Last week the sporting world was rocked by the announcement of the impending and unpredicted retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s long-serving manager. For those who have joyously or jealously followed his many achievements, this was an era-defining “where were you when?” moment to rival any example from recent British history (in football or otherwise), such as Margaret Thatcher’s sudden resignation in 1990 or, more recently, her death last month.
Certainly the ground shook both within and without the United Kingdom when Fergie resigned and Thatcher died, although by how much has been the matter of recent discussion on social media.
According to Twitter, more than six million mentions of Sir Alex were made worldwide on the microblogging site in the 24 hours after it was revealed he would leave United.
To give you some idea of the relative significance of that number, the election of Pope Francis, the leader of the estimated 1.2bn members of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, generated 7m tweets in a similar time period earlier this year. Baroness Thatcher’s death, by contrast, garnered 1m tweets in the first four hours after her death before the conversation slowed down.
The question of how history has judged and will judge Baroness Thatcher’s 11 years in Downing Street is the subject of an absorbing interview given by Charles Moore, the official biographer of the former British prime minister (see page 8 of this week’s issue).
Moore – who has just published the first 859-page volume of Not For Turning, his exhaustive two-part exploration of Thatcher’s life and political times – is in no doubt. He believes historians will eventually put Thatcher at the top of the pile: “In her era,” Moore tells The National, “she is the biggest of the lot, in terms of personal impact. She is already like Elizabeth I, Nelson or Churchill.”
She may well eventually be regarded as such, but the immediate reaction to her death was neither universally laudatory nor especially benign.
No one reporting on her passing – no matter which side of the political fence they stood on – could resist the line that Thatcher “divided a nation” in life and death, which represented a neat way of saying her opponents were legion. More than 22 years after she left office, the wounds inflicted by Thatcherism (both perceived and real), remain unhealed in large swathes of the nation over which she ruled.
Thatcher never won a majority of the popular vote in the three general elections she contested in Britain – the high-tide of her popularity was 43.9 per cent in 1979, an oddity of statistics and, indeed, the British first-past-the-post political system – which probably explains why there was no shortage of critical voices after she died, but not the relative quiet of “only” 1m tweets on social media.
Now compare this to Sir Alex Ferguson – although the man himself, a lifelong Labour party supporter, would shudder at any such correlation.
He was simply the single greatest manager in the history of British (perhaps world) football, and some of Ferguson’s success can be attributed to the “them against us” mentality he fostered in the dressing room and in the stands.
He was, in his way, every bit as divisive as Thatcher and, given the tribal nature of football supporters – 19 teams stood in his way in the league every season, more in the cup competitions United contested – there should be a substantial majority saying not very nice things about him.
Thankfully there aren’t and Ferguson’s legacy will probably live on untarnished. Not even the most scheming revisionist would yet dare muster a bad word against him. Time runs out on the Ferguson era tomorrow afternoon and, to appropriate some of Moore’s words on Thatcher, history will judge him in the best possible terms: in his era, perhaps in any era, he is the greatest of them all.