This is a conspiracy

by robertmcnicol

Hello. Both of you were no doubt as saddened to learn of the death of Margaret Thatcher as I was. The absolutely very latest most up-to-date latest recent latest news on her death and its aftermath is that there’s been a campaign to raise funds for a memorial library. Which has been running since 2009. As well as portraying this as sudden and surprising, our thoroughly partisan news sources have slathered over this not-really-news their inevitable sheen of invisibly veiled distaste or celebration.

But it is interesting. The library is claimed to be inspired in particular by Reagan’s presidential library; not surprising, perhaps, although I think it’s salient to understand a little more about the US presidential libraries before we decide whether this library is A Good Thing.

It wasn’t until toward the end of watching all of the West Wing that I became curious about US presidential libraries; at the start of season 7, we are saccharinely tantalised with a reunion of some of the main players at the opening of Josiah Bartlet’s Presidential Library. Chortles are exchanged, elbows are meaningfully gripped, rueful glances shared, as we and Martin Sheen’s teeth wait for the arrival of the sitting president, Bartlet’s successor. Of course, at this stage we still have a whole season to wait to find out whether [oh cripes, how shall we play this…?] Senator Ralph Owen Brewster is victorious over Senator Bail Organa [yep, I think that went well]. Spoiler: OBAMA TOTALLY PWNED THE OTHER GUY!!!

Wikipedia usefully tells us that:

the presidential library system is a nationwide network of 13 libraries [which] … are repositories for preserving and making available the papers, records, collections and other historical materials of every President of the United States since Herbert Hoover.

As with so much else, it all began with FDR when he decided that the personal and official documents produced by the president should be preserved for the nation. Of course, with FDR we also see a significant shift in political power toward the executive branch of government, as well as a significant increase in government size and operations, that has arguably not waned since. So it makes sense that he (and subsequent presidents; they were hardly shy retiring types) would want a library, and that the nation would obviously gain from the collection of this archive rather than its dissemination to friends, political parties, interest groups or memorabiliarists.

The LRB had an interesting (or maybe just long) piece recently on US democracy, how it might self-correct or at least fluctuate, whether it is in decline. You can read it here if you subscribe (or listen to a related podcast if you don’t). But one aspect only tangentially addressed therein, which I think is important in the longevity and seeming success of the american democratic system, is its self-interest. Politicians, particularly those who have held high office, are frequently fascinated with the recording of themselves and their work. The Nixon tapes are the infamous example, but it is in the very essence of US democracy – the (written!) constitution, the bill of rights, the declaration of independence – that democracy can only happen because it is written down that it has happened and that it will continue to happen in this particular way. Speilberg’s excellent Lincoln also showed us how that president was fascinated with the interpretation of these texts, and how – because of his position – his interpretation was part of their future history. Whether they repeat their failures or not, US politicians are students of their forbears.

In the UK, of course, we have a differently organised democracy. Our head of state is unelected, and her words are unrecorded. Her seeming lack of intervention in the workings of government (and therefore lack of official political archive) is arguably an accident of previous regal indifference, and is – to some degree, and certainly as it pertains to the machinations of her eldest son – a myth anyhow. Or more charitably, more conservatively, we might say that this arrangement whereby the monarch does not pronounce but privately, gently cajoles her hapless ministers, is a typical British fudge, a passive aggressive deliberate indecision whereby we the people let our moderate distaste at royal imperatives be quietly known and our timid, sensitive princes react accordingly. We tried beheading once…

Our democracy, as well as being part of the constitutional monarchy, is – unlike the US system – parliamentary, our constitution unwritten. Which is not to say that we too aren’t obsessed with archiving; without our written laws we would be ungovernable. The workings of the executive are, for us, ghosted onto the sovereign laws of parliament; for us no executive orders but rather the green and white papers and Statutory Instruments and Hansard and bills, stored safely in the vast concrete vaults at Kew. But there isn’t the interest in documenting and understanding the process and the politics and the personalities of government by the government itself. We leave this to newspapers or documentarists or academia, but it is not seen as a public good to understand why – say – Gordon Brown was able to stop an international banking collapse whilst his government was disintegrating. We therefore do nothing to keep this information in the public domain.

Two further contrasts with the US, rightly picked out by Runciman in the LRB piece; First, the transparency of the US democratic process. US politicians and bureaucrats are ridiculously open about what they do and why, when they’re doing it (they are also, of course and paradoxically, incredibly secretive at the same time). We are not; particularly since the rise of Blair’s sofa cabinets and the warmongering that led us into Iraq and – again paradoxically – the freedom of information act, the UK government seems less transparent. Second, the regularity of US elections – Runciman’s excellent hook for the piece. This is of course a cipher for the pomp and importance granted democracy; through repetition comes remembering. Our haphazard electoral cycle (now cowardly and un-Britishly regularised by the Tories) has thus far served our collective memory poorly. If a prime minister were to last a mere 119 days, would he merit remembrance with an archive? Well , yes. Probably.

The foundation proposed for Thatcher is, of course, not a public archive. This would be a place entirely funded and promoted by those who want to “protect her legacy“. Whilst – to be fair – they state that the library would welcome visitors and exhibits from those that “continue to oppose her achievements”, the wording of this and the unashamed delight in all things Thatcher that the organisers exhibit suggest that this establishment is unlikely to do anything more than pay lip-service to dissenting voices. I hope they prove me wrong.

To return for the last time to the US. The Nixon presidential library only became a federal institution in 2007, 17 years after opening as a privately run organisation (without the full access to or archive of official documents, which were maintained separately by the government). This private organisation sought to portray Watergate as

an orchestrated effort by Democrats to overturn the 1972 election.

Whilst we can agree in the multiplicity of historical truths, I think we can also agree that this isn’t one of them. It was only with the oversight of government that the Watergate exhibition was changed to something a little more balanced.

The joke doing the rounds regarding Thatcher’s funeral is that it should be privatised; that’s what she would have wanted! Boom boom. Except it wasn’t what she wanted; Thatcher fully agreed to let the masses pick up the tab for her glorification. And I’m sure that Thatcher was more than happy for this library to be privately funded; she would be thrilled to see the power of enterprise and charitable donations and corporate sponsorship and cold hard cash come together in memorialising her words and deeds. I just wish that we had got there first. For, if the Richard Nixon Presidential Library teaches us anything, it is that only through the collective endeavour of the people, by the people, for the people, might we ensure that the true legacy of our great and terrible leaders shall not perish from the earth*.

*PS – really, really sorry Mr Lincoln.