There are many rituals surrounding the placement of a new Japanese Emperor on the Chrysanthemum Throne. Perhaps the most peculiar is the would-be emperor’s encounter with aquasi-sacred, 1300-year-old bronze mirror, the Yata no Kagami. This object, which embodies ‘wisdom’, is so enigmatic the aspirant emperor isn’t even allowed to see it; instead, functionaries are sent to assure the mirror of the new emperor’s fidelity. Some historians believe the mirror no longer exists, and was lost in a fire in Honshu’s Ise Shrine, 980 years ago.
Thus it is with Labour leaders and Margaret Thatcher. Ever since the departure of the Iron Lady, aspiring or actual Labour prime ministers have made obeisance to the strange, overpowering ghost of British politics, years after her retirement and death, when her continued omnipresence is therefore a kind of Zen mystery.
Tony Blair, as ever, got in his fealty precociously early. As a young Labour frontbencher, he expressed his high regard for her election winning clarity, and her stance as ‘a moderniser against outdated collectivism’. As he said: ‘she goes right to the heart.’
Gordon Brown was more begrudging. Nonetheless, when he became PM in 2007 he described her as a ‘conviction politician’ who ‘saw the need for change’; he also invited her for tea at Number 10. Likewise, in 2014, then leader of the opposition Ed Miliband signalled his admiration for Baroness Thatcher’s ‘sense of purpose’, which enabled her to make crucial ‘public service reforms’. And now, of course, we have Sir Keir Starmer, who wrote and spoke, yesterday, of his respect for her ‘driving mission’ and his awe at the way ‘she sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism’.
Indeed, the one Labour leader who has not performed this ritualised, kowtowing abasement before the mirror of Maggie’s soul is Jeremy Corbyn. And where is he now? Virtually thrown out of the party in disgrace, after delivering Labour’s worst defeat in eight decades. You can see, therefore, why superstitious Labour leaders feel a need to genuflect before the fearsome totem of La Thatch.
All of which would be funny, yet parochial, if this was merely a British phenomenon. But it isn’t. I first personally realised that Mrs Thatcher was a planet-wide icon in Egypt in the late 1980s. Barely out of my teens, I climbed in a taxi in Cairo, discovered the driver was garrulous and good at English – then I heard a paean of praise for Margaret Thatcher.