LONDON – As well as overhauling Britain’s economy, Margaret Thatcher triggered a cultural revolution by igniting a creative burst of anger at her policies, including slashing arts funding.
The former prime minister “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 antigovernment — 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 getting cozy with the U.S. against the Soviet threat and waging war in the Falklands — that fueled anger.
“Thatcher polarized 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 runup 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 for the Labour Party, 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,” describing it as his “wonderful dream.” Dozens of other songs called for her ouster, notably over her friendship with former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The same year, students from Goldsmiths College in London organized the famous Freeze “happening” in a dingy warehouse in the Docklands area. They were led by Damien Hirst, who later became one of the world’s wealthiest artists. Other galleries, such as that of Charles Saatchi, also served as a breeding ground for the counterculture new British art.
Meanwhile, one thorn in Thatcher’s side came from the heart of the British establishment: the internationally respected and fiercely independent BBC. The Tory leader was not slow to try to clamp down on the broadcaster, which ran damaging news investigation programs such as “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 went on to become cinema hits. “My Beautiful Launderette,” a powerful satire on race and class directed by Stephen Frears with 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 Prize in literature 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 Conservative government in 1997.
In December 2011 Meryl Streep portrayed her in the film “The Iron Lady,” although it was criticized in some parts for focusing on the premier’s 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.”