British Pop Culture’s Ambivalent Relationship with Margaret Thatcher: A Retrospective

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As you’ve no doubt heard, Margaret Thatcher died this morning, leading to a flood of internet coverage of her divisive years in power and her legacy. The serious commentary is best left to our friends across the Atlantic (if you’re after such, we recommend David Stubbs’ coruscating obituary for the The Quietus.) We’ll limit ourselves to a survey of how the Thatcher era manifested in popular culture — and for all that plenty of outlets have published articles today about anti-Thatcher songs, etc., the truth is rather more nuanced — for every “Margaret on the Guillotine” or “The Day That Thatcher Dies,” there’s a Thatcherite pop star waiting in the wings. Anyway, here’s a brief look at how the Thatcher years and the woman herself have been depicted in popular culture, both at the time and the benefit of hindsight.

Elvis Costello — “Shipbuilding”

The Falklands war was the tipping point for Thatcher’s popularity, and also the tipping point for musical opposition to her government. There were plenty of songs written about the war — our pick is Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding,” a composition about the conflict that captures the sort of quietly bewildered sadness that comes with being a pacifist in a country that’s suddenly marching to a militantly patriotic beat. (We’re sure we remember reading somewhere that the song was banned during the Falklands War for undermining national morale, although we can’t find any confirmation of this on the internet — does anyone know?)

Kingsley Amis

The literary world was rather more welcoming to Thatcher than the world of music, particularly one Amis, K, who apparently had quite the raging boner gentlemanly appreciation for her, writing on her election in 1979 that “[t]he British people have seen the future, found it doesn’t work, and want to go somewhere else,” and later describing her as his “dream girl” and also calling her “one of the most beautiful women I have ever met.” Whatever floats your boat, and all that. (Still, not every writer who lauded her rise to power maintained that view: Harold Pinter later described voting Conservative as “idiotic… [and] infantile, on my part.”)

Martin Amis

We can only imagine ’80s-era Amis family dinner discussions either avoided the subject of politics or got pretty damn heated, because while Kingsley was getting all genteelly priapic over Thatcher, his son Martin was skewering the greed-is-good ethos she brought to the UK with his novel Money. He wasn’t the only one, either — contemporaries like Salman Rushdie also delighted in sinking the satirical boot into all things Thatcherite.

Gilbert and George

Thatcher had an ambivalent relationship with the art world. In 2009, for instance, the Guardian asked a bunch of musicians, artists, and writers about the effect she had on British culture, and the verdict was that if nothing else, she gave artists plenty of motivation. Beyond that, though, there have been genuinely pro-Thatcher artists — conceptual duo Gilbert and George, for instance, have long been vocal supporters of madam, notwithstanding her cuts to arts funding: “She deregulated everything, so [artists] could become rich… for the first time. Before that they had to be art-school teachers, mostly.” Margaret Thatcher: indirectly responsible for Damien Hirst? Ew…

Stock, Aitken, and Waterman

Hilariously, the ubiquitous pop producers were once voted the worst thing about the ’80s, after… Margaret Thatcher. And indeed, their über-commercial and apolitical pop made them the perfect soundtrack to the era. Of course, it’s generally been the pop side of the musical spectrum that’s embraced the right (with a couple of notable exceptions, of course.) Which brings us to…

The Spice Girls

The whole Thatcher-was-a-feminist angle reached the heights of asinine simplicity with the Spice Girls, who lauded her as “the original Spice Girl” in their Girl Power hierarchy. (And still do, apparently.) All this rather ignored the fact that Thatcher herself had said things like this, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story etc etc?

The Iron Lady

The consensus on this: Meryl Streep was great, the film not so much so. The Guardian‘s review criticized the film for “giving us Thatcher without Thatcherism,” a fair complaint, even though the film was framed as a straight biopic rather than a depiction of the Thatcher years in general — the woman herself and her legacy are so inextricable that considering her personal journey without examining its effect on the country seems naïve, at best.

Spitting Image

If you’re not familiar with these, they’re satirical puppets that were something of an institution on British TV throughout the ’80s. Clearly, Thatcher was a godsend to the show’s creators, and they milked her for all she was worth. It was never quite the same once she was removed from power, and its writers slowly leached away throughout the ’90s, with the show eventually being cancelled in 1996.

Billy Elliot

The idea of Thatcher-as-cartoon-villain made its way onto the big screen, too — quite literally in the case of Billy Elliot and its attendant stage show, in which she was depicted as a giant, leering, and decidedly Spitting Image-esque puppet. (Also: a production of the musical is currently showing in London, and will be going ahead tonight as planned, apparently.)

Elvis Costello — “Tramp the Dirt Down”

And finally, we’ll bring it full-circle back to Mr. Costello, and his startlingly vitriolic death-of-Thatcher anthem from 1989. Much as our politics didn’t and don’t in any way coincide with that of Thatcher, this makes for mildly uncomfortable listening today.