This most bloody and divisive prime minister: Margaret Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle
Wednesday, 08 December 2021 19:14

This most bloody and divisive prime minister: Margaret Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes about Thatcher and her legacy. Image above: Steev Burgess

Not quite a decade after her death, and already cultural depictions of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher are everywhere in evidence, most recently in the hit Netflix TV series The Crown, where she is played by Gillian Anderson. Anderson's portrayal is by no means flattering; it has, in fact, received a great deal of vitriolic backlash from the right-wing press. Good. Except the problem of representing this most bloody and divisive of prime ministers goes far beyond the degree of sympathy with which she is characterised. It has to do with what happens when we translate political figures from the muck and mess of immediate history into slickly produced packages of self-contained narrative. It has to do with what happens when the pain of living memory becomes popular entertainment.

Where Thatcher is concerned, there is so much pain, persistent pain. One significant discomfort I have with The Crown and with similar docudramas is that it relegates the events of Thatcher's tenure to a finite and clearly delineated past, when the horrors she inaugurated and presided over are not, in any meaningful measure, 'finished'. As an example, we might consider Orgreave and Hillsborough, and the long and difficult struggles for justice endured by those affected.

The violence that took place at Orgreave was not merely the worst example of police brutality ever witnessed in a modern industrial dispute; it was the culmination of a concerted campaign on behalf of Thatcher's government to diminish the strength of the trade unions. In the years before Orgreave the Conservatives had planned to face and to defeat a strike by the NUM, or by another of the mass-membership unions; to that end they had inextricably allied themselves with the police, awarding pay rises for officers, while workers in nationalised industries were forced to live at the sharp-end of redundancy and privatisation. In the wake of the violence, where mounted police charged protesters, attacking them without justifiable provocation, Thatcher's private secretary wrote to a Home Office official that 'The prime minister […] agrees that the chief constable of South Yorkshire should be given every support in his efforts to uphold the law.' A note by her policy advisor, David Pascall, expresses a similarly swift and absolute judgement, describing the miners as a 'mob' and as 'Scargill's shock-troops'.

Police brutality

The legitimation and bolstering of police brutality as policy could be said to lead inexorably to events at Hillsborough. In not holding the South Yorkshire police force to account for Orgreave, in frustrating inquiries into police violence, and in refusing to implement reforms, Thatcher's government saw Peter Wright, the chief constable who had overseen the operation at Orgreave, still in charge some four years later. Wright was responsible for appointing David Duckenfield to police the match at Hillsborough, and for heading the campaign to deny responsibility for the disaster, blaming and slandering the victims. The treatment of football supporters at Hillsborough was given official sanction by the brutal policing of the miners’ strike. It is all connected, and the search for justice and accountability is ongoing. The repercussions ripple out for years, across generations. The complexity, specificity, and interrelatedness of this pain is not easily accommodated within the docudrama format, which relies heavily on resolution within neatly determined narrative arcs.

An even greater level of unease exists for me around the issue of focus. The Crown and similar shows are top-down dramas: we see the subjective effect of the decisions Thatcher made upon herself and her immediate circle. We do not see the wider consequences of those decisions for the thousands of people who suffered them, or we see those consequences only in the broadest possible brush strokes, and not with the nuance and granular particularity of real experience. This creates a vague nostalgic haze around events such as the miners' strike or the invasion of the Falkland Islands. These are cultural milestones, they feel known, but they are little understood; they have become the depoliticised stuff of zeitgeist, emptied of content and of true human cost.

The screen transmits personality, it cannot credibly render the difficult and shadowy reasoning of ideology, which is where Thatcher's murderous toxicity truly lived. How can an actor hope to convey this through gesture and tone, within the limits of an accessible light-entertainment script?

They can't, and so viewers are either hoodwinked into a sympathetic identification with the Thatcher 'character', or they may come to relish Anderson's performance as a kind of cartoon Ice Queen, an exaggerated parody of awfulness. At a cultural moment where the line between politics and entertainment is already dangerously blurred, and where political careers rise and fall on the strength of 'personality', this should give us pause. Yes, politicians are people too, but it isn't who they are as human beings that is relevant to us, it is what they do. Learning to read politicians as characters, and political careers as stories of individual exceptionalism, of private triumph or failure, is a disturbing trend with grave implications for our future as voters and citizens.

The Ballymurphy Massacre

This has been much on my mind of late. The recent conclusion of the long-awaited inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre has had me thinking about hidden continuities of state violence. Mrs Justice Keegan delivered a savage indictment of both the British army's actions and the subsequent state-sanctioned efforts to depict the deceased as IRA members. The attack in 1971, is one in a long line of historical injustices that are only now, after decades, beginning to be addressed, including those that took place during Thatcher's tenure.

