Great Britain

'Mini Brexit': Margaret Thatcher's statue divides her hometown

For a small town in Lincolnshire, which Margaret Thatcher once called home, it’s been an issue as divisive as Brexit: Should Grantham erect a statue commemorating the UK’s first female prime minister?

It’s a simple enough question, but the process of erecting a statue of the Iron Lady, created by sculptor Douglas Jennings has been a long, painstaking and arduous process. The statue was rejected by Westminster council in central London in 2018 because councillors feared it would be a magnet for vandalism and protests.

It was then offered to her home town of Grantham and, following a brisk debate by the planning committee, was approved in 2018. Some hoped that would be the end of it, but the statue remained stored away.

The council’s controversial decision to underwrite a £100,000 unveiling ceremony on Tuesday then reignited the debate on whether the statue should be erected. The vote, in the middle of a global pandemic that has sparked the deepest recession in a generation, has been heavily criticised.

Lee Steptoe, chair of Grantham Labour, said: “We find that in the middle of a pandemic, when the public coffers both on a national level and a local level, are emptying very quickly, their sense of priorities to be absolutely perverse.”

He added: “She was arguably the most divisive prime minister this country’s has ever had and this is an incredibly divisive decision by the local Tories.”

For Amanda Schonhut, director of fundraising for Grantham Museum, which is run by Grantham Community Heritage Association (GCHA), had been pushing to have the statue stand on a green midway between two existing statues, one of the 19th-century MP Frederick James Tollemache and another of Sir Isaac Newton, this is an important step forward.

“It’s been a long hard road. There’s been a few knocks and bumps along the way,” Schonhut said. “It’s nice to see things finally coming to fruition.”

A glass case displaying memorabiblia from Margaret Thatcher in the Grantham Museum. Amanda Schonhut, director of the museum said the cost of the unveiling was being funded through private donations.
A glass case displaying memorabilia from Margaret Thatcher in the Grantham Museum. Amanda Schonhut, director of the museum said the cost of the unveiling was being funded through private donations. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

She was keen to stress that the cost of the unveiling would come from private donations, but accepts the issue will continue to divide the town. “It’s been a bit like a mini Brexit,” she said. She hopes it’ll attract visitors to the museum and the local area.

Labour have called for the statue to be displayed within the museum.

Adam Burgess who lives in Stamford said he was ashamed by the announcement that the council would underwrite the unveiling . “In the area we’re living in we’re seeing a huge number of homeless people, we’re seeing food banks springing up all over the place.”

Burgess added that given Thatcher’s controversial legacy it was a “poorly judged decision” to push ahead with the statue. “There’s got to be better ways to spend that money. To erect a statue of someone who was so divisive and caused a lot of heartache for the working class just seemed like a pretty shit decision, to be honest.”

Ralph Harrison, a retired civil servant who lives in Grantham, disagreed and was pleased that the statue will be put up and soon be unveiled. “It’s a relatively small town that has produced somebody that is known in the world stage and will be in the history books.

“I appreciate there are lots of different views on Margaret Thatcher, she is a very controversial figure, but it’s a question of achievement. She achieved something when becoming the first woman prime minister.”

Independent councillor Ashley Baxter said there had been two notable changes since the council gave permission for the statue to be erected. “The first significant change is that we are now being told that there is a risk that we will have to underwrite the cost of the unveiling event. And the second thing is the whole statue controversy leading with Black Lives Matter and the Edward Coulson statue incident in Bristol and statues around the world. People are questioning a lot more the merit of having statues of divisive figures.”

He added: “I think we really need to think carefully before we go ahead with this, in terms of the policing, in terms of security, in terms of the reputation of the town, there are questions to be asked.”

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