Anger at Margaret Thatcher’s policies triggered ‘ideological backlash’ and cultural revolution in Britain
As well as overhauling Britain’s economy, Margaret Thatcher triggered a cultural revolution in Britain by igniting a creative burst of anger at her policies, including slashing arts funding.
The former premier “had a phenomenal impact on the cultural landscape of Britain by creating an ideological backlash,” said David Khabaz of the London School of Economics, author of a book on Thatcher’s cultural legacy.
“It was kind of a paradoxical movement: if (Thatcher) hadn’t provided that sort of attack on art, the critical edge of intellectual art would never have come about,” he said.
Thatcher swept to power in 1979, and among her many controversial reforms was a decision to progressively cut funding for the Arts Council, a public body set up after World War II to help bring culture to the masses.
In line with her fierce free market economic principles, she argued that artists — many seen as broadly leftwing and anti-government — should sink or swim on their own merits, like the rest of the population.
But more than withdrawing funds it was her wider policies — including cutting jobs in mines and elsewhere, while cosying up to the US against the Soviet threat and waging war in the Falklands — which fuelled anger.
“Thatcher polarised society far more than ever before… What you read, what you watched and listened to indicated whether you were pro- or anti-Thatcher,” said David Christopher of the European Business School.
“Thatcher affected people’s attitudes in their everyday life, her hegemony seems to permeate all aspects of life,” including fashion, cinema and music, added Christopher, author of “British Culture, an Introduction”.
The music world saw the most visible, and sometimes violent, reaction to Thatcher’s policies.
Red Wedge, an anti-Thatcher movement formed in the run-up to the 1987 election, brought together a grouping of musicians including The Clash, Paul Weller, The Communards, Madness, Billy Bragg, The Smiths and Elvis Costello.
They played benefit gigs to raise money for striking miners and urging people to vote Labour, while underground events sprung up with concerts and exhibitions in warehouses, or home-made CDs to bypass music corporations.
In 1988 Morrissey penned “Margaret on the Guillotine”, saying that was his “wonderful dream”. Dozens of other songs call for her ouster, notably over her friendship with Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The same year students from Goldsmiths College in London organised the famous Freeze “happening” in a dingy Docklands warehouse. They were led by Damien Hirst, who later became one of the world’s wealthiest artists.
Other galleries, like that of Charles Saatchi, also served as a breeding ground for the counter-culture new British art.
Meanwhile one thorn in Thatcher’s side came from the heart of the British establishment: the internationally-respected and fiercely independent British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
The Tory leader was not slow to try to clamp down on the BBC, which broadcast damaging news investigation programmes like Panorama.
Thatcher “hated the BBC. She became increasingly worried about the BBC until she managed to appoint chairmen who were sympathetic to the government,” said Christopher.
Channel Four, a public TV station created in 1982, nurtured a new generation of directors whose edgy social films started on the small screen but then became cinema hits.
“My Beautiful Launderette”, a powerful satire on race and class directed by Stephen Frears with the writer Hanif Kureishi, was among the most successful products of that collaboration.
Other openly anti-Thatcher filmmakers included Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, while playwright and later Nobel Literature prize laureate Harold Pinter also joined the cultural onslaught on her government.
The creative burst continued well beyond her departure in 1990, which presaged the demise of Tory government in 1997.
In December 2011 Meryl Streep portrayed her in the film “The Iron Lady”, although it was criticised in some parts for focusing on her dementia.
“She has become a British icon… Thatcher is not Thatcherism: Thatcher started the project but Thatcherism became much, much bigger than her,” said Khabaz.
“Half of the country still despise her. It has not gone away,” he said.