Harold Pinter and Margaret Thatcher

David Hayes
13 October 2005

It is a rare and gloriously perverse alchemy – unless someone in the Swedish Academy has an even wickeder sense of humour than the awarder of the Nobel peace prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973. The announcement that the English playwright, poet and polemicist Harold Pinter is the recipient of the 2005 Nobel prize for literature comes on the same day that the fading Margaret Thatcher, during her almost twelve-year reign as Britain’s prime minister one of the principal targets of Pinter's characteristically vehement anger, marks her 80th birthday.

A piquant moment for those, like Pinter himself, who spent the whole of the 1980s – that politically bleak decade in Britain – railing and fuming and cursing as “that woman” rode roughshod over the country's constitution, civil rights and political opponents on the left (despite having voted for her in 1979, an act he described twenty years later as "idiotic, infantile on my part.")

The once-invincible Thatcher, now leaning into the twilight in irresistible imitation of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard - bereft of husband, wayward son, the press which once worshipped her (no exaggeration), and the legion of sycophants and minions who burnished the cosmic self-regard that became her downfall - now inspires little attention and less sympathy even from that large section of the British public which repeatedly voted her into office. From many of those who consistently opposed her, the feelings of bitterness and hatred (no exaggeration) remain unremitting.

The conjunction of Pinter’s triumph and Thatcher’s melancholy celebration is a great story which the British newspapers will no doubt milk and mould. Two great haters: one who also happens to be a great artist, the other a major though deeply destructive and vengeful politician whose favourite literary figure was the imperial poet, Rudyard Kipling (Pinter’s 1907 predecessor, and - it must be said, if through gritted teeth - a writer who has become undervalued).

But perhaps anti-Thatcherites should pause before savouring the moment too much. Not just for the obvious reason that much of Thatcher's political legacy continues in the Britain of Tony Blair and the frenzied, unsettled society his predecessor helped usher in (to the equal fury of prominent Blair-haters like Pinter, consumed with unalloyed loathing of the “war criminal” in Downing Street).

Hatred disfigures. Where it becomes a dominant element in a person’s political expression, it corrodes the ability to think, to make judgments, to connect to the true reality of things, to persuade. As a result, it cannot produce a serious, humane politics. This was part of Karl Kraus’s truth when he wrote: “Hatred must make a person productive; otherwise, you might as well love”.

It is fortunate that Pinter’s profound dramas come from a different place than his shallow, vulgar and myopic political views. But insofar as his award will be celebrated for his politics as much as for his art, these two giant figures are closer than they know – trapped in a shrill, polarising language that does a disservice to democratic public discourse. This is not just Margaret Thatcher’s or Harold Pinter’s tragedy, but of many of their political opponents. In short, of modern Britain itself.

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