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Margaret Thatcher: La Pasionaria of the C2s

If A Trot paper of the type I used to sell in the 1980s had accused Margaret Thatcher of ‘bourgeois triumphalism’, it would have been laughed off the pitch for resort to boilerplate cliché of the worst kind.

But the formulation was famously first levelled by traditionalist Tory Peregrine Worsthorne in the pages of the Sunday Telegraph, then even more than now a Conservative house organ, and must have hit home all the harder for it.

Why does he talk about boo-jhwa?’ she famously retorted:

Why can’t he find a plain English word for the plain people of England, Scotland and Wales. The boo-jhwa live in France. The danger is that all this talk about bourgeois triumphalism will be used to cast discredit on the common sense, the voluntary spirit, and the generosity of the British character. British, not bourgeois

And since it was the right that initially framed this discussion in traditionally Marxist terms, it is only polite to continue it in a similar vein.

Although a number of left publications and blogs have since her death characterised Thatcher as ‘a brutal ruling class warrior’ – and she was undoubtedly that – the designation is inexact.

It tells us little about how she saw herself, or about how her followers saw her then, and how they continue to see her now she has died.

Essex Man, sitting back on the MFI sofa acquired on HP after the council house had been purchased, would not have made the instant connection that the left does between Thatcher’s policies and the interests of the financial elite. Nor would his white collar counterpart, temporarily flush with the proceeds of stagging British Gas shares.

Far from it; to them, Maggie was the woman Denis Healey famoused dubbed the La Pasionaria of middle class privilege, a fantastical distorted projection of the ambitions of everyman. British, not bourgeois, if you will.

The reality is that Thatcher served a class other than the one from which she originated. Her own upbringing, as numerous biographies attest, was within a textbook petit bourgeois family from the English provinces.

A small shopkeeper, such as her father, is indeed a boo-jhwa of sorts, an entrepreneur who consumes the labour power of others, even if only his immediate family, much in the same way as a real bourgeois does. But the scale of the operation is such that the difference is one of kind rather than degree.

It characteristic state is one of constant insecurity, of perpetual fear of proletarianisation. Its condition of being squeezed between the two primary classes in capitalist society can generate both hostility to organised labour and ressentiment, however obsequious, towards the ruling class.

As Karl Marx himself emphasises, most notably in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, individuals from this milieu will often seen themselves standing above or beyond class entirely, and as representatives of ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’.

While this is of course illusory, it can serve well on the plane of electoral politics, gifting petit bourgeois politicians with enhanced opportunity to win votes from all sections of society, rather than campaigning on a specified class appeal. Certainly Thatcherism possessed the attested ability to extend the electoral base of British Conservatism well into what had hitherto been Labour territory.

This, I think, is where Perry Worsthorne was on the money, and perhaps put his finger on why the Tory backbenchers are more avid for her memory than Conservatism’s recrudescent patrician wing.

For the Old Etonians, Thatcher is a superficial icon who can be dusted off when it suits their sporadic attempts at populism; for the backbenchers, the personification of everything they stand for politically.

Yet Thatcherism served the ultimate purpose of restoring the Conservative Party to those to whom it has traditionally belonged. For that, I suspect, Cameron and Osborne will be properly grateful.

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