Thursday, 10 May 2012

Can it ever be right to celebrate someone's death?

At some point, possibly quite soon, a great many people in the UK are going to be holding parties to mark the death of a sick, frail old woman. And these will not be commemorations or celebrations of that person's life but a big, loud good riddance.

During her political career, Margaret Thatcher divided people, in more ways than one. She was a strong personality with distinct views about how the world worked, and how it ought to work. The British public either loved her or loathed her in a way that the recent movie with Meryl Streep really doesn't do justice to. She divided people not because of her personality, but because of her actions. For many in parts of the English North and Midlands, in Wales and Scotland, her legacy is the complete destruction of the UK mining industry, along with the decimation of most manufacturing industries.

There is a Facebook group called “The Witch is Dead!” which is an umbrella for flashmob public parties when the news of Lady Thatcher's demise is released. Even before it happens we can be sure of the media coverage; the (generally right-leaning) British press will deplore the lack of respect to anyone, let alone such a great statesperson. The Guardian and probably the Independent will examine the reasons for such strong feelings in light of Thatcher's legacy and the current Conservative / Liberal coalition pursuing such similar – although arguably even more extreme – policies.

The current government have not helped matters on this, quietly floating the suggestion that Lady Thatcher should be given a state funeral – an honour only granted to one other Prime Minister in the last century. Winston Churchill was given a state funeral for being the leader who saw Britain through WW2, and few would have denied him that privilege. But he was also a member of the British aristocracy, pillar of the Upper Class Tory establishment. Clement Atlee, the Labour Prime Minister whose landslide victory following the war allowed him, even with Britain battered by six years of conflict and lumbered with a war debt that was only paid off this century, built the modern welfare state that gave everyone in Britain free access to education and healthcare, a pension on retirement, affordable public transport and steady growth based on Socialist, Keynesian principals, Atlee – probably the leader who has seen through the biggest changes in modern British history, was not. Claims that such an honour for Lady Thatcher would be anything other than partisan backslapping are simply laughable.

It would be erroneous to claim that those partying will hold nothing personal against the former Prime Minister. She is, as I say, truly loathed in parts of Britain in a way which few people could hope to achieve. But what those celebrants will really be marking is their opposition to a set of ideals that have treated people as nothing more than consumers or merchandise. Thatcherism. Reaganomics. Trickledown. Supply side economics. Even though many of the people celebrating will be too young to properly remember the 1980s or may not know the terminology of the Randian economics it ushered in, they are seeing the fruits of those policies and those ideals. Many will be offended or even shocked by the amount of pleasure that a large number of people exhibit at a former leader's passing, but when that person is deliberately built into an icon and the actions that caused so much suffering lauded as great moments, is it any wonder that the icon becomes a target of defiance for those that feel themselves so much at odds with the ruling elite.