These words of St. Francis of Assisi were cited by Margaret Thatcher on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street on Friday 4th May 1979 – the day she took office as the first female prime minister of Great Britain. Mrs Thatcher went on to add some thoughts of her own: “and to all the British people – howsoever they voted – may I say this. Now that the Election is over, may we get together and strive to serve and strengthen the country of which we’re so proud to be a part.”(1)
This is indicative of a paradox that runs right through Thatcher’s long and eventful period in power.
Those who laud her achievements urge her detractors to accept that, whilst they might not have agreed with her politics, she should be admired as a great patriot with a “lion-hearted love for this country”. That was how David Cameron characterised her on the day she died. He chose to deliver his eulogy on the spot from where his predecessor addressed the media back in 1979. Nevertheless, at the same time as praising the person he regarded as “saving” the country, Cameron added: “We can’t deny that Lady Thatcher divided opinion.” He insisted, however, that Thatcher “has her well-earned place in history and the enduring respect and gratitude of the British people.”(2)
It is characteristic of Mr Cameron that he should deliver such a contradictory statement. If Thatcher “divided opinion” how can “the British people” be of one mind? And if she loved Britain so much, how could Thatcher encourage a climate in which some Britons prospered and thrived at the expense of others?
This continues to pose a problem now that she is dead. How should she be memorialised? Bear in mind that a statue erected in her lifetime has already been decapitated by an irate “patriot”.(3)
An early opportunity to test the public mood will come during the ceremony leading to her cremation. Whilst she will not be given a state funeral, she will be accorded a military procession to St Paul’s Cathedral. During that parade all manner of socialists, former miners, Irish nationalists, Argentines, anti-Apartheid veterans, LGBT campaigners and others might seek to pay their final respects in ways that will subvert David Cameron’s confident assertion regarding Thatcher’s “place in history and the enduring respect and gratitude of the British people.”
Once the funeral is over thoughts will turn to a more permanent commemoration. At that point the Iron Lady will be transmogrified into bronze. The obvious place to site such a memorial is Parliament Square.(5) There she can surmount a pedestal alongside the petrified Churchill and generate an interesting dialogue with the statues of two South Africans, Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela.
Thatcher’s opposition to international sanctions against Apartheid South Africa – plus her hostility to German reunification – are reminders that differences of opinion over her legacy are not confined to England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. In each of these areas one can cite a litany of issues that remain contentious today, from the North-South divide in England to the piloting of the Poll Tax in Scotland, the decimation of the industrial communities of South Wales and her administration’s secret negotiations with the IRA in stark contrast to Thatcher’s publicly stated position.
It seems inevitable that an official memorial to Lady Thatcher will be erected in the not-too-distant future. All too often such commemorations pretend to be natural occurrences that are universally supported. That lie will be impossible to sustain in this particular instance. A literal Iron Lady will confirm an observation made by Kirk Savage: “Public monuments do not arise as if by natural law to celebrate the deserving; they are built by people with sufficient power to marshal (or impose) public consent to their erection.”(4)
Waves of attacks will be unleashed on any tangible memorial to Thatcher. These will be dismissed as vandalism or accepted as iconoclasm depending on one’s point of view. But the daubs of paint or attempts at decapitation will confirm one thing. Mrs Thatcher achieved much, but by her own measure she failed in at least one regard. She came to office urging Britons to “get together” and help her “bring harmony”. Yet her enduring legacy is division and discord.
And that’s something that even David Cameron cannot deny.
(1) Margaret Thatcher, “Remarks on becoming Prime Minister (St Francis’s prayer)”, 04/05/1979, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=104078
(2) Steven Swinford & James Kirkup, “Margaret Thatcher: Iron Lady who made a nation on its knees stand tall”, Daily Telegraph, 08/04/2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/9980285/Margaret-Thatcher-Iron-Lady-who-made-a-nation-on-its-knees-stand-tall.html
(3) The perpetrator was Paul Kelleher, a thirty-seven year old theatre producer. His justified his actions by claiming that the attack was in protest against global capitalism. See Stuart Burch, On Stage at the Theatre of State: The Monuments and Memorials in Parliament Square, London (A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Nottingham Trent University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, March 2003), pp. 350-351.
(4) Kirk Savage, “The politics of memory: Black emancipation and the Civil War monument”, in John R Gillis (ed.), Commemorations: the politics of national identity, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 135.
(5) This was something that I called for a decade ago: “An image of Margaret Thatcher in the sacred yet so vulnerable domain of Parliament Square would infuse it with ‘living power’. For the statue, taking its rightful place alongside Churchill, would be finely posited between veneration and disdain and then, in the fullness of time, between neglect and ignorance.” Burch, On Stage at the Theatre of State, 2003, p. 351.