A day-long session at the TAG-On-Sea conference on Tuesday 17th December 2013 addressed the theme ‘Archaeologies of Margaret Thatcher’. Organised by Sarah May and Sefryn Penrose, there were 16 papers presented of the 18 in the programme. Paul Belford summed up and commented on the morning’s papers and Janet Miller served as discussant of the entire session.
The aim of the session was to consider the ‘archaeological legacy of Thatcher as an ideologue’ in a comparable fashion to the way socialism and the ideologies of other past epochs have been considered by archaeologists and historians.
This is a challenging and sensitive subject, not least because the impact and legacy of Thatcher’s government has been a focus of contestation surrounding the current UK Coalition government’s policies and the commemoration of Baroness Thatcher following her death earlier this year.
The cynics reading this might regard this TAG session as an example of theoretical posturing; archaeologists desperately trying to look ‘relevant’ and ‘contemporary’ by looking at the recent past. Inevitably, such cynics might think, archaeologists can contribute little, ending up being headline-grabbing yet superficial and/or deferent to existing historical narratives. I must admit that, perhaps ten years ago, I would have been such a cynic and I would probably not have attended, anticipating my expectations to be fulfilled.
Still, having a dual interest in medieval archaeology and contemporary archaeology, focusing on the study of death, burial and commemoration, I realised that I might have something to say about this session’s theme. So I put in a paper proposal and was accepted.
I was nervous about whether the session would descend into political ranting, with archaeologists trying to out-compete each other in their left-wing stance, expressions of social conscience or finger-pointing, or simply end up as archaeologists wasting the opportunity by navel-gazing at their own discipline’s fortunes in the 1980s and since. There were elements of this, but there was far more besides on offer.
The organisers put together a bold, carefully considered, long-prepared and important session to explore the archaeological traces of the major impacts of the right-wing government policies the 1979-1990 Thatcher adminstration on the material cultures, communities and landscapes of Britain and further afield. To my mind, as a participant, the results were an overwhelming success and the closest I have seen in recent years to the vision and originality of archaeological thinking and its application to a specific theme that the TAG venue can facilitate.
Responses to this session fell into two camps. Both were important and of equal merit, although my personal research interests focus on the second.
First, there were those who took the opportunity of this session to reflect on the profound impact of the Thatcher government’s impact and legacy on the UK heritage sector. Here we had discussions of the development of developer-funded excavation, changes in the management of ancient monuments and historic buildings, and the teaching of archaeology in Higher Education to cite but a few of the themes.
Second, there were those who were more interested in using the theme of the session to explore the contemporary archaeology of the last 30-35 years, focusing on themes that, wholly or in part, reflect the social, economic and ideological impact and legacy of the Thatcher era. Here, we had studies of the Falklands Conflict, the miners’ strike, the sell-off of council housing, business parks, urban parks, cold war archaeology (bunkers beneath public buildings for example), the iconic H-blocks of the Maze prison and the hunger strikes of Northern Ireland, Thatcher’s legacy on UK homelessness and, finally, the archaeology of Margaret Thatcher herself (posing the question, what places and material traces can be composed of the Iron Lady herself beyond the media representations and narratives?).
Comparative perspectives were also in evidence with contributions from Spain and the Ukraine, providing insights into both of these camps of papers.
I should say that there were those that contributed to both these themes, since they are connected. For example much of the work on the recording, preservation and rehabilitation of post-industrial landscapes and communities by heritage professionals involves engagement with the people and landscapes most deeply affected by Thatcher’s government’s policies, as for example, in coal-mining communities and docklands. Likewise, the study of an early 1980s stone circle in Glasgow showed how an incomplete and ‘replica’ ancient monument constructed in the early Thatcher era provides a microcosm of complex ways the Tory legacy towards working class urban communities is enshrined in the landscape.
There were inevitably themes and aspects that deserved coverage but escaped attention. For me, with my funerary bias, I was struck by how much more could have been said (by me and others) regarding the process of memorialisation of the 1980s era. For while I addresseed the commemoration of the Falklands Conflict, the commemoration of mining, docks and other areas where communities are deeply affected by the changes of the 1980s received limited attention. Likewise, the changes taking place in the ownership, management, spatial organisation, monuments and material cultures of death, from the NHS, hospices, undertaking industry, crematoria and cemeteries, deserves further scrutiny in relation to the session theme. Even Thatcher’s funeral, its mobilisation of space, people and material cultures, could have received further discussion than it did.
Still, this was a fascinating session. The political voices of archaeology, the tensions between heritagisation and archaeological practice in operation in the British landscape, and whether we, as archaeologists, have responsibilities to those affected by the Thatcher era’s policies and ideology, were at the heart of many of the discussions.
For me, it encouraged my thinking about the commemoration of the Falklands Conflict, a 74-day conflict in 1982 between Argentina and the UK over the South Atlantic islands of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. I explored how the conflict is commemorated commemorated through a complex set of materials and spaces. I focused on the newly constructed South Atlantic Task Force Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, to illustrate how the translation of stone from, and the replication of memorials on, the Falkland Islands serves to enmeshed this memorial to the South Atlantic. It also prompted me to think further about how conflict commemoration attempts to ‘forget’ the political contexts in which conflicts are initiated and enacted. My point about the Falklands was that Thatcher’s government and her political identity, including the mandate for radical social policies at home, were defined by the Falklands. Her public duties once out of office increasingly defined herself in relation to the memorialisation of the Falklands through her opening of many memorial gardens, statues and buildlings. At her death, the military honours and regiments who served in the Falklands dominated her funeral. Yet, I suggested, the commemoration of the Falklands no longer needs her. It is distributed, traditional, embedded in former and subsequent conflicts, and thus, while nationalist, is also firmly military/regimental, community and family-orientated. Commemoration remains the domain of veterans and Thatcher and her government are sidelined.
And yet, ironcially, the distributed, personal and military commemoration of the Falklands is the result of her governments attitude to veterans and charity-funded initiatves; a laissez-faire memorial mania in which the government has limited intervention. Hence, only 30 years after the conflict is there a national memorial outside of St Pauls Cathedral to those who served, including those wounded and those who lost their lives. I aim to work further in developing my thinking on contemporary commemorative places and material cultures, so this opportunity to discuss the Falkland Islands in such an exciting session was a real treat.