Thatcher: The Legacy
Francis Frascina on Thatcherism, Masquerade and Cultural Coercion for Art Monthly
Thatcherism – an ideology, a system of ideas, values and beliefs – is redolent with cultural symbols and imagery. Even as the body of Margaret Thatcher lay in waiting for the spectacle of a ceremonial funeral with full military honours – a state funeral in all but name – media fascination with her contested status included images of the Ritz Hotel suite where she died. Thatcher lived at the Ritz in early 2013 courtesy of the hotel’s owners:twins David and Frederick Barclay, who are media, retail and property billionaires with press holdings including the Spectator and the Telegraph. Along with many others, the brothers featured in recent controversies concerning the role of the press in British culture since the 1980s and the negative effects of tax exiles following the 2007-08 banking and credit crisis. The Barclays are conspicuous benefi ciaries of the free-market, neoliberal policies of Thatcher’s Conservative governments (1979-90) and the subsequent dominance of Thatcherism, including its morphed version, Blairism, evident in New Labour governments since 1997.
Relationships between Thatcherism/Blairism as ideologies and Thatcher/Blair as ideologues have not been lost on artists. Richard Hamilton’s exploration of political propaganda connects Thatcher in Treatment Room, 1983-84, and Tony Blair in Shock and Awe, 2007-08, part of Hamilton’s exhibition ‘Modern Moral Matters’ at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010 (Reviews AM336). Marcus Harvey’s Maggie, 2009 (part of his ‘White Riot’ exhibition at White Cube Hoxton Square in 2009), is based on the famous photograph of Thatcher taken at the launch of the Conservative election manifesto in 1987 and constructed using plaster casts of sex aids, phallic vegetables, skulls and Blair portrait masks to convey what Harvey called ‘an unpleasant sexual energy’. Media masks and masquerade combine with conventional symbols of vanitas and memento mori.
Before exploring Thatcherism in the art economy, I want to linger on the meanings of the Ritz imagery. Prior to her election victory in 1979, Thatcher was one among millions of citizens who had benefitted from radical universal social changes begun by Clement Atlee’s post-1945 Labour government, which either established or ensured the NHS, the welfare state, state education and workers’ rights. However, she was personally hostile to such state intervention (‘there’s no such thing as society’), particularly the Atlee government’s programme of nationalisation, and was convinced that her personal convictions should be a template for everyone. Do the Ritz images, therefore, represent both the place of her demise and the opulent trappings of Thatcher’s personal aspirations – from the daughter of a Grantham grocer (albeit also the local mayor, let’s not forget) to a baroness? Aspirations based on an ideology that sought to transform, if not erase, Atlee’s socialism and egalitarianism by imposing opposite processes: a survival of the fittest in the unfettered satisfaction of possessive individualism and the pursuit of personal profit?
In the week of Thatcher’s death, an extension of Thatcherism was in full flow with the implementation of austere changes to benefits, welfare and local authority funding by David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government. These followed earlier savage cuts in the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, including large financial reductions to both Arts Council England (ACE) and budgets for public libraries, arts centres/officers and regional culture. In July 2010 the government announced the end of the UK Film Council and abolished the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. A few weeks after Cameron’s speech of 5 February 2011, declaring that ‘state multiculturism’ had ‘failed’, ACE announced its financially reduced National Portfolio funding scheme (30 March 2011) where half of the 12 most heavily cut organisations were those focusing on cultural diversity. Some critics saw this as, at best, a financially strapped ACE acting as the compromised agent of government cuts to organisations representing what Tories regarded as failed or ideologically unsound ideas; others saw the decisions as an expression of covert racism in tune with media-fuelled Tory-led antipathy to immigration, migration and refugee status. For some, this was rooted in Thatcherism’s concept of national identity defined by a particular notion of ‘white citizens’: in 2009, Downing Street papers released under the 30-year rule revealed what reports described as ‘a shocking degree of personal racism’ in Thatcher’s resistance to an informal UN request that the UK accommodate 10,000 Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s. She made clear to her cabinet that she objected less to refugees such as ‘Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could be more easily assimilated into British society’. Many recalled that Thatcher was not only staunchly opposed to sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa but also a friend of General Pinochet, who ran a murderous programme against dissent and opposition in Chile between 1973 and 1990. Thatcher’s governments, too, had a particular record on sexuality and difference symbolised by ‘Section 28’, introduced in 1988, which dissuaded local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ or the teaching in schools ‘of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. At the time of Cameron’s attack on multiculturism, David Willetts, minister of state for universities and science, presided over plans for massive increases in university tuition fees (together with the effective privatisation of universities), which critics argued curtailed access and opportunity, and narrowed diversity. Willets also attacked both disapproved university courses and feminism, declaring that it ‘has held back working men’. These political strategies of financial and ideological dissuasion – burdening graduates with debt and curtailing opportunities for theorised dissent – further extend Thatcherism well beyond its 1980s base.