In particular, I have been thinking about the atrocities carried out by the notorious Glenanne gang, to which is attributed some 120 murders. The Glenanne gang were an informal alliance of ultra-loyalist groups, run with the collusion of the British government. It comprised roughly 40 men, including members of the British police (the RUC), British soldiers, and paramilitary groups such as the UDR and the UVF. When the inquest into the Ballymurphy Massacre reported, the papers made their usual noises about how the findings could pave the way for prosecutions of armed forces veterans for historical abuses in the North of Ireland. Government and armed forces spokespersons were quick to shout down any such suggestions, highlighting once again the statute of limitations that covers both members of the occupying British forces and paramilitary groups. The argument being presented is that such a statute of limitations is fair to 'all sides'. It is not. There is an enormous difference between those actions carried out by local paramilitaries, and by those of an occupying nation state. And with regards to collusion with loyalist groups, the British government clearly has much to lose should the extent of that collusion become known.

What these reflections reveal, I think, is that history is still being made; that it is in a continuous process of painful negotiation and discovery. For that reason there would seem to be a greater duty of care attendant upon the treatment of recent history in art and culture. This kind of careful and pressured attention is something lacking in the mainstream media's recent depictions of Thatcher. Depictions in which her flawed humanity becomes the only necessary apology for the violent racism, classism, and homophobia of her politics, or in which she becomes a sort of grotesque scapegoat: the embodiment of the worst excesses of neoconservative ideology. Thatcher didn't happen out of air; the ideas she instituted did not disappear in a puff of smoke as soon as she was out of office. Look at Tony Blair and Keir Starmer. Her legacy is a living one, as viscerally present as it is vile. Look at the North of Ireland, and the blatant disregard for Irish life that Tory Brexit has exposed. Look at the victims of police brutality and their families, still waiting for justice after all these years.

The poems I want to present  address themes around Thatcher, exploitation and class struggle.  Unpacking a language for talking about the trauma of Thatcher and Thatcherism will take time and effort, but these poems, with their meticulous attention to sound and to the texture of particular, lived experience are a vivid and important beginning, a necessary counter-narrative.

The day she died

By Kevin Patrick McCann

There were fireworks,
Dancing in the street,
Ding-dong the witch is
Dead blasting out of stereos
But I stayed in our house,
Curtains closed
Remembering
That day they went back,
All brass bands and banners,
Lives in flinders,
Faces clenched like fists
Remembering
How she closed down the mines
And him sat in that chair
For weeks at a stretch
His thousand yard stare
At the end.
So no, I didn’t join in.
Just sat here alone.
Remembering.


they want all of our teeth to be theirs

By Martin Hayes

they want from us total commitment
they want from us our blood and our hunger
they want our flesh
inked with the company’s logo on our chest
they want our knuckles to our brains
and all the nerve-ends in between
switched off
they want our sinews and our muscles
sewn together with steal thread
so that we can only move
when they pull their levers
they want all of our teeth to be theirs
so that we can only chew when they chew
ache when they ache
they want us to show them where we keep our guts
so that they can sneak in under the radar
and pull them apart
angry thread by angry thread
until nothing is held
or stitched together anymore
they want us like robots
sat at our workstations every day
not wanting or able to think
of anything other than what their virus
has burrowed into us
and malfunctioned us to think
and what do we want?
we want to be able to walk through the park on a Saturday afternoon
without feeling anxious
we want to be able to lay out on the grass
drinking ice cold beer
while looking up into the sky
without worrying about office politics
we want to swim in the ocean once a year
and know how we are going to pay for it
we want a mouth full of teeth
that we know we can afford to get fixed
or capped
if ever they should go rotten
we want to be able to enjoy the laughter and song
that comes from having food in the fridge the electricity bill nearly paid
a car taxed and full of diesel
a medicine cabinet full of floss sticks and Sudocrem
paracetamol and hand cream
Bonjela hair bands
Diazepam and Ansol

we want to be able to live in our block
without the threat of being redistributed
hanging like thick drool dripping from a councilor’s panting mouth
because an entrepreneur took him for a £500 dinner
and promised him a place for his kid in the prep school
that will take our council flat’s place
alongside the £65-a-month gym business units
and 1.5 million-pound lofts
we want to feel
be able to say to ourselves
that we are human
and not have to give everything of that away
just so we are allowed to work
just so we are allowed
to exist


Milk Snatcher

By Julia Bell

Father thinks she’s great. He tells us so at tea.
He enjoys the nightly news where rabbles
of dirty miners have it handed to them.
These Marxists with their utopias, need to get real.
She is bringing back stability, certainty,
to a hairy country, old and badly clothed,
with naïve teeth and a childish sense of
pageantry. She is telling us
who we are again. And even those
most disinclined to listen to a woman,
love her matronly, no nonsense ways,
and the righteousness of her hair.
I do not like her, and I do not understand
why she is so popular round here.
Jesus said we should love the poor,
not tut at them on the news.
I will live long enough to know that
I am witnessing the slow death of South Wales.
The sick, sliding slag heaps becoming
deep valleys of generational despair.
I have started blushing every time I get upset
and at the tea table I wear a NUM badge sent to me
by the miners, my cheeks on fire. I wrote to them after the news.
Father thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poems for adults, and one for children, Diary of a Shapeshifter (Beul Aithris), a book of ghost stories, It’s Gone Dark, (The Otherside Books), and Teach Yourself Self-Publishing (Hodder) co-written with the playwright Tom Green. He is also the author of Ov (Beul Aithris), a fantasy novel for children.

