Being compassionate is difficult. It’s something you have to work at from a young age and come back to, loyally, when at times it’s easier to give in to selfish temptation. It’s sometimes boring. After all, it’s human nature to want the best for yourself and your loved ones – but it’s also natural to feel empathy, and guilt, and the desire to invest in community.
Did Margaret Thatcher, our longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century from 1979-1990, rewrite human nature with a political language spoken on a tongue of iron that cut through our consciences and eradicated our sense of community forever? Or did she blind us with package deals that were too good to refuse? It’s all the more difficult to stay loyal to compassion when someone suddenly drills into you that it’s OK – more than OK, it’s your duty – to look out for number one.
This line of individualistic politics makes me feel like a battery hen: stare straight ahead, and don’t look either side of you. Michelle Coomber’s film GENERATION RIGHT pursues that line of claustrophobia by piling on the undeniable facts, building a time line that rushes towards our present day with a grim sense of foreboding. But it’s not so much the well-known policies and occurrences that flesh out Thatcher’s reign (the Miner’s strike, mass unemployment and extreme inequality, a heroin epidemic, the Falklands war) that are focused on so much as the immediate pursuing by her of a different National consciousness. A different atmosphere. An entirely different way to think and feel, appealingly packaged with the allure of a pat on the back for being greedy, with a legacy that lives on in our current leaders. Cue the panic attack.
“Does anyone imagine that there is the smallest political gain in letting this level of unemployment continue?” Asks Maggie at The Conservative party conference in 1980. Now, maybe I’m just incredibly cynical, but the instant that someone starts fervently denying something in a convincing, carefully constructed rhetoric as if the mere idea that such a thing could be true is outrageous, I smell fish. It reminds me of studying Richard III at school and examining the way Shakespeare’s hilarious super-villain weaves his webs of manipulation, hiding behind his woeful hump, dud arm and modest words.
“All of us who lived through the premiership of Margaret Thatcher will remember the complete disconnect between what she said she wanted for Britain and what was actually happening.”
-David Blunkett (Home Secretary 2001-2004)
Coomber effectively conjures that contradictory atmosphere – that entirely image-based, ‘all-talk’ way of leading the country, refusing to acknowledge what was actually happening below the shiny surface even when the facts were pressed in front of her nose – by splicing together archive footage and interviews with University professors and politicians including members of her old cabinet. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the suffering of the sinking poor and unemployed were fully considered as part of the ride to financial success. She simply didn’t acknowledge them as worthy citizens.
Also illustrated is the “language of obliteration” that demonised all those unable to reap the benefits of her policy of economic liberalism. People on jobseekers were ‘scroungers’ (sound familiar?). With the selling off of the best council houses, chaotic slum-like estates were left for the most vulnerable. The predictable riots and violent protests that ensued were taken as further examples of people suffering the consequences of their foolish actions. She held herself up as a model example of behavioral pride, hiding behind a string of pearls and mint suits as if that negated her own blatantly brutal actions.
My favourite bit, which I think perfectly captures Thatcher’s character and mindset, is the clip of her describing the striking miners, attempting to defend their life-long jobs and entire communities which rested on them, as “Moaning Minnies – now stop it!” I’m sorry, are we back at boarding school having a tantrum because the custard’s run out? It relates, I think, to the many times she said she wished she had a magic wand to wave away unemployment (or any other issue she was facing). A total lack of any sense of reality.
But the real core point of Coomber’s fantastic documentary is that we are living in the dregs of said Thatcherite era now. She may be dead and buried, but her bitter legacy survives as the underlying ethos of all three main parties (cue cutaway to Tony Blair explaining that he ‘built on’ rather than eradicated what Thatcher left behind). As Alan Walker, Professor at Sheffield University, explains: she was “too successful in the strategy of inequality” and consequently “Britain had lost something important. Sense of fairness, sense of justice.”
Whether revolution can overthrow the Thatcherite mentality, and bring back a public sense of fairness, is the question Coomber leaves us with. But the very last shot – another showing of the Iron Lady making a speech about the power of ideas – suggests not hope but a bitter present that can’t escape the ghost that haunts it.
“To those waiting with baited breath for that favourite media catchphrase ‘The U Turn’, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.“
-Margaret Thatcher, The Conservative Party Conference 1980
The Final Word: Tory exposé for confused and angry young people/an austerity porn film from George Osborne’s private collection
Tickets to see GENERATION RIGHT at EEFF followed by Q&A on the 5th July are available here.