Only yesterday, someone tweeted that when asked where he was when he heard that Margaret Thatcher had died, the answer was he was on Twitter on all five occasions. Why people publish hoax death announcements on Twitter I don’t know, much as it’s a mystery why people post derogatory comments on teenagers’ Facebook memorials, but this time I did not quite believe it until I looked again at who was posting the announcement, among them Ed Fraser from Channel 4 News. Almost immediately, some of the people I follow said they might have to leave Twitter, because they could not tolerate a flurry of tweets celebrating her death, and others pointed out that this was an old lady who had dementia and died of a stroke (others have said we shouldn’t be “celebrating a family’s grief”, which I don’t think it is). The BBC has devoted huge news coverage to tributes and interviews about her, among them BBC London which has pulled the drive-time show (normally at 5pm) forward an hour. Glen Greenwald has set out the differences between taking the “don’t speak ill of the dead” attitude when the deceased is a private individual and when he or she is a public figure, particularly a very divisive one, like Thatcher. Thatcher wasn’t an old dictator who died in office, but neither was she the kindly old school dinner lady, and given her legacy, it’s only to be expected that some people in this country are celebrating.
Outsiders may think it entirely fitting that a “great” prime minister is getting huge media coverage, and may not have heard that there are plenty of people not celebrating her life and achievements or mourning. Thatcher did win three general elections, yes, and never lost one (the reason being that her party ejected her because it regarded her as an electoral liability because of the Poll Tax), but in the UK it is possible to win an election outright on the basis of a minority of the votes because your opponents are divided, and she never got 50% or more of the vote even at the height of her popularity. It all depends on how your support is distributed. In international terms, she is best known for defeating the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland islands and for “ending the Cold War”; however, other factors were at play there, including the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the stance of Reagan, the Chernobyl disaster. As for the Falklands, unlike many on the Left I do not object to that war on moral grounds — the islands were occupied by British people and had been for generations even if it had been a Spanish or Argentinian possession previously, and Argentina at the time was ruled by a vicious military dictatorship which fell after they lost that war. However, winning a war over a set of islands with a population in the lower four figures — barely the size of a small town — hardly makes her Winston Churchill.
There was also a petition calling for there not to be a state funeral for her, something that was being suggested some ten years ago when Blair was still PM. However, it was confirmed early on that her funeral would be a “ceremonial” funeral in St Paul’s cathedral in London, that as she had wished, she would not lie in state and all three of the armed forces would be represented. While that is to be expected to some degree that she should be honoured by the establishment, it really should be held on a weekend rather than a working day when a procession through some of the busiest streets in London will cause a tremendous amount of disruption to public and delivery traffic. She was not a generally loved, unifying figure. She did not have any major achievement that benefited everyone. Her policies disproportionately benefited the wealthy, particularly in the south; her answer to the industrial disputes of the 1970s was simply to destroy the industries they worked in, rather than to invest in and modernise them, as the Germans have been doing ever since the War, and the result was mass unemployment and a de-industrialised country that does not make most of the things it uses but is reliant on foreign imports; she sold off much of the country’s social housing stock and did not replace it. People who lived in London in the 1980s and early 90s will remember the huge homelessness problem of that time. She was also notorious for rubbing shoulders with every pro-western third-world dictator from Pinochet to Suharto, as well as the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The Tory press reacted with apoplexy when Blair finally called an end to the open door policy for such people by honouring an international arrest warrant for Pinochet in 1998.
We cannot blame Thatcher for the policies that followed under Major and Blair, but she is often credited with establishing the “consensus” of the “free-market economy” ideology that persists to this day. That ideology included deregulating the City and making London a centre for international finance and haven for the international super-rich, which has pushed the cost of housing in London (and in the wider south-east) up astronomically. You can, of course, still buy houses in some northern towns dirt-cheap — a whole street for the price of a house in London — but they are cheap because there are no jobs nearby. The UK she left behind is perhaps a more high-tech place and a glossier, glassier place, especially down south, but it’s also a harsher place if you are poor, and the rhetoric of the popular press that supported her has continued apace until the present day.
An unpleasant consequence of the saturation coverage of Thatcher’s death is that the legal action against the government over the abolition of Disablity Living Allowance has been cut out of the news since mid-morning after a number of activists managed to get interviews on a number of TV and radio stations over the weekend and this morning. A friend who was interviewed on Sky News (an interview that was syndicated to various commercial radio stations) found that his interview stopped airing as soon as the news of Thatcher’s death broke (he has a collection of his and Sue Marsh’s appearances here). It’s possible that the same long-awaited news that pushed this case out of the news may also dampen the debate about whether child benefit should be restricted for everyone because one guy claimed a lot of it (or his wife and girlfriend did) and then killed several of the children, but it does reflect a lot of effort by some quite ill people to make their case known, only for it to be lost in all the repetitive news and non-stop tributes. It’s true that there are better ways of mending the damage done by Thatcher than by posting hateful messages in response to her death (the Don’t Hate, Donate initiative funds charities that directly respond to Thatcher’s legacy), but really, we shouldn’t get sanctimonious about Thatcher’s death. She had her supporters and she had her bitter opponents, even enemies, which she made for herself. Rejoicing isn’t the most dignified response, but it’s understandable from people who felt the cosh of Thatcher’s police or saw their community destroyed, whether in South Yorkshire or south London.
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- It’s in the Times.