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Jane Kelly: Maggie didn’t have enough class for the V & A

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‘Margaret Thatcher was very beautiful’, someone said recently and it had never really occurred to me that she was. Photos showing her pinkish gold halo, perfect complexion, pearls and faultless tailoring show a handsome woman, but also something not altogether pleasing.

‘She has the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe,’ said Francois Mitterrand, the lascivious French President, not being at all clear about whether he fancied her or not. I was a fan of hers from when she first started appearing on TV as Minister of Education, all pussy-cat bows and elocution English. I was a feminist then and didn’t admire her for her looks, but for her remarkable strength. I saw her as a Boudicca for our troubled, strike-riven times.

As a ‘women’s libber’ happy to see protestors hurling bags of flour during the Miss World contest, I also admired the way she’d got herself to Oxford, become a scientist, studied for the Bar, and once in politics was intent on giving herself totally to the job. But I was almost alone among my university friends in this and that has not changed since. Her behaviour and success were exactly what new wave feminists in the 1970s and 80s wanted of all women, but most feminists still detest  her.

‘The feminists hate me, don’t they?’ She once said. ‘I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.’

She saw them as dangerous ideologues while they resent the fact that she was one on her own and didn’t deliberately promote other women on a token basis. They accuse her of ‘sectionalism’, that is Fem-speak for  belonging to a narrow sphere. Painfully for them she achieved a great deal simply by leading from the front and providing an example. They and their fellows on the Liberal/Left must acknowledge that it was through her, for a time, in the 1980s,  that a window opened for men and women of all backgrounds enabling them to get into professions for the first time. Her individual example smashed the much hated ‘glass ceiling.’

In 1984 I entered the office of a national newspaper and found other journalists and executives who’d come from a comprehensive school  background like me. Not an Etonian in sight. We were working in a meritocracy and believed that it would last forever. That paper is not the same now, and that window has largely banged shut but all political persuasions should look back on a brief period of egalitarianism and thank Maggie for it. But they don’t.

One reason for the continuing deep vein of dislike and spite against Mrs T is surely her appearance. She was always round and womanly, never girlie and we are living in a girlie age, but the problem of her appearance is not  curves so much as Class. For many English people she was not so much Caligula as a jumped up Margo Leadbetter suburban nightmare.

This particular English snobbery surely explains the decision by the V & A last week to reject 300 items from her personal collection of clothes, jewellery, handbags and political mementoes.

If the museum had taken some of her best known outfits, including her 1951 wedding clothes, it would have been a cracker of a show, the press and public from around the world would have loved it. Fans could have come to worship while others would have had a good laugh at how we used to look in the dear, dead recent past. Instead, the V & A gave an excuse for the rejection as blunt and tactless as the great leaderene herself:

‘Our policy is to focus on acquiring examples of outstanding aesthetic or technical quality.’

A cartoon in the Telegraph by Matt, showed the V & A dropping off the Thatcher habiliments at a charity shop.

Her crime was that she never looked working-class, no bicycle clips in sight, but neither did she look posh, being over decorated and far too clean and neat. She was far removed from the relaxed hippy chic of the well-born left-leaning ‘yummy mummy.’ Instead  she resembled a banker or successful buyer for M & S, at worst she looked like the kind of woman who  gets a reputation for being too bossy at  Parish council meetings and keeps non ironic garden gnomes. She rather confirmed that non-U image by retiring to a brand new Barratt house in Dulwich, which caused much astonishment and ridicule.

Despite her rise to the top office in the land the woman who became Baroness Thatcher just did not have the same qualities of good taste as the androgynous Alexander McQueen and David Bowie, whose belongings have been avidly collected by the gallery.

The V & A also loves Diana, the ‘People’s Princess.’ They can’t get enough of her, showing her ball gowns, wedding dress and even her maternity clothes. After all, as the daughter of an Earl  rather than a shop keeper,  she had real Class while  Mrs T only had brains and determination. Both women of course went out to win big prizes in a man’s world, but many people still feel more comfortable with Diana’s traditional methods, as a wife, mother and mistress, who never got above her station or put her size ten Louboutin inside a modern house.

Within 24 hours of the former PM’s bequest being turned down, there was an, ‘emergency appeal,’ and public donations raised £100,000 to buy the collection for the nation. The V & A immediately enacted a U turn, denying that they had ever made a decision about the matter, terming themselves, ‘an evolving institution.’

