Friday, 12 April 2013

Of course I'm going to blog about Thatcher

The death of Mrs. Thatcher is an event that has been much-anticipated and much-debated in Britain. It has, of course, been an anticlimax; no great voice in the sky spake forth, declaring 'Well done, my children, ye have outlasted the demon I sent to test ye, and now I shall dispose of her disciples'. It does feel a bit like that was what we were expecting/hoping for.

But the death of the woman is not the death of her ideology. If there is literal or metaphorical dancing on her grave, it is premature. Trite though it has already become to say it, her death changes nothing and her poisonous, brutal ideology remains definitive of British politics (and for those of you about to leap to its defence, just don't. There are lots of statistics flying around, but the one that's stuck with me is that apparently under her rule, the proportion of British children living below the poverty line rose from around 14% to around 33%. That is not OK.)

I don't know enough about economics (and I'm tempted to suggest that neither does anyone else - certainly not the vast majority of people) to fairly evaluate the policies that defined Thatcher's reign. I can comment on her leadership style - divisive and at times (section 28, anyone?) outright hateful - and her foreign policy decisions - it probably was right to defend the Falklands, but probably not to sink the Belgrano - but these are not the policies for which she will be most remembered and hated. Instead of any of those discussions, though, I want to pick up on the two themes I've seen most in the responses to her death, and offer an argument that both are wrong, based on two principles of public discourse.

The themes first. These are roughly the dancers on her grave (of whom, in Liverpool, there are a very great many) and the people of my generation and younger who have posted messages saying vague things like 'There was good and bad to her, we should let her family mourn in peace' or 'Now is not the time for a political row'.

It's childish to be vitriolic and hateful. The end of Thatcher's political career was something to celebrate, certainly, but that occurred in about 2002 when health issues forced her to withdraw from public life. The end of her ideology will be something to celebrate if it ever happens, but as long as her vicious, small-minded disciples - Tony Blair, David Cameron, George Osborne - keep their influence, there's very little to celebrate. And it is disrespectful, for all that Thatcher offered very little respect in return.

It is unforgivable, however, to be vague, to refrain from critical engagement. Thatcher is the dominant figure of post-war British politics, probably more responsible for the current (deeply unwelcome) state of modern Britain than anyone else. Her disciples still rule us. To shrink or shirk from confronting them on the subject of her ideology, at this time of all times, is to cede all the current battlegrounds without a fight - a concession we might never recover from.

The principles I want to offer are these: first, that one should only and always speak from knowledge, or to ask questions. I was born in 1987, about four months before Black Monday blew the legs off Thatcherite economics. I can just, I think, remember hearing of her ouster as leader of the Conservative party in 1990 - I have no specific memory, except of the feeling of relief. My three-and-a-half-year-old mind, influenced in the main, I assume, by my stringently cautious, politically moderate father, could only feel that 'the bad guy' had been vanquished (a feeling I have had at every subsequent change of prime minister except the most recent, of course). I have since tried to gain some understanding of the era of my birth, but there is a limit to what one can get from books and BBC documentaries.

Most of my friends, the people I've seen commenting on Thatcher's death, are people younger than me, with less experience, less knowledge of the period. That lack of knowledge has produced childish vitriol and noncommital vagueness in equal measure. The people I know who did live through Thatcher have been fairly silent, either too numbed or too wise to enter the debate. When one of them does choose to speak, however, the results are a dramatic contrast with the deliverances of my generation - this is Russell Brand's contribution (Russell Brand, for crying out loud! If you're less coherent and eloquent than Russell flippin' Brand, you need to stop talking).

My second principle I address not just to those moderates urging compassion for the family, but to those Thatcherite supporters arguing that now is not the time for criticism, because it would be 'disrespectful'. The principle is this: that you do no-one an honour by failing to be honest with or about them. You do not support someone by denying their faults, or allowing their mistakes to go uncorrected. While those using this moment for triumphalism and celebration are out of line, those using this opportunity for a critical review of her policies are doing exactly what must be done.

There will never be a better time to review Thatcher's life. We can now take it as a whole - the things she did will not change, and she can no longer decide to repudiate them or modify her views - but the memories of her tenure are still fresh. We can still find many people who were there, who knew her or who suffered under her policies, to testify. We can still hope to learn, to seek the knowledge from which we can then speak.

Anger will not help the critical process. But a woman who hurt and damaged such a large number and broad spectrum of people has earnt too much anger to have any fair or just expectation that it be put aside. That anger is evidence, and our entitlement as human, feeling creatures. Those who Thatcher angered must be allowed to speak, and to speak angrily (the only limit being that the right of free speech comes with the responsibility to speak well).

