Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Baroness Thatcher, the 'nation' and the politicians


Baroness Thatcher's funeral (above) is of course a deeply personal moment, though it's been surrounded by some of the trappings of state authority. As such, it's also a moment for reflection about the shape of our political life itself.

The Prime Minister says that 'we're all Thatcherites now' - something that might be true insofar as everyone's got a position on her; everyone's got a view; everyone's got an argument to make or an opinion to volunteer. The terms of political trade certainly are carried on by reference to her legacies. Even the Labour leader is being compared to the Iron Lady, somewhat unconvincingly, though he does share something of her passion for ideas. There was respect and some sadness at the passing of a leader who was very popular in some (more affluent) parts of the country: and there were protests, too, by those opposed to her policies and their often-baleful influence on British society.

But while that's all happening, the nation and its leaders are drifting ever more assuredly apart. That's making the mirroring, reflecting and explanatory power of this moment less powerful than some of those politicians claim. A moment that once might have seemed like a national catharsis - a great sharing, of disagreement if nothing else - suddenly feels much less important than it might once have done.

You can see this disentangling everywhere - from the insular and tight-knit leaderships of the two main parties, who on the Conservative benches have often gone to school and university together, and on the Labour benches often know each other from work, are married - or are siblings. Or in the steady deterioration of the main two (now three) parties' standing in terms of voting intentions. How many votes will Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats together get in the next General Election? Eighty five per cent? Eighty six? It's not much of a vote of confidence, and in their different ways the rise of the Greens, of UKIP, and of the Scottish National Party owes a great deal to the perceived irrelevance of the Westminster parties who currently swap the wielding of power between themselves.

To return to Baroness Thatcher's funeral, you can see these trends played in political indifference - the waning circulation of old-fashioned newspapers, the low television ratings that documentaries about Thatcher achieved on her death. And in the failure of any 'Thatcher effect' to move the polls greatly in the Conservatives' direction, though Labour's lead over their major rivals does seem to be drifting down somewhat at the moment.

There are a lot of reasons for all this. The very tight-knitness (and the unruffled, even glassy poise) of our political elites is one. Citizens' ever-more crowded, time-poor and complicated lives are another. The main parties' very similar answers to our problems, all written in the shadow of Thatcher's influence, is one more.

Analysing those explanations will have to wait for another day, though. For now, it's a day to remember the 1980s - the clashes, the dividing lines, some of the triumphs - and a lot of the damage. But there's a danger there: and it's to assume that all this sound and fury means anything to all to the average middle-of-the-road Briton. Because, increasingly, it doesn't.

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