Baroness Thatcher: why the best reaction from the left is dignified silence

ThatcherBy coincidence, just a few hours after Baroness Thatcher’s death was announced on April 8th, a friend and I had tickets booked to see This House, a play by James Graham at the National Theatre, in which Mrs Thatcher is not portrayed on stage but whose presence is felt throughout.

The play’s subject is the desperate measures taken by the Labour Whips to keep the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s in power. The small cast has to take its own desperate measures backstage, as the taut script requires many nifty costume changes from the drab brown suits of Labour MPs to the slightly smarter garb of the Conservatives, with a smattering of Liberal, Ulster Unionist, SDLP, Plaid Cymru and Scottish nationalist MPs thrown in for good measure.

Oddly, the only women who feature prominently on-stage are two young Labour women MPs, Helene Hayman and Ann Taylor, who are negotiating their way through the macho world of the Parliamentary Labour Party, just as Thatcher had done a decade before in the Tories.

There were many caricatures, but then all caricatures are based on reality and the House of Commons in the 1970s was probably the last time that most MPs did conform to stereotype, even though these may have been exaggerated in many cases.

I had a drink after the show with one of the actors, Chris Godwin, a Blackheath resident who I have known for many years (I was at school with his sons at Invicta 30-plus years ago). The main character he played (in between costume changes in and out of a number of other roles), was an elderly Labour MP, “Doc” Broughton, whose inability to attend the 1979 vote of  confidence in Callaghan (on grounds of mortal illness – he died a few days later) meant the vote was lost, a general election had to be called, and, in effect, spelled the start of Thatcherism’s 11-year reign.

Chris said that in real life, Broughton had been a well-spoken Yorkshire doctor, not the horny-handed son of toil portrayed on stage. Due to the complexity of the plot and the need for the audience to be able to distinguish easily between Labour and Tory MPs, the former had been made more proletarian and the latter had been made more upper class than they might have been in real life: a reminder that in the 1970s the fault lines in British politics were a little more blurred than commonly thought.

Chris also told me about the intriguing effect the announcement of Thatcher’s death earlier that day had had. During previous performances of the play there had been a lively response from the audience when Thatcher’s name was mentioned – laughter, and sometimes even jeers. During the performance on April 8th, there were neither  – whenever her name was mentioned, there was just a barely audible gasp from a few people, a murmur of comment from others, and then a stunned silence. It was as if a mute switch had been pulled on the audience’s normal reactions to the most divisive figure in British politics since World War Two.

The play was a useful reminder of why Thatcher was elected in 1979. But it was also intriguing that the instinctive reaction of the audience to mention of Thatcher’s name, a few hours after she had died, was a gentle murmur and then  silence. Maybe silence is the best reaction, at least until after the funeral: Ed Miliband, who was required by protocol not to remain silent, nevertheless managed to strike a perfect balance between expressing sympathy to her family and acknowledgement of the strong antipathy still felt by many Britons towards her rule as Prime Minister. But he also realised that millions of today’s voters were not even born when she was deposed as prime Minister in November 1990. For today’s Labour Party to have made political points about the death of an elderly, and historically important, figure whose heyday was a generation ago would have been cheap and nasty.

I had little affection for Baroness Thatcher, and neither did most members of my family – some of the comments my late grandmother, a retired teacher, used to make about her are unprintable. But whatever damage she may have done to this country, and the difficult legacy she left for the Conservative Party, I think it is reasonable to have asked all her critics to remain silent during the few hours of her funeral.

There has been much debate about her political legacy ever since the 1980s, and there will be much debate in the months ahead about the rights and wrongs of holding a ceremonial funeral at taxpayers’ expense. But I think it does protestors little credit to have aired their objections during the funeral itself. Sometimes, if no sincere tribute can be paid to the deceased, a dignified silence is best.

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