Interview: Professor Emeritus Eric Evans on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy
Yesterday was only the second time in her 61-year reign that Elizabeth II attended the funeral of one of her prime ministers. The first was Winston Churchill's, nearly half a century ago. That was a state funeral, befitting the man who led Britain's struggle against Nazism during the Second World War. Margaret Thatcher, who divided Britain and continues to divide Britain, is a very different matter.
This is not the first time a monarch nearer the end of her reign than its start has been put in such a position. In 1898 Queen Victoria was obliged to attend the state funeral of the great Liberal prime minister William Gladstone. "Imagine Queen Victoria, who hated him, having to put up with it," muses Professor Emeritus Eric Evans of the University of Lancaster.
Evans is wary of the historical choice to give Gladstone a state funeral and is just as opposed to Thatcher's funeral yesterday. I was in St Paul's and found the event to be full of grandiose pomp and ceremony, but very little in the way of actual feeling. It's a measure of this that George Osborne's tears seemed so out of place: it was a sterile event. "It becomes a stage-managed operation – there's a sense in which it's been stage-managed politically by the Tory party," Evans says down the line. "Some people I think have pushed that far too hard, but I am uneasy about the context and frankly I just don't think it should happen."
Spare a thought for the monarch, too, whose presence as the symbol of national unity above the everyday squabbling of British politics reinforced the idea the funeral was elevating Thatcher to a similar plane. "That is putting the Queen in an almost impossible position. If she's going to say that she's going to reject the advice of her ministers, that raises an important constitutional issue. She's not supposed to do that, at least in the public space. Imagine what the Telegraph would have made of it. So I don't think she had a choice, but I'm pretty sure she's feeling uneasy about it. I was hoping Prince Philip might make one or two unguarded comments!"
Evans argues that politicians are "by definition divisive". Following strongly-held convictions, even if they are controversial, is their sole purpose in life. After their deaths, the "charade" of papering over the cracks seems to miss the point. "I just don't think politicians should be allowed to spend taxpayers' money on state occasions for politicians who were just doing their job." Plumbers don't get state funerals for fixing leaky taps. Etc, etc.
Now the Iron Lady has finally been laid to rest such debates will fade away, making her legacy more and more the focus of historians. Evans, whose book Thatcher and Thatcherism has re-examined the impact of her collected policies through the 1970s to the current coalition, thinks that, like the French Revolution, it's too soon to really tell quite what effect Thatcherism will have on Britain. Still, he has already come to his own conclusions about her "bold experiment in ideologically-driven government".
And he has come to some striking conclusions. "The morality and the dominant prevailing ethic is now one of greed and grab," he told me. When you think about that in terms of banking deregulation and what followed, we start to get a sense that Thatcher laid the groundwork for the kind of society whose bubble burst in the financial crisis of 2008. "What we have now is a culture dominated by value as expressed in monetary terms. That moves over into celebrity as well. In the contemporary field, Harry Enfield got it absolutely right."
The most interesting claim here is that while Thatcher was seeking a well-ordered, well-disciplined society, her policies actually led to "financial amorality" – if not, in the short term, financial chaos.
"I am blaming Thatcher for creating a situation in which the decision was made, either wittingly or semi wittingly, that financial services, particularly in London, were viewed as the way forward," he says. This was, according to Evans, a "pretty crass" approach – but it is one he believes she would now be looking to reverse. "If we were able to disinter her, she would probably say that is her biggest regret."