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. His latest collections are Ox, published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and Where We Get Magic From, published by Culture Matters

Julia Bell is a writer and Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck where she is the Course Director of the MA Creative Writing. Her work includes poetry, essays and short stories published in the Paris Review, Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Mal Journal, Comma Press, and recorded for the BBC. Her most recent book-length essay Radical Attention was published by Peninsula Press.

This article will also appear in the next issue of Communist Review.

Wednesday, 08 December 2021 19:14

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

Published in Visual Arts

Although he has used a wide variety of media, Jeremy Deller is perhaps best known for orchestrating large numbers of the public to create artworks such as his collaboration with ex-miners to re-enact the Battle of Orgreave in 2001.

In his current exhibition and catalogue, 'All That Is Solid Melts Into Air', he further expands traditional artists' means of expression to encompass curating, an activity for which he claims artistic freedom to interpret his theme in a personal manner.

Acting as a social cartographer, Deller links the impact of the industrial revolution on popular culture with its legacy today. He has programmed a 1950s juke box with traditional folk and heavy metal music, creating resonances or disjunctures in our experience of the artefacts according to songs which the public selects for free.

A section of 19th century works shows the physical effects of industrialisation on the landscape. John Martin's massive apocalyptical painting The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah dominates, with its depiction of a society imploding due to sin and disease.

Deller repeats the frequently voiced interpretation that this painting's subject was a metaphor for Victorian anxieties about the pernicious effects of rapid industrialisation on society.

But by also displaying Martin's plan drawings as evidence of his decades-long campaign to solve London's sewage problems which caused cholera epidemics, Deller expands the social definition of this academic artist to include his self-imposed environmental contribution. This hints at the social content of Deller's own works.

Other links between past and present are less convincing. Deller argues that the noise and shuddering of machines that shook the bodies of youths of both sexes in heated proximity in 19th-century factories created an atmosphere of moral chaos and danger similar to that of 1980s raves attended by later generations. Yet that raises the question of whether the consciousness of malnourished, poorly housed and often sickly mill children, working tedious hours to survive, bears any relation to that of ecstasy-fuelled teenagers dancing at a rave in the knowledge that cosy duvets in heated bedrooms await their return home.

More convincing are Deller's juxtapositions of past and present unjust and inhumane employment conditions. An 1830s mill poster enumerates heavy fines for often minor offences such as being a few minutes late and states that employees must give one month's notice but the masters can sack them instantly.

That's counterposed with a text message to a zero-hours worker which cynically reads 'Hello, today you have day off.' An 1810 clock measuring productivity stands near a digital tracking device worn by today's zero-hours warehouse workers which admonishes them if their pace is too slow. Ben Roberts's photograph of Amazon workers dwarfed by endless repetitive shelves emphasises their regimented working environment.

William Clayton's portrait photographs of unnamed, weary Victorian iron workers in their tattered dresses bring these women to life as individuals, their expressions seething with sullen resentment. In contrast, Francis Crawshaw's untutored paintings of the named workers in the 1830s factories which he ran portrays them as meek citizens in their Sunday clothes.

Deller's choice of contemporary workers focuses on a few men who escaped factory or colliery for successful, glamorous careers. Large wall drawings trace the genealogies of pop musicians such as Shaun Ryder through generations of their working-class ancestors. Photographs lionise Adrian Street, a miner who became a model and gaudy showman wrestler, including one of him in long blond wig, make-up and glittery wrester's regalia posing at the pit head with his bemused father and workmates.

Deller interprets Street's triumphant return as part-prodigal, part-prophet 'enlightening the coal serfs' of future deliverance from industrial toil. These appraisals of working-class escapees perpetuate a capitalist definition of success based on individualism and superficial glamour. They ignore the more laudable successes of self-educated workers who also rebelled but stayed to organise collective resistance against exploitative conditions.

A print depicting the Merthyr Rising of 1831 and a single weather-beaten trade union banner are rare references to the labour movement. This banner and the broadsheets are the few genuine relics of 19th century proletarian visual culture, the majority being observations about the industrial revolution by middle-class bosses and artists.

Nevertheless, an exhibition about working-class experience is welcome. By naming the pop stars' ancestors and stating their livelihoods the genealogies validate the normally anonymous existences of these paperhangers, miners, labourers, weavers, housemaids, fitters, nurses and others, as do the named portraits and photographs of workers. Similarly the folk songs on the juke box and in the broadsheets are truly the art of the people.

Though Deller makes some telling points and his concern for social justice is heartfelt, it is rooted in a romantic fascination with working-class life both past and present which underestimates the necessity for organised working-class action if true change is to be achieved.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Morning Star.