I have been watching the coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher this morning with a certain amount of awe, if for no other reason that people are daring to remark that she was not their favourite Prime Minister of the UK, and she did a lot of damage, through her policies, not only throughout the British Isles, but throughout the world.
That’s as it should be. People do not suddenly become saints when they die simply _because_ they die – at the very least, it should be obvious that people who do very bad things when they are alive do not become saints.
Granted, some go over the top and dance a little jig, or say that they’re glad she’s dead – which I agree is too much. But given that conservatives and libertarians all over the world are probably going to try and canonise Mrs. Thatcher, it is not only a mark of courage, but a required service, that others say “Well, no, she doesn’t deserve that.” (Indeed, I wish people had done the same when Ronald Reagan died. “Saint Ronnie” is getting pretty old.)
I was principally following coverage of the “responses to the death of Thatcher” on the live blog of The Guardian. The kinds of responses various leaders and prominent individuals gave offer a vast cornucopia of the varied kinds of rhetorical devices one can use to respond to the death of someone with whom one has had, shall we say, “issues”. Some bore fangs and threatened to rip into the carcass before rigor mortis had even set in, while others attempted to hide their dislike behind “friendly” pretty-sounding and falsely-ringing clichés. A select few managed to demonstrate their anger at what Mrs. Thatcher had been in life without stooping so far as to gloat over her death.
Some examples of each now follow.
Unhinged hatred: Respect Party MP George Galloway, as he so often does, led in this department. He uncorked a tweet on Twitter reading thusly when he first heard the news: “Tramp the dirt down.” Later we heard that this was a popular culture reference, so obviously Mr. Galloway only wanted to alert us to the superior musical stylings of Elvis Costello, right? Nope. Later on he had more to say: “Thatcher described Nelson Mandela as a ‘terrorist’. I was there. I saw her lips move. May she burn in the hellfires.” I can’t help thinking that this was the tack Mr. Galloway wanted to take because people know him primarily as someone shepherds cash to Hamas, who are terrorists without quote marks, who also, amusingly, talk a lot about people burning in hellfires. I assume this is where Mr. Galloway picked that expression up.
Friendly drivel: Sadly, Barack Obama wins the prize for this. Here is what he said: “With the passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.” I’m sorry, but…barf. Margaret Thatcher looked no more like a real partisan of freedom and liberty than the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion looks like Calvin Coolidge (to paraphrase James Thurber…always liked that line.) If anything, Mrs. Thatcher debased the very concepts of freedom and liberty, reducing them to the freedom and liberty of the rich to own the poor. Mr. President, we deserved better – if you had spent more time focusing on what Thatcherism really was while making your comments, perhaps fewer people would worry that you’ll let it survive Mrs. Thatcher and prevail in the next budget negotiations.
Exactly the right words: There were actually quite a few examples of this. My favourite was former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock’s description of Thatcher as “an unmitigated disaster” for Britain. That doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but Kinnock was also capable of seeing Thatcher as human. Here’s the full quote – “She was not a malicious person. She was a person who couldn’t see, or didn’t want to see, the unfairness and disadvantaging consequences of the application of what she thought to be a renewing ideology. Thatcherism was a personality presented through a particular vocabulary and set of attitudes which generally took a pride in insularity, domineering and a short-termism in the approach to management and conduct of political affairs which was conveyed as being for the long-term nourishment and well-being of the nation. But it was a frame of mind, not a political philosophy and not an economic policy. It was an unmitigated disaster for Britain because, if you recall, it commenced with a series of budget changes and use of interest rates which, combined with the fact that oil was monumentally coming on stream, pushed the price of the pound out of sight and succeeded in inflicting devastating harm on the productive base in Britain. That wasn’t modernisation; that was devastation.”
There were other noticeable trends in the rhetoric. People who felt they had to play “neutral” seemed to favour the “Love her or hate her, she sure changed Britain” trope. (This reminds me of music magazines that don’t care about whether music is any good, but are very concerned about how influential it is. Rolling Stone, if it did its Top 100 lists for politicians, would certainly include Mrs. Thatcher in their Top 100 if they could include, say, Guns and Roses in its Top 100 music groups, right?) For the record, I didn’t love her, but regardless, the point is that she changed Britain, and the world, for the worse.
Another popular weasel word was “controversial”, though some people were honest enough to say what is really meant by this in Mrs. Thatcher’s case – “divisive”. It may be “controversial” to wreck communities and substitute unbridled avarice, but really that isn’t my take on Thatcherism. Indeed, it’s just the opposite – she made it mainstream to wreck communities and substitute unbridled avarice. Now people who want to do that are taken to be normal and not at all “controversial”.
Geopolitical axes were also ground in responses. The Zimbabweans, for example, thanked Thatcher for the Lancaster House accords – basically in order to use her death to complain that Tony Blair subsequently had not honoured them. The Argentineans groused about the Falkland Islands, while actual residents of the Falklands used the opportunity to go outside and flap Union Jacks in the breeze.
The South African government dignified itself by pointing out that, yes, Mrs. Thatcher had called the ANC a terrorist group and had generally been unhelpful during the struggle against apartheid – but also pointing out that the past is the past: “The ANC was on the receiving end of her policy in terms of refusing to recognise the ANC as the representatives of South Africans and her failure to isolate apartheid after it had been described as a crime against humanity; however, we acknowledge that she was one of the strong leaders in Britain and Europe to an extent that some of her policies dominate discourse in the public service structures of the world. Long after her passing on, her impact will still be felt and her views a subject of discussion. The ANC extends its condolences to her family, her loved ones and the people of Britain. May her soul rest in peace!”
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin and former IRA leader, was long on the criticism but short on any well wishes to someone he obviously still thinks of as the enemy: “Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British prime minister. Working class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies. Her role in international affairs was equally belligerent whether in support of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, her opposition to sanctions against Apartheid South Africa; and her support for the Khmer Rouge.” (All of this is true, but the bit about the Khmer Rouge I find interesting – why does Sinn Féin, normally such a booster of Third World lefty dictatorships, find Thatcher’s support for the Khmer Rouge problematic? Probably there’s no better reason than that the Cambodians were at that time fighting the Vietnamese, and Sinn Féin/the IRA had simply backed a different Communist horse. Interesting he would bring that up now, though.)
But at the end of the day, if you want to follow the old “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” adage, but you have to do it about Margaret Thatcher, what _do_ you say? (Writing a few blank lines because you can’t say what you really think would come off as passive-aggressive.)
There were two things people could genuinely say. First, it could be said that she was “the first woman prime minister of the UK” (it’s naturally a good thing that there was one, even if it had to be her). Second, it could be said that she showed assertive leadership could “move the centre of politics” (and if that can be done, perhaps it can be done again…for better purposes, this time.)
Let those be the only two nice things I say today about Margaret Thatcher. I’m genuinely sorry for her loss to family and friends. The rest of us, though, will probably be fine.