The death of Margaret Thatcher

July 20, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment
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When I was at university, I remember announcing to friends that I’d mark the death of Margaret Thatcher with a bottle of champagne (yeah, I realise the irony of a left-winger buying champagne and yes, I was too smug to realise it at the time). Since I hung with a ‘right-on!’ crowd, my friends hurrahed in agreement, but for one humane objector who grimaced as soon as the words left my mouth. Would you celebrate in the same way, he asked, upon the death of Saddam Hussein? No, I replied, because Thatcher’s government had wreaked havoc on my people in a way that Saddam Hussein had not. It doesn’t reflect well on me that it took a couple of years to renounce this as one of the most profoundly stupid arguments I’d ever made.*

It was bad enough that by making this argument I was privileging nationality, class and even geography over our shared humanity, but to suggest that the death of a woman who led a democratic government was more worthy of celebration than that of a murderous despot who had brutalised his own people was pretty heinous. There really is no moral equivalence.

This ghoulish outburst was motivated by a very personal interpretation of history. The folks I arrogantly referred to as ‘my people’ were are the inhabitants of Barnsley, a colliery town that suffered greatly from Thatcher’s slash & burn approach to government. I was born in the year of the miner’s strike and grew up as the town became overwhelmed with decay. The crime, unemployment, family breakdown and substance abuse that became a fixture of former colliery towns is at least partly attributable to Thatcher’s government, not just in the belligerence she showed in closing the pits, but in the negligence of not even offering the long-term investment in education or the training schemes these unskilled, manual labourers would’ve needed to enter a changing job market.

Everyone on the left who loathes Margaret Thatcher has their own reason, and this mine. The actions of her government and my experience of the consequences were fundamental to shaping my politics and made me rule out ever voting Conservative. But unlike the cocky know-it-all I was four years ago, I won’t be celebrating her death.

The reason why I won’t be celebrating can be found somewhere in that awful Saddam Hussein comparison. Hussein’s death was the end of a brutal, bloody era. Although there was (and still is) no guarantee that Iraq would become the liberal, constitutional democracy the west longs for, there was comfort in knowing that his unique brand of terror, violence and oppression was over. The death of Margaret Thatcher would mark no such historic turning point. For better or worse, Thatcherism remains the economic consensus of British politics: nationalisation is a grievous sin, regulation of business is a form of cruelty, the welfare state is an abomination and allowing trade unions to have greater rights inevitably leads to long winters of discontent. In the years since she left Downing Street, this aspect of her legacy has never been adequately challenged by the major parties and that won’t change with her death.

If there was a party to celebrate the death of Thatcherism, I’d be one of the first to the pub. But since such a wake won’t happen any time soon, all we’re left with is this nasty ‘consolation prize’ of crowing over the death of an elderly woman. In my book, that’s just a little bit sad.

*What made it even sillier is the fact I don’t even really like champagne.

Update: For anyone who doesn’t quite get the context, this is a rather belated addition to the opinion merry-go-round that followed the news that Thatcher might get a state funeral. You’ll find more responses here, here and over at Liberal Conspiracy.

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