Harry Potter, starring a witch named Margaret Thatcher.

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Nov. 16 2001 11:14 AM

When Harry Met Maggie

Harry Potter, starring a witch named Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter

As we all know, many classics of children's literature hold more encrypted messages than the Beatles' entire oeuvre. Lewis Carroll's Alice books are full of philosophical game-playing. C. S. Lewis' Narnia series is, famously, a Christian allegory. Puff the Magic Dragon's smoke smells suspiciously like marijuana. Some scholars argue that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a pointed commentary on the gold standard, the burning political issue of its day. And Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the movie version of which opens today, includes something of a critique of Margaret Thatcher.

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Consider the evidence. Harry's nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort, has, at the novel's start, just concluded 11 years of terrorizing the wizards' realm—the same number of years Margaret (now Lady) Thatcher was in power. Thatcher was certainly a witch to many of her critics, using her power with Voldemort-like ruthlessness. In dismantling the welfare state and opening the gates to the ambitious and the greedy, Thatcher purged her party of all but the ideologues. She banished the so-called "Wets"—the Tories who, generally from the last of the landed gentry or from old families, collaborated with Labor in support of limited socialism as a way of keeping a check on the middle class. Among the good wizard families Voldemort has wiped out are the "Prewetts"—pronounced "Pruitt," no doubt, but spelled suggestively enough.

Thatcher's newly minted middle class is personified by Harry's aunt and her family, the Dursleys, who perform the task of raising Harry with a disgust born of pure selfishness. The Dursleys, appropriately, live on Privet Drive: a "privet" is a hedge, but the word also conjures up both "private" and "privy"—perhaps a not-so-subtle judgment of Thatcher's policy of privatization. As the British writer Richard Adams (not the guy who wrote Watership Down) points out in a perceptive online essay, the Dursleys also prefer private doctors to the National Health Service, another sign of their conspicuous consumption and scorn for the welfare state.

In one of her first acts of stinginess, Thatcher, while education secretary in the Heath government of the early 1970s, cut the school-lunch milk subsidy, earning her the nursery rhyme sobriquet of "Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher." No milk is snatched at Harry's school, Hogwarts—far from it: The tables in Hogwarts' dining hall fairly groan under avalanches of food. Aside from being a politically corrected reconstruction of the English public school, Hogwarts is a microcosmic welfare state, stepping in to care for orphan Harry when his nightmarishly bourgeois relatives fail him.

Rowling is perhaps the world's most famous former welfare mother: She lived on the dole for a year as she started work on the Harry Potter saga. Given the industry she has launched, that fact alone may do more to revive the appeal of socialism than any number of anti-globalization demonstrations. As for the movie, the only Maggie likely to appear is Maggie Smith, in the role of one of Harry's professors. But with four Potter books out and three to go, there's ample opportunity for Thatcher to work her black magic. I have a feeling the saga won't be over till the Iron Lady sings.

Jesse Cohen is a senior editor at Lipper Publications.