Though never trumpeted like those of her successors, Margaret Thatcher’s cultural legacy was more substantial than people like to imagine
Shortly before Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister, in 2007, he delivered a speech at Tate Modern exalting his cultural legacy. Margaret Thatcher never did that. The nearest reference to an artistic legacy on the day she left Downing Street was an episode of Capital City, a drama chronicling young financial traders basking in the post-Big Bang boom years, broadcast on ITV that evening.
Biographers and historians have viewed her government’s cultural policy as one of her blind spots. But the Thatcher administration’s arts record is more successful and lasting than many think, not just because antipathy towards the Iron Lady inspired fine work from the likes of David Hare, Mike Leigh and Alan Bennett.
Far from the 1980s representing cultural austerity, the Arts Council’s budget increased from £63 million in 1979-80 to £176 million in 1990-1. Visits to galleries and museums rose by 10 million. The Thatcher government’s drive to increase private-sector involvement in the arts, via corporate sponsorship, was highly controversial at the time. Opponents feared it would compromise the creative process. The Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington described sponsorship as implicit censorship. Yet blockbuster museum exhibitions are now dependent on corporations’ support; nobody bats an eyelid over, say, Tate Britain’s rehangs being sponsored by BP.
Or take the West End musical successes of the 1980s. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh’s global export of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera owed an immense debt to supply-side economics. Mackintosh told the BBC in 1992: “The philosophy allowed our investors to put money into the shows which would have been much more difficult if tax rates had been absolutely penal.” The model for the British musical colossus, established in the 1980s, has held firm. Billy Elliot – first a film, now a musical – which features a song welcoming the death of Mrs Thatcher is, ironically, an indirect beneficiary.
It’s convenient to ignore all this and instead recall the bitter relationship between Mrs Thatcher and the cultural cognoscenti. Artists, writers and musicians competed over who could be the most vitriolic about the Prime Minister (Jonathan Miller was possibly the winner, describing her as loathsome, repulsive in almost every way.)
Yet the Blair government’s obsession with outreach, putting egalitarianism before quality, imposed a tighter straitjacket on the arts than the Thatcher administration ever did. Ian McEwan has recalled meeting Blair at the opening party for Tate Modern. The then Prime Minister insisted he owned two paintings by McEwan. It’s difficult to imagine Margaret Thatcher attending, never mind hosting, a Cool Britannia party. But isn’t her lack of interest really rather admirable?