The power of the past after Thatcher

Britain has long been a country that looks back to a romanticised, recreated past. But what kind of country will we be celebrating and mourning with Thatcher's funeral tomorrow?

Gerry Hassan
16 April 2013

The last week has effectively been an elegy on Britain’s recent past and present rolled into one.

This is not just about Thatcher, but the numerous references to the Churchill and Attlee funerals and how we marked these past titans. Is this who we really were, we ask with curiosity? Are we still that same people who dreamed dreams, stood alone against the Nazis, and built a welfare state, we ask, with a hint of anxiety? 

Britain seems increasingly a place shaped by the allure of living in the past, by the power of previous generations and the combined cacophonous voices of the dead. 

This is not just about the Thatcher moment. In recent years the British state has increasingly marked its numerous military and imperial triumphs and engagements. We have honoured Admiral Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Britain; next year there is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Western Europe and the bizarre celebration of the 100th anniversary of the onset of the First World War. 

It is about more than that. Britain is an old country, not so much in terms of years but attitude, embracing the argument put forward by the writer Patrick Wright in the 1980s that Britain developed a culture drawn to a romanticised, recreated, problematic vision of the past. 

This increasingly, Wright argued, came to be true, post-1979, as a crisis arose in modernity, progress and a shared national sense of belonging. From this emerged the burgeoning heritage industry, conservation movement, and the rise of Prince Charles as a bulwark against modern architecture and planners.

Simultaneously Britain is showing its crumbling attachment to democracy. This can be witnessed in the potent connection to the Queen as a person and an institution. She embodies in her 61 year ‘selfless’ reign the last connection to the Britain of our wartime spirit and to the collective endeavour which followed.

This can be seen in the appeal of Peter Morgan’s ‘The Audience’ with Helen Mirren playing the constitutional role of Her Majesty which highlights eight of ‘the Dirty Dozen’ Prime Ministers weekly meetings with her. It is as if we are desperate to find in our divided, diminished society some shared threads which link us together.

Something is going on deep in the British national psyche if we can still use this phrase. Britain seems to be shifting into an age and culture of post-democracy where the democratic impulse is weakening by the day. The phrase comes from the academic Colin Crouch who has identified a new alignment of political and business elites who have supplanted the older democratic institutions. But if this is true we also have to understand that Britain has entered this phase having never been a fully fledged political democracy.

Just think of the constitutional elements of the UK. The House of Commons is the only elected part of the British political system at the centre. The House of Lords for centuries was filled with feudal relics and the remnants of monarchial preferment. Now it has become an emblem of Prime Ministerial patronage; so not much of an advance there; while our Head of State is clearly unelected and derives his or her legitimacy from criteria other than the popular will.

More than that, the UK never really - even in the post-war years - fully embraced modernity, modernisation and being a people’s state. Instead, the Attlees and Wilsons of Labour’s high tide tried to build a social democratic country on top of an unreformed Empire state.

The House of Lords is a good analogy for the whole country; from feudalism to the new class of insider traders in the political system – from pre to post democracy with no pause in between. That’s the story of modern Britain.

Within the British political elites there has always been a fear and foreboding at the threat of democracy might pose to their way of life. Yet those anxieties about the popular will are also mirrored in the people themselves. 

This is evident in the Scottish debate and how it situates itself in Britain. Once upon a time the Scots were seen and even in part saw themselves as too poor, pathetic and divided to be left running their own affairs. A memory of this still lingers in part of our collective memory, but it has subsided massively, aided by the achievements of the Scottish Parliament and revulsion at some of the actions of Westminster. 

That anxiety about the people can also be seen in current English concerns about what happens next year with Scotland’s big vote if England is left by itself. ‘Don’t leave us with a permanent Tory England’, The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee implored an Edinburgh Book Festival audience last year. Now Scottish restraint is seen as essential in preventing the triumph of an over-zealous, populist right wing Thatcherite English politics. 

The fragility of the democratic impulse, whether it is measured by political participation, engagement and activism, can also be seen in the narrow bandwidth of subjects debated, or that on the big substantive issues, the power and irresponsibility of bankers, inequality, aiding and supporting people out of poverty, the public increasingly doubt that politicians can deliver. 

The UK has always been a country which has never been modern, or a proper fully fledged democracy, but the crises of public values have grown more significant and deep. We now live in a country which looks to the past for its explanations and vision of the future, which is obsessed by previous generations and finding its heroes and heroines in the pantheon of the dead, and which seems when it is not fighting wars to be constantly marking old imperial adventures.

This might all seem harmless and benign to some but reveals something about our loss of faith in ourselves and our collective will. Think of that as Cameron, Miliband and Clegg struggle to explain the challenges of overcoming the deficit and national debt, and connect with voters. 

Reflect on that as the country pauses next week for the pomp and grandeur of the Thatcher funeral. What kind of country are we celebrating or mourning? And what kind of atrophied, disconnected people does that imply, and are we really happy and content to play such a restricted role in the body politic of the good ship Britannia?

This piece was originally published in the Scotsman

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