Margaret Thatcher vs. Pop Culture

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 8 2013 9:56 AM

Margaret Thatcher vs. Pop Culture

People cheer in front of a banner displaying the message 'The Witch is Dead' as they celebrate the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Brixton on April 8, 2013 in London, England.

Photo by Danny E. Martindale/Getty Images

She was the longest-serving post-WWII prime minister of Great Britain, and that leads people to forget when she governed. It's hilariously wrong to say that U.K. punk was a "response" to Margaret Thatcher's Hayekian policies, as one obiturary writer claimed upon the death of Joe Strummer; Thatcher took office two years after Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols came out.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

But the U.K.'s artistic sorts despised the Tories and despised Thatcher. In 1977, trying to sound rebellious, Paul Weller (then of The Jam) told an interviewer he'd be "voting Conservative at the next election," but by 1978 he was walking it back, and by 1985 he'd joined Red Wedge, a collective of bands opposed to Thatcher. (You never could have had this in America: a mainstream political tour named in tribute to Communist iconography.) Hating Thatcher—really hating her—was a fashionable pursuit engaged in by musicians who still sell out small arenas.

It started early. Within a year of Thatcher taking power—a "shock" year, with unemployment spiking—The Beat were out with a song calling for her to resign.

I see no joy
I see only sorrow
I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow

And that was before the 1982 Falklands War. The left opposed it; when it succeeded, Thatcher's approval ratings soared. Crass basically transformed into an all-Thatcher-bashing band, commemorating the war with "How Does It Feel to Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead" (British casualties were 255).

Your inhumanity stops you from realising the pain
That you inflicted, you determined, you created, you ordered
It was your decision to have those young boys slaughtered.

Elvis Costello responded to the war with a subtler song, 1983's "Shipbuilding." By general agreement, the best take on the song came when Robert Wyatt, the Soft Machine drummer-turned-solo artist, recorded his less-mannered version.

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they'll be reopening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin

In 1985, Thatcher had been re-elected and the Miners' Strike had ended in disaster for labor (sorry, labour) unions. Billy Bragg, the man behind Red Wedge, wrung an actual hit single out of this.

I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
And they brought prosperity down at the armoury
"We're arming for peace, me boys"
Between the wars

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand

And then, in 1987, Thatcher won a third term. The mania heightened. Viva Hate (1988), Morrissey's first post-Smiths album, ended with "Margaret on the Guillotine," a song with no real point other than, "Gee, it'll be great when Thatcher dies."

The kind people 
Have a wonderful dream 
Margaret on the guillotine 
Cause people like you 
Make me feel so tired

A year later Elvis Costello was writing the same song with considerably more verve. In "Tramp the Dirt Down," released a full year before Thatcher resigned, he pivots from an election photograph of Thatcher to a meditation on how she'd ruined human existence.

And now the cynical ones say that it all ends the same in the long run
Try telling that to the desperate father who just squeezed the life from his only son
And how it's only voices in your head and dreams you never dreamt
Try telling him the subtle difference between justice and contempt
Try telling me she isn't angry with this pitiful discontent
When they flaunt it in your face as you line up for punishment
And then expect you to say thank you straighten up, look proud and pleased
Because you've only got the symptoms, you haven't got the whole disease

We Americans really had nothing like this, did we? The most explicitly anti-Reagan line I can remember in a pop song is "this tired old man that we elected king" in Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 



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