“An assault without precedent in modern politics”

Philip Hensher – the novelist and librettist unless a namesake – responds to James Butler‘s piece in the London Review of Books:

Butler echoes the claim… that ‘there is also little doubt that four years of unrelenting attacks on the character of the party leader, an assault without precedent in modern politics, had a degree of negative impact.’

The party leader above is Jeremy Corbyn and the “four years” must be 2015-19.

Perhaps they ought to read Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. He records some of the statements by public figures, in public or in writing, about her character, appearance and personal attributes. Dennis Potter called her ‘repellent’. David Hare said that her influence would disappear after she went, ‘leaving nothing but the memory of a funny accent’. Alan Bennett said that she was ‘a kind of maiden aunt who knows all about marriage’. Mary Warnock said that a film of her in Marks and Spencer had ‘something really quite obscene about it’. Jonathan Miller called her ‘loathsome, repulsive in almost every way’. Songs were released by pop bands with lines like ‘I want to change into a dog so that I can use Madame Thatcher daily as a lamp-post,’ or ‘When they finally put you in the ground/They’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down,’ or, concisely, ‘Maggie, Maggie, you cunt/Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, you fucking cunt’.

But how did the tabloids treat her? That’s what matters, more than all the gall of theater men and philosophers.

The “Madame Thatcher” song was in French, by a French group, and could only pack a punch in Britain by accident. The effing c— lyrics came from a marginal punk band.

Only the song by Elvis Costello, Tramp the Dirt Down, was the work of a relatively well known and well respected artist. It appeared on the album Spike (1989), which was certified gold, indicating sales of 100,000 to 300,000 copies. Impressive, but the daily circulation of The Sun exceeded four million while The Daily Mail sold 1.7-1.8 million copies per day.

Interestingly, Hensher didn’t mention Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine from Viva Hate (1988, also a gold album). Perhaps the omission is only appropriate because the song was not entirely a personal attack, although driven by animus: the guillotine is an instrument of revolutionary-state violence, not a typical means of settling private scores.

But can we really say the other outpourings of venom were merely personal attacks rather than reactions to Thatcher’s policies? She embodied these policies and so invited odium upon herself. In other words, not only did some of her actions as PM repel certain voters but their disgust at her course often expressed itself as personalized vitriol.

Note that all of the non-song quotes in my excerpt from Hensher’s letter date back to the months before Thatcher’s third successful election – in 1987, eight years into her premiership. It stands to reason that her record in office was the root cause of this anger, even though it manifested itself in irrational ad hominems. (The same could be argued about the three songs Hensher quotes from, recorded in 1984, 1989 and 1985.) As Charles Moore remarked,

It was a special gift of Mrs Thatcher not only to inspire dislike in her opponents, but to goad them into an extravagance of condemnation.

In a similar vein perhaps, some of the Russians willing to give Putin the benefit of the doubt in 2000 would later find him physically repugnant, inchoately human, rodent-like. The man’s record shaped their perception of him.

There was no record in office, no history of government wrongdoing in Corbyn’s case, since he had always been either a backbencher or the leader of the opposition. He was vilified not for anything he had done but for what he was and for what he proposed.

Actually, one could plausibly accuse Corbyn of a major failure: the failure to oppose Brexit when he had a fair chance of stopping it. However, his unscrupulous ill-wishers were mostly rightwing Brexiteers.

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