The correct response to Thatcher's death is just the correct response in all situations - seek understanding. Seek understanding of why she felt her policies were necessary, why she was able to convince others, why her policies didn't work (I'm sure she didn't intend to double the proportion of children under the poverty line), and why they created the Britain they have created. It is understanding that will breed solutions.

Speak from knowledge, or to ask questions; respect Thatcher's life and legacy by honest and forthright analysis; seek understanding. Good principles all round, I feel.


  1. I thoroughly agree, especially Re: non-commital vague statements on policy.

    I myself entered childishly into the arena of social media upon this issue. Having staunchly opposed ideals of thatcherism (I have owned a 'Lady Thatcher Dies' commemorative postcard for 4 years after picking it up ata Mark Thomas gig), I regret the flippant nature of my post mainly because it undermined any subsequent argument on my behalf (thankfully no such online arguments were initiated).

    Regardless of my contempt for thatcherite policy I find it much more difficult to understand why anybody could not have a defined opinion on it. I would guess that the majority of facebook posts are of opinions regarding annoying behaviour of other members of society, on the latest gay rights issue,gun control, football, the weather etc. But when it comes to consider arguably the biggest political figure of the entire 20th century they actively take against the idea of holding opinion? At least I can argue with the 'disciples' - as you put it very nicely - of thatcher. I can only despair for those who dislike political opinion.

  2. I'd like to preface this with two points: 1, I've been working on my final year computer science project for the last month with nary a break, so sorry if my brain got fried and it seems like I misunderstood something, and 2: I come from an area of South Yorkshire where every person on my mothers' side worked in the coal mines, including her brothers and sisters, cousins etc. At least when she was young. My father is Scottish, coming from an incredibly poor family and working his way up through being a teacher until he made "Director of Building Schools for the Future" at Rotherham Council, before the Con-Dems shut that program down in an announcement at 5pm on a friday. Both my parents are ~60. Both sides of my family have been plagued by Thatcherite policies in different ways.

    I think there is a surprisingly simple reason those two themes exist, though I think perhaps you should add a third theme that those who appreciate her legacy use, of how great she was.

    The grave-dancing reason is obvious, in that every day is a reminder of the effect Thatcher (and her legacy) has for these people. Terrible house, minimum-wage job or unemployment.

    My third group are those who benefited directly from her (or Thatcherite style policies for those who respect her around the world), or at least didn't suffer because of them. They remember when she let them buy houses from the council, and then rent them back to the council at a grossly inflated price, etc.

    Your second group, the "apathetic", seem to me to be exclusively those who have benefited indirectly. Through parents or circumstance. These people were never told "The reason we live like this is because of her" or "The reason your brother is still living in his 30's at home is because he couldn't get a job that pays enough to make buying a house viable in this market". Hatred and passion and fury live on through generations, while benefits are largely forgotten. Well, that or they're just being modest without lauding over poor people.

    The final point I'd like to make, and I wish to clarify it not by saying this is definate (which it isn't), but by speculating it's possible:
    I've been reading a book on Psychopathy, which (will keeping to the purely factual, empirical stuff) posits that as much as 1% of the population exhibits psychopathic tendencies, and that psychopaths exhibit a lack of connection to the consequences of their actions with regards to others.
    I'm not claiming that Magret Thatcher was a psychopath (although this person does, I'd just like to point out it's possible that she didn't care as much as she could have with the consequences of her policies.

  3. Well, I didn't get into the pro-Thatcherites too much because I haven't actually seen anything from them - I assume it's out there, but I have very few conservative friends, and those I do have I think feel rather under siege.

    I think that to be able to prove that the majority of the apathetic are (or are apathetic because they are) people whose parents benefitted from Thatcher, you'd have to overcome the problem posed by The Spirit Level argument, which is that inequality of the kind Thatcherism has promoted is bad for everyone and any direct fiscal benefits for the middle classes are outweighed by the 'hidden effects' of increased crime etc.

    Thanks for commenting!

  4. I was personally thinking about the pro-Thatcherites in the news. The day after she died, the Times (App) ran ~5 stories on how great she was, and how "important world leader x" has declared their love and respect for her as a woman, and her policies and one little opinion piece on "She wasn't all that great you guys..."

    And The Spirit Level argument is a fantastic idea that I can definitely see applying to most people. I wouldn't say everyone though. I doubt the London boss who gets a cab from his Doorman'd building to his receptioned work has ever been mugged or broken in to!