They couldn’t just come out and say, ‘We don’t like the woman, or anything she stood for, and we don’t want her vulgar apparel in here.’

This debacle shows some great flaws remaining in British public life; intense snobbery from the metropolitan elite which governs opinion, through the BBC, the judiciary, the Foreign Office, (one of Lady Thatcher’s long term foes) the universities, and the arts establishment. It also reveals the remarkably entrenched left-wing beliefs in what used to be called, ‘the Establishment.’

Margaret Thatcher always was spurned by the high and mighty of course. At Grantham Girls’ School her headmistress told her not to bother to try for Oxford. In 1985 she was snubbed by dons at Oxford, her alma mater, who refused to grant her an honorary degree. The vote against the then prime minister was much higher than expected (738 to 319) and greeted with cheers by students who handed in a 5,000 signature petition. She became the first Oxford-educated prime minister since the war to be denied the honour.

Coupled with this social distain there is the profound socialist culture in our institutions, particularly those connected with the arts. If anyone is doubtful about this they should view the trustees of august bodies controlled by the horribly named, ‘Department of Culture, Media and Sport,’ (DCMS) such as the British Museum, which in 2015, won an ISESCO award for an institution that had made ‘a significant contribution to the task of educating the public about Islam.’

Even better they could try getting a job in one such body. To get into the Foreign Office or the BBC you need to be privately educated with very good contacts, or you need to speak like Alf Garnett and boast ‘street cred.’ No middle middle-class, upper working class, or is it lower middle-class people, what used to be the ‘grammar school class,’ have a chance. Mrs Thatcher’s own are seen as far too over-achieving and pushy, and of course vulgar.

Our museums, galleries and ‘cultural organisations’ are now run by people on the left who have a specific agenda and that is diversity. They have to justify their funding on how many black and ethnic bodies they get through their ancient doors.This ideology has been going on for years through successive governments desperate to increase social cohesion.

In 2000 the DCMS published a directive about widening access to museums, ‘broadening access for all, and the special needs of socially excluded individuals and groups.’ The report stated, ‘We would hope that specific consideration will be given to funding for initiatives relating to social inclusion.’

The local, the ‘community’ was to take priority. That directive states:  ‘Any strategy developed for museums, galleries and archives must take into account the National Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy.’

Victorian edifices such as the V & A once considered quiet places to take the children on a Sunday after church, or to step into for awhile to get out of the rain,  are now regarded by the Government as  ‘centers for social change,’ relying on the old liberal belief that outsiders can brought inside the tent by a little dose of culture. Not the indigenous one of course, but something more wide-ranging.

The report went on, ‘The services that museums, galleries, archives and libraries can provide should  be considered together, as the sector is already doing a great deal to promote social inclusion.’

In 2005 I applied for the job of a ‘host’ to assist people visiting the Museum of London. I was surprised to see the length of the job spec which seemed to require everything, even  ‘retail experience’ and ‘cash handling.’ It also said, ‘Second language Polish and Punjabi preferred,’ and there was a question about the gender of applicants. The only thing not required was a degree in or proven interest in history.

As I had a history degree, experience in teaching and a bit of all the myriad requirements, including some Polish, I applied but didn’t gain an interview. When I questioned this, I received withering abuse from someone in their HR department. I began to realise then that the institutions representing our cultural heritage have vastly changed since I started visiting them as an ambitious, pushy lower-middle class child.

In 2014 a new UK policy framework for museums was published aiming to ‘reconfigure their social role and organizational identity.’ Central to this process, extraordinarily from the party once led by Mrs Thatcher, was the idea that the concept of social exclusion and inclusion were to be, ‘incorporated into museum policies to make them more socially responsible and responsive through their contribution to tackling social exclusion.’

If you are trying to get a mass of people, including disadvantaged oddballs, into your gallery, Princess Diana and David Bowie score more highly than Mrs Thatcher. Resentment against her kind is obvious and I suspect that jobs at all levels, even down to attendants in our major London galleries, who are now mainly foreign girls recruited from European agencies, are beyond the reach of white  middle-class, middle-aged women. As a group they are not liked or required  in any department. Perhaps Grayson Perry is about their only representative, well almost.

And it seems that this prejudice even applies if the woman in question was not a Margo Leadbetter or a Hyacinth Bouquet from Surbiton, but someone who became the first British woman Prime Minister and a key figure on the world’s stage.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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