Mastery of the dainty ankled mistress

Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy
September 5, 2003

At the age of 11, Heather Nunn encountered Margaret Thatcher: "The venue was a draughty hall somewhere in Peterborough", the occasion, a "golden egg" competition. Nunn was clearly more impressed by Thatcher's regal bearing and "posh" voice than the then secretary of state for education was taken by Nunn's "adventurous" egg and sage pie. She did not win the prize.

It seems unlikely that Thatcher would find Nunn's psychoanalytically inflected deconstruction of her persona any more appetising: too heavy on the super-ego, and insufficiently sage. Indeed, the flavour of this book is something of an acquired taste. With equal parts of Freud and Joan Riviere, and a sprinkling of Julia Kristeva and Slavoj Zizek, Nunn sets out to initiate "a space for thinking about the relationship between the categories of woman and nation, of political power and violence". Nunn's most sustained attention is devoted to Thatcher's manipulation of gender in the prime ministerial "masquerade". Having achieved the premiership, Thatcher disavowed the significance of her sex. Yet her public image was always decidedly gendered. She delighted in the contradictions between discrepant constructions of her femininity - from the "Iron Lady" of Soviet propaganda to the dainty-ankled dominatrix of Alan Clark's diaries. But, at the same time, Thatcher revelled in her "masculine" attributes: tougher, more resolute than others of her sex, and more combative, more masterful than most mortal men.

Nunn is not interested in how gender roles were wielded in cabinet. Fixing on the performative dimensions of leadership, she inquires how Thatcher scripted herself in relation to an imagined nation beset by enemies on all sides threatening imminent descent into chaos. Fantasies of disorder fed Thatcher's "authoritarian populism", validating the leader's projections of stability secured through discipline. This sadistic will to mastery, Nunn suggests, explains everything from the exorcism of "the wets" to Thatcher's unwavering commitment to "phallic power" in the form of Cruise and Pershing missiles.

But the "space" promised by these readings threatens to be a vacuum. Categories proliferate in such a way that the central object of analysis constantly slides from focus: the person of the leader; the phenomenon of leadership; the projections of the led. What Nunn purports to uncover by probing the collective unconscious of Thatcherism is "the violence and aggression that underpin the modern British nation". In emphasising thralldom to fantasies of domination and mastery, Nunn universalises Thatcher's appeal. We were no more all Thatcherites during the 1980s than we were all Falklanders in 1982. Thatcherism may have summoned an endless array of wolves at the door, but what of those cast in wolfish clothing, and of those who rejected Thatcher's recipes for mastery? Thin psychologising obscures the deepening stratification of those 11 disintegrative years.

Susan Carruthers is associate professor of history, Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.

Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy: The Political Culture of Gender and Nation

Author - Heather Nunn
ISBN - 0 85315 962 9
Publisher - Lawrence and Wishart
Price - £17.99
Pages - 208

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