“Ding dong,” said a text message that arrived for me while I was attending a funeral yesterday afternoon, “the witch is dead!” It wasn’t a fabulously inappropriate response to the death of an old family friend: the timing was just a coincidence. It was a reaction to the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death, and apparently a fairly common one.
Margaret Thatcher’s place in modern British history is important, no doubt about that, and historians will be arguing over it for the foreseeable future. Here, our excellent PhD student Daisy Payling (read about her work here) offers some thoughts on how Baroness Thatcher’s death is likely to affect her research.
The lady’s not returning: but for many she never left
Every news agency has been preparing to break the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death for a while now. And the line they’ve all gone for, that every article opens with, is that she was a very divisive politician. This is undoubtedly the case, and reactions to her death are falling wonderfully into three predicted categories: almost hagiographical accounts of her on the right (see David Cameron’s ‘she saved our country’); the ‘let’s dance on her grave’ enthusiasm from some in Glasgow and Brixton; and statements from the public faces of the Left that ‘she’s still a human being and anyway Thatcherism didn’t die with Thatcher—the fight must continue’.
This range of views is very much expected, because it’s what we’ve been hearing pre-emptively for years. In my research I only ever encounter the last two, and now that Thatcher has passed on, I can’t help but think of how that is going to affect my work.
I’m writing my PhD on left-wing activism and local government in the 1970s and 1980s, in Sheffield in particular. Owen Jones’ article in The Independent from last September articulates the history of the place, and how Thatcher shaped it, well.
In the course of my current research and previous work on anti-poll tax movements I’ve conducted oral history interviews with activists, and I’ll continue to do so over the next few months. Whatever the activism under discussion, Thatcher inevitably pops up in the interviews: opinions range from ‘she was for the rich… quite openly’ to ‘maybe Thatcher can be vilified too much I don’t know, well actually no, I don’t think she can be’. In the interview I’m scheduled to conduct later today, I can’t help but expect her to play a greater part than usual. Yesterday I was talking about my research to someone who now works in theatre in Birmingham, and he said, ‘Have you heard the news? You know, Thatcher politicized me… [pause] I’m not a Tory’.
Margaret Thatcher is not my focus, but she has always been on the edge of what I’m looking at. Now that she has died, and media coverage is at its height, I can see her stepping centre stage. As people read the news, they’ve thought about her and talked about her more than they normally might and they’ve prepared a reaction. They’ve slotted her into their lives and their development. Rather than reflecting in the moment, they have prepared what oral historians call ‘rehearsed anecdotes’. I have a feeling she’s going to be popping up ever more frequently in my oral history interviews.
This summer we’re holding the New Times Revisited conference at Birmingham and Warwick. I’m sure she won’t be forgotten there either.
She ain’t going nowhere yet.