The 1989 Derek Jarman film The Last of England , while critically praised, looked, even then, a bit overwrought. Now it looks completely paranoid. It’s an art film, a series of frightening images, mostly of ruined or burning buildings. Among the ruins, half-naked skinheads stomp or wrestle, and Tilda Swinton, in a flowing 19th-century wedding gown, writhes and moans. Society has collapsed, the beautiful paintings are trod underfoot. A narrator intones things like this, “They say the Ice Age is coming, the weather’s changed… the ice cubes in your glass are radioactive…”
You get it? This is what Thatcher has done – it’s the last of England! Typical late eighties industrial gloom, perhaps; there’s even Goth shrieker Diamanda Galas on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, Einsturzende Neubauten were making near-identical films in the abandoned warehouses of Berlin; the Canadian painter Attila Richard Lukacs was creating grand tableaux of gorgeous, naked skinhead boys in dangerous industrial settings. But Jarman’s film has always been seen as specifically anti-Thatcher.
You will find the phrase “Thatcher’s Britain” somewhere in every single essay on this movie. The film has become iconic of a certain despairing movement that seized British art at the height of Thatcher’s reign, a mentality that saw apocalypse everywhere. “Thatcher’s Britain,” when used in reference to art, came to mean not a particular set of policies but a kind of mythological landscape, an almost sci-fi one: a landscape of riots and barricades, and fat bankers floating in tubs of Bollinger. You hear this landscape described in the early songs of Billy Bragg (“Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers”… “The factory’s closing and the army’s full”), and the Clash, where the song London Calling – released the year Thatcher came to power – used almost exactly the same words Jarman later did: “The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in/Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin…”
As my colleagues Robert Everett-Green and John Doyle noted earlier this week, the idea of class war was a boon to anyone creative seeking a narrative in the United Kingdom in the eighties. Nothing so exciting had happened since the counterculture of the late Sixties. The thrilling sense of the possibility of real violence – and there actually was some, during the miners’ strike of 1984 and the Toxteth and Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985 – enabled British artists to break out of their love stories and imagine some real conflict, something that history would remember.
Even the realist art that didn’t partake so obviously in apocalyptic dreaming took on a despairing tone, and developed a myth of a country racked by crime and shadowy Fascist forces. Margaret Drabble’s brilliantly observant fiction on women in claustrophobic situations took a turn toward social conscience that made her a much more popular writer. Her trilogy of novels – The Radiant Way (1987), A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (1991) – has a much broader social canvas and is somewhat bleak. They too are almost never described without recourse to the phrase “Thatcher’s Britain,” a fictitious place that has taken on about the same meaning as “Mordor.”
And remember the films: Mike Leigh’s 1988 satire High Hopes contrasts a good-hearted Cockney couple with their evil relative who has discovered capitalism – converted by Thatcherite fervour and deregulation – and become a ruthless exploiter. Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi produced Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), set against inner-city lawlessness. Promotion for that movie prefaced the title with the phrase “While London burns…”, which shows the era’s preoccupation with urban collapse.
It’s a collapse that did not happen. And the Frears movies of the time look sophomoric in hindsight, almost hysterical.
It’s hard to remember, with these narratives as our historical guide, that it was actually a fear of lawlessness and decay that propelled Thatcher to power in the first place. In the seventies, lots of things didn’t work in Britain: public telephones, government offices, car factories. The place was rundown and unemployment was high. The sense of anarchy was best represented by punk rock, an artistic movement that predated Thatcher’s prime ministership by three years. It was fear of Sid Vicious and the society that spawned him that led so many voters to the Iron Lady’s conservatism.
Still, to have given rise to a phrase so powerful as “Thatcher’s Britain,” a phrase as evocative of specific images as The Second Empire or The Jazz Age or The Weimar Republic – that is an extraordinary artistic achievement for a politician.
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