Try to understand my Thatcher. I’ll try to understand yours.
I am most definitely not a child of Thatcher. Perhaps few people can claim that, but, through a strange combination of timing and circumstance, I can. When I first came to the UK in 1990, the bulk of the debate on her central policies of privatisation and deregulation, had already taken place here. It was very much in its infancy back home and didn’t really become the vogue on the rest of the continent until the following decade. Essentially, I took a strange leap in time – from the fierce battle between neoliberalism and socialism, almost straight to the Blair/Major accord which refused to engage in such ideological debate.
I missed the chit-chat. I just saw the effect. I remember the despair I felt when I first witnessed hundreds of people sleeping in Waterloo’s cardboard city – I had never before seen a homeless person. I remember wondering whether I had made a huge mistake in selecting this country as my home, as gay bars in Soho were raided and closed down. I remember laughing with incredulity at a friend telling me her parents were charging her rent for staying at home, before realising she was being serious. I remember the sickening confusion as I watched people beaten to a pulp during the poll tax riots. I remember crying as my father-in-law became bankrupt for the third time in ten years and had to ask us for a loan.
It is such a collection of unique stimuli which forms the basis for an individual’s reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher. I am baffled by the refusal of some people to see that; as the experience is different for each of us, so must the reaction be. Your adulation of the woman is as valid or invalid as my deep dislike of her. “Disrespect” is not the expression of a sentiment with which you disagree. “Disrespect” is quite different from attempting to penetrate a bubble of idolatry with dissenting opinion, divergent life experience or inconvenient fact.
I might advance the view that disrespect is reducing a Prime Minister’s political legacy to having “beautiful hands and lovely ankles” rather than Glenda Jackson’s biting critique of her politics. I might advance the view that disrespect is using her death as an opportunity to promote your fashion blog; that disrespect is needlessly interrupting a vital trade mission and recalling Parliament at great expense, when Thatcher herself refused to interrupt such engagements and return, even when her political future hung in the balance.
Saying she was the greatest ever Prime Minister, is not a personal eulogy. It is a political comment on the course of action she pursued while in post. It is not disrespectful to point out that not everyone feels this way. That the parking of millions on sick benefit was a cruel act, the consequences of which reverberate in today’s welfare debate. That the decimation of entire mining communities is directly related to the current discussion of “problem families that have not worked for [insert dramatic number] generations”. That her claim of turning the City into “the financiers of the world” has a direct impact on the magnitude of the 2008 financial crisis with which we still struggle. That her selling off of utility companies gave birth to current discontent about energy companies profiteering and fuel poverty. That her imposition of the poll tax on Scotland a year earlier than the rest of the UK revitalised today’s appetite for an independence referendum. That her attitude to Europe set the deeply adversarial tone with which every subsequent administration has had to contend. That the sinking of the Belgrano was seen by much of the rest of the world as needless loss of life, rather than patriotic act of defiance, and the hostility it engendered is one of the obstacles to forming close trade relations with the developing economies of Latin America.
To respond to these concerns with hysterical pieces claiming “the trendy, left-wing gadflies celebrating Margaret Thatcher’s death would probably be rotting in the Gulag if it wasn’t for the Iron Lady” does not detract from the legitimacy of the view that what is taking place is an evangelically fervent process of beatification and the rewriting of history. It adds to it. Especially coming from the mouths of the same people who, with equal fervour, advocated the benefits of a “raucous, irreverent press” mere days ago.
I had some sympathy for the argument that it is insensitive to speak up on such matters in the immediate aftermath of someone’s death, while those to whom she meant a lot grieve and offer their tributes. But that is not what has largely occurred. What has occurred is a circle-jerk of personal anecdote, engaged in with lachrymose alacrity and for political gain. The text has been in the broad style of “I once saw Dear Margaret in a corridor when I was working as a researcher at the age of 16, I collected the marigold which dropped from her lapel, I have pressed it between the pages of my teenage diary, here it is”. The palpable subtext, meanwhile, has been “we must be brave again, sell anything that is not nailed down, punish the undeserving poor, because it is what She would have wanted”.
Heterodoxy is not heresy. Abstention is not snub. Disagreement is not disrespect. Formulating a strategy for turning someone’s death into a “polls bounce” is. A party cannot claim that she was the last Prime Minister to radically change the direction of travel of this country and simultaneously suggest that where that journey has led is nothing to do with her. A party cannot claim that everything she did was simply perfect and simultaneously deny its own 1990 consensus that she had gone off the rails and the act of political matricide that followed. Your deep guilt and shame over deposing her is not reason enough for all others unquestioningly to allow her posthumous canonisation.
I get it. I just don’t agree.