I came across the clip of BBC presenter Matthew Amroliwala getting Theresa May confused with Margaret Thatcher on BBC News back on 4 November 2020 when scrolling through Twitter, where it was met with total hilarity that only in 2020 would Margaret Thatcher return from the dead. And I laughed, what a royal f*ck up from the presenter and what a harrowing thought about Thatcher returning from the dead. But past the humour, something about it didn’t quite sit right with me.
Thatcher’s been dead since 2013. May is our most recent Prime Minister before Boris Johnson – she resigned in July 2019. Their resignations are 20 years apart. The defining factors of Margaret Thatcher’s 11 year premiership were things such as the Miner’s Strike (no explanation needed), the Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland (where Bobby Sands literally starved to death in 1981) and her “property owning democracy” (her way of trying to win over Labour voters by involving them in her fantasy that thrift and hard work will get you everything you need and want). To compare, Theresa May spent her 3 years as Prime Minister dealing almost entirely with the Brexit negotiations, appeasing the DUP (giving Northern Ireland £1 billion in return for DUP support) to retain a majority in the House of Commons and pushed through the Investigatory Powers Act 2019, which increased the state’s surveillance powers to a frightening level.
Similarities are few and far between. Take the EU; Theresa May was a Eurosceptic but voted Remain. Margaret Thatcher looked for a close economic union with the EU, seen by the role that Britain played in the creation of the Single Market in 1986, but was reluctant regarding a close political union. She stated in her Bruges Speech her thoughts of the EU as a ‘European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels’ that she was highly sceptical of, and it has been said that Thatcher’s neoliberal legacy created the economic basis for Brexit. So no poignant similarities here. Margaret Thatcher would stick to her guns no matter what or who stood in her way (I repeat, Bobby Sands). Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister was quite different – she adopted an entirely tactical approach where she was willing to adjust depending on the scenario and who she needed to keep on side, for example trying to negotiate a Brexit deal despite voting Remain herself. This compares drastically to Thatcher whose demise in 1991 was caused by her Cabinet and high ranking Tories finally turning against her and advising that she resigns. May’s time as Prime Minister was spent almost entirely dealing with Brexit. However, her stint as Home Secretary was a little different – pushing her right wing agenda, May sought to try and give Ofcom the power to vet TV programmes before they were broadcasted, so essentially mass censorship. She also pursued a totally inhumane stance on immigration where she openly admitted to wanting to “create a hostile environment” for illegal migrants, which includes refugees. Her attitudes towards immigration created what has been correctly called a ‘poisonous legacy’. So as you may be able to tell, both Thatcher and May are so far from my cup of tea it’s hard to put it into polite words. But that doesn’t stop me from finding the comparison of the two wrong, and offensive. The poignant similarities I can point out is that they are the only two female Prime Ministers Britain has ever had. And both Conservative, further right than central. That’s about it. Oh, and they were both obsessed with maintaining ‘law and order’, happily at the expense of civil liberties. Even if I engage in the classic aesthetic analysis that everyone seems to get involved in when it comes to powerful women, they don’t even look similar.
As soon as Theresa May became Prime Minister the comparisons came thick and fast – the Telegraph claimed that ‘The Tory Party may have found another Iron Lady in Theresa May’. But why say this when you can’t actually call them similar leaders. That’s if we are to compare them for what they did, rather than what they are. The Tory Party hadn’t found another Iron Lady at all, they had just found another female to lead. Now tell me, why aren’t we getting those 53 male Prime Ministers mixed up and avidly comparing one to the other? David Cameron literally tried to be the Tory Tony Blair (calling himself the ‘heir to Blair’ before continuing Blair’s policies himself) at the start of his leadership, but he didn’t spend his whole premiership being compared to his predecessor. Theresa May has dealt with people comparing her to Thatcher despite herself never mentioning nor wanting that. Joe Biden has confused Theresa May with Margaret Thatcher twice, and he’s been in the same room as Thatcher. The truth is, all Theresa May needed for people to compare her to Thatcher was a vagina, because we’ve had so little female Prime Ministers that people just can’t help themselves. And in fact, so few powerful females in governments around the world. Take note that German newspapers called May the ‘British Angela Merkel’ despite Merkel’s stance on politics being starkly different to that of May, using their polar opposite approaches to the refugee crisis as an example. Theresa May spent her entire leadership being compared to past and present women that she was not similar to. Are these women so insignificant in what they stood for and what they did that comments can just be thrown around left, right and centre comparing them to the next woman to lead a country?
So that’s why Matthew Amroliwala getting May confused with Thatcher on BBC News doesn’t sit right with me. Take away the funny thought about Thatcher coming back from the dead, and think about how insignificant the two must be for them to be mixed up. Now I’m not saying that it was a conscious thought of Matthew Amroliwala or that it’s sexist or anything like that. I just don’t think people should overlook what it actually represents. And the fact that no one is offended by it either, passing it off as some funny joke without analysing it a bit further, is proof that no one watching it really cares about the notion of comparing two completely different women to one another just because they are women. Long term, the way to solve the problem of women Prime Ministers being constantly compared to previous women, is to have more female Prime Ministers. Let the novelty wear off. But short term, we should all make an effort not to just compare women to other women just for the sheer fact that they are female. And we should stop finding it entertaining when others do.
And I can’t say that I’m not entirely frustrated that both of them would hate the idea of being compared to one another, knowing that it’s because they are both women, yet when they were in office neither did anything for female empowerment or gender equality. In fact, they made gender equality worse – their symbolic position of power as Prime Minister did more to hide gender disparity than make people want to fight for it. And they themselves gave no indication that they gave a shit about helping other women succeed like they had.