As photographs of the Ritz suite joined a blizzard of images of Thatcher and Thatcherism, a video of an actor turned politician became viral. In the midst of government constructed conditions of parliamentary eulogies, on 10 April Glenda Jackson MP gave a speech akin to an artist’s performance to an audience made hostile by their own disavowal (some of Carolee Schneemann’s work came to mind). Jackson recalled her first parliamentary speech in 1992, after Thatcher’s resignation and ennoblement, when Thatcherism ‘was still wreaking the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country, upon my constituency and my constituents … everything I had been taught to regard as a vice – and I still regard them as vices – under Thatcherism was in fact a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker’. Jackson came from a generation raised by women, with men away at war ‘to defend our freedoms’. Women ran factories, put out fires when bombs dropped and virtually ran the country – ‘not just a government’. The women she knew, who raised millions like her during the war and the Atlee years, would not, she insisted, have recognised their definition of ‘womanliness’ as incorporated in the ‘iconic model’ of Margaret Thatcher, the first prime minister of female gender: ‘But a woman? Not on my terms.’ Thatcher sustained her ‘womanliness’ by selecting ministerial cabinets of men: a relationship between an unavailable dominatrix and public-school induced male fantasies of fetishised deference?
In the light of Jackson’s historical contrast, Thatcher’s ‘womanliness’ was a masquerade and other to the diversity of practices and theories produced by women during the decades of her political activity. Think, for example, of Jo Spence’s work, represented by the posthumous collection Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression, 1995, or the anthology of texts in Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock’s Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985, 1987. Think, too, of the critical discourses on art and visual culture produced by the journals Screen, Block and Third Text during the years of Thatcher’s political dominance. Given such resistant practices and texts, which explored identities, diversities and differences, the visual spectacle of Thatcher’s multimillion pound public funeral amid savage financial cuts was, in Jacqueline Rose’s words in the Guardian, ‘an act of coercion and masquerade’. In Cameron’s coercive patriotism it is as if ‘the British people were united in respect for one of the most divisive political figures in modern history’.
Thatcher’s attack on unions and their industries – not only coal and steel – are well known from the so-called Battle of Orgreave on 18 June 1984 between the police and picketing miners, the subject of Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment and subsequent fi lm by Mike Figgis. For many, the violent role of the police was state orchestrated. In the wake of the 2012 report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which was highly critical of the police and emergency services when 96 Liverpool football supporters died on 15 April 1989, Jack Straw claimed that the original police cover-up was directly related to a ‘culture of impunity in the police service’ created by Thatcher and her government because they needed the police to be a partisan force, ‘particularly for the miners’ strike and other industrial troubles’. Revelations in December 2012 about ‘shocking levels of [state] collusion’ in the 1989 murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane, and fresh details of a police cover-up over fabricated evidence against 95 miners at Orgreave, added to a picture of a Thatcherite culture of covert surveillance, state violence and unreliable inquiries. The legacies of this culture can be seen as informing more recent examples of fabricated evidence and dodgy dossiers, police agent-provocateurs, government hubris, public denials of state-sponsored torture and complicity in extraordinary renditions.
Less appreciated are the legacies of Thatcher’s attacks on professions and their organisations, including universities: she distrusted professional self government as bedevilled by vested interests. These attacks were characterised, as they are now, by financial cuts and ideological assaults. One Thatcherite obsession was the belief that there was ‘Marxist’ or ‘left-wing’ bias, or ‘radical penetration’ in higher education, including within courses in peace studies, sociology and art history. In 1985, Richard Hoggart, principal of Goldsmith’s College, wrote an article about the effects of this obsession and Tory-sponsored complaints about ‘left-wing bias’, including one about Goldsmiths, to the Department of Education and Science (DES). In the same year, a lengthy anonymous complaint to the DES was received by the Open University about one of its courses, Modern Art and Modernism: Manet to Pollock, claiming that it was ‘revolutionary and subversive … with the ultimate objective [sic] as the destruction of the democratic parliamentary system’. In the same week, the Spectator, dated 13 July 1985, published ‘Painting and Politics’ by George Walden, undersecretary at the DES and responsible for higher education (Willetts’s equivalent). Walden attacked the social history of art – including TJ Clark’s work – and the Open University course materials (Clark had also been the external assessor for Modern Art and Modernism): ‘Letting the ideologues loose on painting is dangerous enough; giving them “new interpretative tools” as well is lethal. Semiotics in the hands of a leftist art critic are like computers at the fingers of sociologists: whole new permutations of misconceptions become possible.’ In contrast, Walden praised critics Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg and expressed views consistent with Reaganite attacks in the early 1980s by Hilton Kramer’s New Criterion on the claimed ‘left-ward turn’ in US universities and publications by Clark, Dore Ashton, Lucy Lippard, Fred Orton and Griselda Pollock. They were consistent, too, with views expressed in the Salisbury Review, a Conservative political journal founded in 1982 edited by Roger Scruton and, from 1987, in Peter Fuller’s Modern Painters (Fuller also wrote for the Salisbury Review). Dissuasive effects of these processes partly account for a return to post-Greenbergian formalism in a variety of practices, and radicalism in art history turning to more narrowly focused theoretical specialisations safely confined to academia, which became regulated by official assessments of teaching quality and research outputs: academics were deflected and preoccupied by activities to comply with a regulatory audit culture. There are legacies, too, of this aspect of Thatcherism in Cameron’s attack on multiculturism, Willetts’s attack on feminism and disliked university subjects, cuts to cultural diversity and the push towards the privatisation of culture.
