Margaret Thatcher and the End of History

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Thatcher’s dead! And it’s almost impossible to say anything that hasn’t already been said about it.

Every aspect of her life and death has been analysed by the media over the course of the last few weeks, down to the tiniest detail (you have to feel for us student journalists, unable to press the pause button on current affairs during the holidays). Though I soon got to wondering; did Mrs. Thatcher ever come and visit Lancaster University? If so, did she like it? Did she have a flick through SCAN, and would she rather be in County or Cartmel? And most importantly, would she argue for or against the introduction of a multi-national sandwich chain opposite Bowland Bar (actually, the answer to that one is fairly obvious)?

Anyway, I did a bit of digging, and found the transcripts of some speeches she made on two of the more notable occasions that she visited Lancaster. They are two utterly innocuous footnotes in the history of her life, perhaps most notable for matters meteorological (‘the sun was shining on this particular part of the British Isles’ when she came to visit, according to the BBC) than for any obvious political reason. But they are a useful way in to some more recent debates that have been raging across our campus – and the country more generally – about the value of an education in the arts.

The content of her speeches got me thinking of Michael Gove’s new national curriculum for History. It’s a brilliantly terrible cocktail of dead-end facts and nationalism that borders on racism, but perhaps the most important thing about it is that it situates Thatcher as the ‘End of History’, the last figure in a huge list of ‘Great English Heroes!’ to be ‘learned by heart’. After all, what’s the point in History after Thatcher? We all know how the story pans out – Maggie and Regan high-five each other, she smashes down the Berlin Wall with nothing but her handbag, and capitalism goes on to solve all of the world’s problems. Or at least, that’s what Michael Gove would like you to think. And it’s dangerous, because teaching like that is nothing short of indoctrination. Thatcher becomes the End of History, and people don’t complain.

Thatcher, on the other hand, would disagree. Or, at least the February 1970 version of her would. That’s when she came to this very campus and gave a speech to the inventively-titles ‘Lancaster University Conservative Political Centre Committee’. She was speaking in opposition to Labour’s recently introduced Education Act, which she did not believe could ‘provide education which was suitable to the age, aptitude and ability of the child’. It’s an interesting statement, since it’s the same criticism a lot on the left are now making of Gove’s policy, which wants to teach kids as young as five about the notion of ‘the state’. She continues: ‘the objective of education is not merely an economic objective but its main objective must be towards a greater responsibility and towards a higher quality of life both individually and as a community’. Education is not for purely economic ends, but for a higher communal quality of life?! This Thatcher seems unrecognisable from the one who didn’t believe in something called society. She seems, actually, kind of alright.

When she came back oop north in 1974 though, as part of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ series at Lancaster and Morecambe College, her ideas had changed. ‘There are too many youngsters at university reading sociology or politics which people don’t think will be the most interesting or useful education for them in later life’, she told an audience that probably had its fair share of politics students, ‘and perhaps too few people doing some of the practical skills which would in fact help more than those theoretical subjects’. Ah, History, politics, sociology, the ‘theoretical subjects’… they’re the stuff of Gove’s (and Thatcher post-1974) nightmares. Thatcher’s solution, when she was in office, was to simply ignore them, marginalising their influence in classrooms. Gove’s approach, an admittedly novel one, seems to be to bore potential history students into oblivion.

History and subjects like it are all essential disciplines for anyone who believes in the importance of thinking critically more generally. And the thing is, when the next lot of University cuts come, these subjects will probably be the ones to suffer. Because for Thatcher-influenced managers the value of an academic subject is equal to its ability to make huge amounts of profit, rather than its ability to create, in Thatcher’s words,’a higher quality of life both individually and as a community’.

[The two speeches mentioned in this article are both available on ‘Margaret Thatcher: Complete Public Statements 1945-1990’, a CD held in the library – A Floor, Purple Zone, 43/0928]

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