Songs as Historical Sources – Margaret Thatcher

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Researching our new programme on Margaret Thatcher, it became clear to me that her influence touches on almost every aspect of British life. Selecting a small number of sources was difficult due to the sheer scope of her influence and how to convey it.

We work hard to make sure that our sources not only provide students with raw information but also give them sense of the atmosphere and context of historical events. As the saying goes, the past is a foreign country, and this became very clear in developing our Thatcher programme.

So much of what Thatcher did has become political orthodoxy – privatisation, rhetorical conflict with the European Union, the elimination of coal, marginalisation of trade unions, that it can be difficult for younger generations to grasp why she is still so viscerally hated by some in the UK and Ireland.

Those who opposed her vision for society frequently did so through popular music, an expression of political activism that has become far more unusual today. Musicians tend to avoid direct engagement with day-to-day politics now, whereas protest songs of one form or another were a staple of the popular music under Thatcher. In fact, Margaret Thatcher is undoubtedly the subject of more songs than any other Prime Minister, and by a large margin. Music has remained key to Thatcher’s legacy to this day: Ding Dong the Witch is Dead reached No. 2 in the British charts after she passed away.

Using songs as sources can help student to appreciate the era in a number of ways. The content of these political songs can be analysed in the same way as any other written source, and you can often find references to a whole host of government policies in just a few lines. Musicians also frequently drew connections between different policies in ways that seemed logical at the time, but are now less obvious. For example, contrasts are frequently drawn between unemployment, rising violence in society versus the bright image of England that Thatcher put forward. This can help students to understand her appeal to those sections of society that were not exposed to this violence and the disillusionment experienced by those who felt their communities were being torn apart.

Also, highlighting the fact that musicians regularly sang about the prime minister helps to get across how Thatcher was in an all-consuming cultural presence in Britain during her terms in office, in a way that no subsequent prime minister was.  Furthermore, it is worth considering why the overwhelming majority, if not all, of the songs that mention Thatcher and her policies do so in a negative context. Why were musicians in particular so vocal in opposing her politics?

At Parallel Histories we believe in expanding the range of what is traditionally considered a historical source, and I think you will agree that students will enjoy the change of pace of examining a song and music video rather than a dry text. At times it may feel like an English lesson more than a history lesson, but by bringing in a bit of historical context, a few lines from a song can illustrate more than an entire newspaper article.

Below are some of the most striking examples that can be used in the classroom. Believe it or not, these are just the tip of the iceberg – there are many, many more songs that discuss her influence and describe life in Britain at the time. You can see one example below, if you like it, click this to download a pdf pack of many more suggested songs for use as source.

Sinead O’Connor1, Black Boys on Mopeds, 1990

Margaret Thatcher on TV

Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing2

It seems strange that she should be offended

The same orders are given by her3


England’s not the mythical land4 of Madame George and roses

It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds5


  1. One of the first steps in analysing this song would be to look at the author. Who is she? Sinead O’Connor is Irish, is this significant? What is the view of Thatcher in Ireland? O’Connor is an activist, how does this impact on her view of Thatcher? Does it affect how seriously we should take her criticism?
  2. What was happening in China at the time? To understand the song, we need to put it into its historical context. In this case, the Tiananmen Square massacre. What was happened there? Does it connect to the rest of the curriculum, for example the Cold War?
  3. What is O’Connor implying here? She is drawing a connection between the Chinese Communist party using violence against protestors with the British state using the police to terrorise the black community.You can see how this could point could work well in Parallel Histories’ debating structure – you could counter this comparison by arguing that it is unlikely a song like this would be allowed to be released in Communist China – perhaps demonstrating that it is a needlessly provocative comparison.
  4. O’Connor links Thatcher to a ‘mythical’ view of England. What does this mean about Thatcher’s appeal? Was it nostalgic perhaps? O’Connor contrasts the ‘mythical land’ that Thatcher and her followers believe in, with the reality of life for the black community. It illustrates how much of Thatcher’s appeal came from her promotion of an idea of Britain that seemed distant or even false to many communities.
  5. What is she referring to here? A quick google will tell you that O’Connor is referring to Colin Roach. In 1983, Roach, a 21-year-old black man living in Hackney, London was riding his scooter home. He was pursued and stopped by police who believed that the vehicle must have been stolen. Roach was taken to a police station, and while the exact facts of what occurred are not known, he ended up dying from a gunshot wound. Some questions that arise are, were there many other cases like this under Thatcher? What was the state of racial politics while she was Prime Minister?

We can derive several different topics of research and discussion from just six lines and the name of the songwriter. This is the strength of songs as sources – the poetic nature of song lyrics allows for many different issues to be addressed. Often, songs do not address each topic in detail, but they do allow students to see connections between historical events and themes in a way that few other sources can match.