The name of Margaret Thatcher is humming loudly over the broadband connections these days. Partly it’s due to the anticipation of the imminent death of the woman who was Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990 (Baroness Thatcher is now in her early 80s and said to be unwell), partly it’s a reaction to recent announcements that, when the time comes, she’ll be given a state funeral - an honour not afforded to a British politician since Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.
Already Facebook is groaning under the weight of those wanting to honour Thatcher in their own special way. There are standard no-state-funeral groupings, anti-Thatcher leagues and one lot of people who advocate premature burial for the former premier. The Plastinate Margaret Thatcher group (27 members) makes up for its size with the scale of its audacity, while all over the social networking sites, flash mobs are poised, come the announcement of Thatcher’s death, to take over Trafalgar Square and other civic spaces the length and breadth of Britain. Even the Daily Mail, the tabloid characterized by an unswerving loyalty to all things rightwing, reported on 3 September that Buckingham Palace ‘fears that there might not be enough troops to line the streets’. (And this because of troops off in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than because of public order issues.)
But up in Leeds, there’s one group that have long been prepared for D-day. The musical agitators that are Chumbawamba (motto: ‘folk against fascism’) has its EP In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher pressed, packaged and ready to go. ‘Pay your £5 now in the knowledge that, come the morning after the glorious day, you’ll have this exclusive and unavailable-elsewhere CD dropping tombstone-like onto your doormat,’ reads the blurb on the band’s website. A fiver for a slice of history - it sounds cheap at the price.
The influence of Margaret Thatcher on British pop music of the 1980s period is unparalleled by any other public figure. Just as she radicalized the Conservative Party, so she mobilized an entire generation of opponents. Chumbawamba, a group that emerged from the folk clubs of northern England (they got up and running during the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s), is among them.
I think Thatcher certainly created an immediate raison d’etre for the band, right at the start,’ emails Chumbawamba’s guitarist Boff Whalley. ‘How could we, as responsible and thinking people, not write about the situation around us in the early 1980s? There was a straight choice between the artists who said something (Specials, Elvis Costello, Crass etc) and those who chose to demonstrate the decadent pop lifestyle (Spandau Ballet, etc) - as young people looking for heroes and inspiration, we obviously went with those who had half a brain in their head and an eye for the world around them. But in the 1990s, especially after the New Labour victory in 1997, we were much more concerned with this new experiment in taking the tatters of British socialism and selling it to big business. That became our target, especially at the start, when it seemed a lot of artists were busy partying with the Blairs and thinking things were about to really change.’
Chumba’s In Memoriam is, Whalley says, the culmination of an idea that the band had played around with for a while, but it was the announcement of the state funeral that fanned its ire. That said, it’s curious that many of the people who are organizing the very flash mobs that will occupy Trafalgar Square are much too young to have experienced real-time Thatcherism - even if they do her legacy. Is there a danger that the critiques of Thatcherism will be lost just as a bogeywoman is created?
‘I get the sense that Thatcher’s death will be the first of its kind in Britain, when an upsurge in cynicism and disgust won’t be able to be hidden behind the media veneer of respectability and honour and sanctimonious grovelling,’ writes Whalley. ‘I feel like people have really caught on to the idea that this woman was different in defining a culture, which for most people was absolutely for the worst. Economically, politically and socially. People learnt through Thatcher just how right-wing government here can get; they also learned with the poll tax how to create mass opposition to government.’
Thatcher, and structuring an opposition to the raft of policies - privatization, a deregulated financial sector and union-breaking among them - central to Tory policy at the time proved essential to Chumbawamba. ‘Being part of the miners’ strike was more important than being a band then,’ says Whalley. ‘It was important for us too because it took us back to our upbringings, to the factory/mining towns where we were brought up. It stopped us thinking that politics was some sort of "alternative lifestyle", made us see that politics and radical ideas have to be inclusive, not exclusive. If you’ve something to say, then make it accessible. Some of the sillier haircuts disappeared when we visited the miners’ welfare clubs! I think the miners’ strike was where we grew up and found our place - somewhere between the glamour, edge, ‘outsiderness’ and rebel pose of rock ‘n roll (which we still love) and the solid, traditional working-class ethos of solidarity and friendship and community.’
Whalley says that In Memoriam isn’t all songs - there are snippets and samples and a ‘collection of ideas about the woman’s life and death’. But what’s the betting that somewhere on the EP there is the unmistakable voice of Margaret Thatcher herself, recorded when the Falklands Islands (Malvinas) were recaptured in 1982, and saying, ‘Rejoice!’
In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher will be released the moment that Margaret Thatcher dies, www.chumba.com
Ten songs inspired by Margaret Thatcher
The Specials, ‘Ghost Town’ (1981)
The Beat, ‘Stand Down, Margaret’ (1980)
Billy Bragg, ‘Thatcherites’ (1997)
Christy Moore, ‘Goose Green (Taking Tea with Pinochet)’ (2004)
Elvis Costello, ‘Shipbuilding’ (1983)
Morrissey, ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’ (1988)
Simply Red, ‘Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)’ (1985)
Lal Waterson, ‘Hilda’s Cabinet Band’ (1990)
Pink Floyd, ‘Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert’ (1983)
The Housemartins, ‘Five Get Over Excited’ (1987)
Plus honourable mentions to Sinead O’Connor (‘Black Boys on Mopeds’), The Dead Kennedys (‘Wargasm’), Martin Carthy (‘Company Policy’), Ewan MacColl (‘Daddy, What Did You Do in the Strike?’), Hefner (‘The Day That Thatcher Dies’) and a barrelful from the Exploited, Crass, and the Margaret Thatcher Experience. And that’s just for starters.