hardly contain his joy. An opponent who could do no better than limply suggest that it would be a good idea if the Prime Minister admitted that he was complacent obviously presents no real political challenge. But there was an emblematic quality about the exchange. Perhaps in years to come, people will look at this question and wonder whether it was the moment when the bien pensant certainties suddenly seemed perfectly ridiculous. Mr Miliband possessed all the unearned inner certainty of one of his favourite polar bears, clinging to a shard of rapidly melting ice in the Arctic.

To hurl the insult of "Thatcher's children" at a front bench which, almost without exception, unashamedly regards Mrs Thatcher as a post-war giant seems peculiarly fatuous. What did Mr Miliband expect them to do? Wail and rent their shirts? Admit to a secret, shameful affiliation, like membership of the LA Crips, and promise to repent in future? The fact is that, like those argumentative homosexuals who, in the 1980s, took to referring to themselves as "queer", there are plenty of openly Conservative people who go round boldly calling themselves "Thatcherite". They have reclaimed an item of abuse as a term of pride.

Actually, in some parts of the country, the news may never have penetrated that it was a term of abuse in the first place. Calling the Conservative front bench "Thatcher's children" to their faces is a bit like trying to insult Miss Cheryl Cole by calling her a Geordie. They are always going to burst out laughing at the statement of the bleeding obvious.

For nearly 20 years, the Labour Party and its supporters have taken it for granted that anyone who can read and goes out in public would never think of admitting support for, or even understanding of, Conservative policies. In the aftermath of Tony Blair's 1997 landslide, one young woman wrote a book about the loneliness of being a young supporter of the Conservative Party called Too Nice to Be a Tory. In a famous, repulsive definition, the Labour Party came to regard itself as "the political wing of the British people". Of course you agreed with them. That was what the British people did.

The wholehearted decamping of workers in the media, the arts, the new internet boom, music, design – any remotely cool job – to the support of Labour was an amazing phenomenon. Between the death of John Smith and the Iraq catastrophe, it often seemed as if anyone with the slightest claim to be under 35 and to read GQ was always going to vote for Tony and his boys.

Whether this was absolutely true was not so clear. The polls taken on the eve of the 1992 general election clearly showed that Labour was going to win. Amusingly, another poll taken five years later, based on the verbal responses of voters, seemed to show that Labour actually had won that election. Even five years on, in total anonymity, Conservative voters were still lying through their teeth for the sake of a quiet life. In many a Shoreditch loft, a voting-booth secret divided many a groovy couple.

It is in this milieu that the Milibands grew up. Their parents were chic Marxisant academics: one of them has a wife who is a violinist; the other's partner is an environment lawyer. I don't suppose anyone ever said to either of them, all through their youth, "Actually, I think Mrs Thatcher did rather a good thing the other day." It is constitutionally impossible for either of them to hear such a thing. It would be like saying "Arse" to the Queen. The Queen probably has no idea how the word is pronounced. The Milibands, in their similarly sheltered lives, probably came very late to the notion that there were such things as Thatcherites in the world, other than rendered in latex, on television puppet shows. In their heart of hearts, you feel, they still do not truly believe it.

Even now, one often meets people who startlingly say that they plan to hold a party when Lady Thatcher dies, or look forward to dancing on her grave, or who plan to go up to London and spit in her face, or some other rather awful sentiment – awful, that is, if it were voiced about any other woman in old age in failing health. I met a Welsh poetaster once who boastfully said that she could think her way, in her writing, into the mind of anybody at all. "Except a Tory MP," she said balefully, and went on to describe the party she was going to hold on Lady Thatcher's death. "Well, that seems a bit extreme," I said. She stared at me as if I were completely mad even to venture a mild demurral from her necrophile festivities.

Whatever you think of the current Conservative front bench, they have been exposed to the full range of political opinions. They have spent years putting up with people making pretend-sick noises at parties when they arrive, and being ripped to shreds after their departures.

They don't really deserve sympathy from anyone on that score. Actually, I think much the same thing ought to happen regularly to all politicians. Quite a lot of them, across the spectrum, are fairly absurd; the nice ones know that perfectly well. The most incurably absurd believe, as Tony Blair evidently did, that no person of reason could fail to agree with them, and like Ed Miliband, that everybody in the world will nod their head in sage understanding when he uses "Thatcher's children" as an insult. That one's not got much more life left in it, I would say.