Three days after Margaret Thatcher’s death on 8 April, a piece in the Telegraph proclaimed that those who had attended the so-called Thatcher ‘death parties’ could ‘now be disclosed’. One attendee disclosed in the article was 21-year-old Ashleigh Louise Field, a ‘middle class politics student’ who went to a Thatcher death party dressed as a zombie. Her 77-year-old grandfather was quoted as saying that Field had not grown up in a political household but rather had been politicised as an adult, and that he wouldn’t do it himself: ‘Somebody dies and that’s it.’
The article was titled ‘The Margaret Thatcher protesters too young to remember her’. That phrase – ‘too young to remember’ – spread widely after her death. Celebrations of Thatcher’s demise were again and again blamed on young people who supposedly didn’t have a clue what they were celebrating. In fact, young people’s reactions became something of a media obsession. In the first week, BBC News couldn’t seem to go a day without putting the impossible question to guests: what were the implications of forming opinions on somebody one couldn’t remember? Journalists appeared bewildered by young people’s presence at her funeral. The BBC interviewed a trio of young politics students attending the funeral to discern what might account for their interest. Time World reported that although ‘many of the people lining the streets were too young to remember much, if any, of Thatcher’s time in office’, a 30-year old lawyer wore a blue rose in her honour while a 22-year-old student took part in the ‘Turn Your Back on Thatcher’ protest. These reports were not derisive, but the choice to emphasise the participation of the young in tributes and protests transformed them from interested citizens into public curiosities.
It wasn’t just the news media’s obsession. It was all over social media as well. A meme began to float about which featured Willy Wonka’s face and read, ‘Margaret Thatcher has died? Tell me more about how you’re 18 and suddenly an expert in 1980’s politics’. Ironically, given the meme’s accusation of young adults’ ignorance, it epitomised what memes are often used as nowadays: catch-all substitutes for substantive critical debate. Without requiring evidence for why their opinions on Thatcher and Thatcherism were invalid, it condemned youths to irreversible unawareness and cancelled out their perspectives in one fell swoop.
I’m twenty-seven. I was born in 1985, six years into Thatcher’s leadership. I was five when she stepped down. What’s more, I’m Canadian. Not only did I not grow up in ‘Thatcher’s Britain’, but my parents – and aunts and uncles and grandparents and nearly every adult I knew before moving to the UK eighteen months ago – lived through the 80s on a separate continent with only a passing awareness of Thatcher’s policies and their effects. My family was liberal and liked to talk politics, but I was an adolescent before I’d even heard of Margaret Thatcher and a fully-fledged adult before I could attribute any meaning to her name.
And yet, I saw the town I grew up in transform from a small community on the outskirts of a city with a couple of shopping plazas and a church into a sprawling suburban paradise. I went to university and took courses in philosophy and cultural theory, and began to better understand the postmodern world I’d grown up in and the process by which the Western world came to be dominated by neoliberalism. And one day, I happened on a rather curious trend in British cinema. Lots of filmmakers were making films set in the 80s. And Margaret Thatcher seemed to be at the centre of many of them. It was this that prompted me to research Thatcherism. One might say, then, that I came to Thatcherism backwards. I understood the world she had helped to form long before I understood her.
Although most young people taking an interest in Margaret Thatcher’s death had closer ties to Thatcherism in childhood than I did – some of their parents made their fortunes thanks to her while others’ parents witnessed the devastation of their communities – most people of my generation have come to Margaret Thatcher in this way: backwards. We may not remember her and some of us may not even have been born when she left office. But we all witnessed the transformation of our cities and towns, for better or worse, over the course of our childhoods. We all came of age amidst the rise of the ‘me culture’ wherein, as Jeremy Black describes it in Britain Since the Seventies, “the expression of personality (or conformity)” came to be achieved “not through personal convictions, such as religion or politics, but through spending” (49). While Maggie Thatcher may not have single-handedly masterminded this cultural shift, we are all, in one sense or another, her children. And because we have no memory of an alternative, we can, if we so choose, take the neoliberal values imbued in us for granted.
Or we can venture to understand. We can do what every contemporary historian does when researching the First World War, or the Industrial Revolution before that, or before that the Renaissance or the Middle Ages or Roman Antiquity: we can venture to understand that which we did not live through and cannot remember and ask how it has shaped our world today. We can rethink the historical narratives handed down to us and question the bias of historical literature. We can also question the perspectives of those who lived through events. After all, their perspectives were shaped by such a multitude of factors that they cannot be understood as accurate reflections of reality any more than can a piece of historical literature.
I’m not naive enough to imagine that all young people are approaching Thatcherism in this way. Yes, many of those praising and disparaging Margaret Thatcher are doing so with a very limited amount of knowledge and degree of criticality. Still, this is no less true of many of those who were free-thinking adults in 1980s Britain. Many of them will have formulated their opinions based on their singular experiences, with very little research into the wider context in which their experiences were posited. Others will have spent the entirety of the decade tending to their gardens and will have formed no opinion on Thatcher at all. As obvious as it may seem to say, this is why the less biased opinions of those at a distance – whether due to age or proximity – are invaluable. Those who experience an event first-hand are inevitably subject to misinformation; the Falklands War, for instance, was heavily censored and propagandised. It will have been very difficult to sift through the rhetoric and formulate an unbiased opinion – likely far more difficult than it is now.
Discouraging younger generations from formulating opinions on Thatcherism is dangerous. It encourages cultural amnesia. Young people need to participate in the debate on Thatcherism, to understand what the Thatcher government did and how it affected the culture they grew up in and to decide for themselves if they agree with the logic system Thatcher helped to reinforce. As far as I can tell, that’s what the Telegraph’s purportedly uninformed 21-year-old ‘middle class politics student’ Ashleigh Louise Field has done. She didn’t grow up in a political family. She came of age as a member of the social class that most benefited from Thatcherite individualism. And yet, she grew into a free-thinking adult, as we all do, and studied politics, and rethought the culture and society of which she was part. She may have ironically dressed up as a zombie and celebrated the news of Thatcher’s passing with friends, but I doubt one would find that she is ignorant of Thatcherism or its legacy.
As for what her apparently wiser 77-year-old grandfather had to say – ‘somebody dies and that’s it’ – I’m sure we can all see that’s not true. That, indeed, it can’t be true.