As is well known, Thatcherism launched the careers of art collectors such as Charles Saatchi and, arguably, influenced a shift in art education whereby students, for example at Goldsmiths in the late 1980s, were encouraged to understand and prepare themselves for the art market. The ‘Freeze’ exhibitions of 1988 and, later, the branding expertise of the young British artists (YBAs) testify to the marketing success of such training. The Saatchi brothers’ advertising firm gained massive promotion from its notorious election campaigns for Thatcher’s Conservative Party in 1979 and 1983. Resultant financial and cultural capital enabled Charles Saatchi to open his gallery at 98a Boundary Road, London, in 1985, to display selections from the art collection he and his first wife, Doris Lockhart Saatchi, had assembled. This cultural advert for the Thatcherite entrepreneurial ethos opened less than a year after the actual Battle of Orgreave, its inaugural exhibition falling in the same month, March 1985, as the formal end of the miners’ strike. A year later, Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the financial markets created a nouveau riche, colloquially referred to as ‘yuppies’, with art collecting aspirations – a Reaganite version represented by Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. In 1992, the Saatchi-sponsored YBA group had its first Boundary Road showing with ‘Young British Artists 1’. The Royal Academy’s 1997 ‘Sensation’ exhibition, where Saatchi’s YBA collection became officially enshrined, represented a cultural triumph for Thatcherite sponsors and advocates of a profit-based shift from manufacturing to service and financial industries. However, as I pointed out in ‘False Lion’ (Features AM353), by December 2011, Saatchi had become repelled by his progeny: what he described as the self-regarding ethos, money-worshipping, celebrity driven ‘vileness of the art world’. With many analysts arguing that the 1986 ‘Big Bang’ and its international neoliberal capitalist followers (from the US to the EU, from post-1989 Russia to Asia and the Far East) were major
causes of the 2007-08 banking crash, Saatchi turned his distaste on ‘Eurotrashy, Hedgefundy, Hamptonites’, ‘trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs’, and ‘art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard’.
To criticise Thatcherism, as in Jackson’s speech and Rose’s text, amid patriotic eulogies on Thatcher’s death is to encounter what Bertold Brecht, in 1935, called the difficulties and problems of ‘writing the truth’. Anyone ‘who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties’, or ‘formidable problems’ common under fascism but which ‘exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails’. In such countries dominant ideology exerts power through shared assumptions and unquestioned norms. With the patriotic pomp of Thatcher’s funeral and the prevalence of Thatcherism in media-saturated politics and cultural life, it is still (following Brecht) necessary to ‘have the courage’ to write, speak or represent ‘the truth’ when it is ‘everywhere opposed’ and ‘the keenness to recognise it, although it is everywhere concealed’. Besides courage and keenness, Brecht argued, it is also necessary to have the skill to use truth ‘as a weapon’, the judgement to select ‘in whose hands it will be effective’, and ‘the cunning to spread the truth among such persons’.
One recent Brechtian project, titled War Primer 2, 2011, is a limited-edition artist’s book by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin with a free digital download circulation. It updates Brecht’s 1955 War Primer by printing internet sourced images from the post-2001 ‘war on terror’ pasted over Brecht’s selection of visuals from Second World War-era magazines and newspapers. Each combined image is accompanied by Brecht’s original four-line poem providing a doubly ironic commentary/decoding. I am reminded of this work by news of two mourners, admirers of Thatcherism, at Thatcher’s funeral: Henry Kissinger, secretary of state during President Nixon’s ruthless escalation of the US war in Indochina and directly linked to Pinochet’s violent military overthrow of President Allende of Chile, 11 September 1973; and former vice-president Dick Cheney, co-architect of the post-11 September 2001 ‘war on terror’ and the discredited invasion of Iraq, and mired in accusations of allowing torture, extraordinary rendition and enormous profi ts to be made by corporations – including Halliburton where he had been CEO – from the ‘disaster capitalism’ of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drawing on images since 1979 and of Thatcher’s imperial funeral, what might a Brechtian ‘Writing the Truth’ of Thatcherism look like?
FRANCIS FRASCINA is author of ‘White Cube, White Culture, White Riot: Identity, Ambivalence and Non-belonging’, Third Text 112, September 2011, and ‘Berlin, Paris, Liverpool: “Biennialization” and Left Critique in 2012’, Journal of Curatorial Studies, February, 2013.