It is impossible to imagine any other politician arousing such a degree of public hatred
Many time-honoured social conventions have been discarded in recent times in our headlong rush to demonstrate how modern and relaxed we have all become, but we still, more or less, stick to the maxim of “not speaking ill of the dead”. At least not in the immediate aftermath of their demise, when their families’ grief is still raw.
Yet news of the passing of the frail 87-year-old Baroness Thatcher, so confused that she had to be reminded almost daily that her husband was dead, was greeted with street parties in Brixton, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Glasgow. In south London, the scene of rioting in 1981 during her first term in office, the letters on the billboard outside a cinema were rearranged by masked vandals to read “Margaret Thatchers dead LOL [Laugh Out Loud]”. In Glasgow’s George Square, revellers drank champagne, wore party hats and sang, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead”. In Leeds, they shared a celebration cake. In Liverpool they gathered for a “death party”, and in Bristol joined forces under the banner, “May she never RIP”.
Cold comfort, then, for her children, neither of them saints, but still human beings trying to absorb the loss of their mother. We all have a mother, so we should all have enough empathy to imagine a little of what they are feeling. But apparently not.
Of course, Margaret Thatcher, as a three times prime minister whose economic, political and social legacy remains alive and hotly disputed to this day, wasn’t any old mother. And so some, mainly on the political fringes, appear to regard her as such a hate figure that the normal rules of engagement don’t apply.
The most mainstream voice to be heard in this mob was that of Radio 4 regular Mark Steel, who tweeted: “what a terrible shame – that it wasn’t 87 years earlier.” In the chorus was Socialist Worker – circulation under 8,000 and admittedly probably not on order at Mark or Carol Thatcher’s newsagents – with a front-page mock-up of her tombstone and the word “Rejoice” in capital letters. (The editor was too busy yesterday to take a call asking for an explanation of the image.)
And there too, inevitably, was George Galloway MP, never one to mince words when he might make headlines, with: “May she burn in the hellfires.” It is, as far as I can remember, the first time a recently deceased figure has been pushed so publicly and unceremoniously into the medieval pit since the death in 2002 of the Moors Murderess, Myra Hindley.
So has a line been crossed? There is an argument that says that, in life, Margaret Thatcher relished controversy, so why should we think she would object in death? As countless retired cabinet ministers, one-time opponents and commentators have remarked, she enjoyed a fight, adopted a presidential style that dispensed with distinctions between herself and her policies, wasn’t above flamboyantly rubbishing even close colleagues (notably Geoffrey Howe, albeit with disastrous consequences), and, in the words of her biographer the late Hugo Young, “cared little if people liked her”. Presumably in death she will care even less.
“The first thing to note,” says Oxford social anthropologist Kate Fox, author of Watching the English, “is that those celebrating so openly represented a tiny number. [Police estimates put the total nationwide at around 800.] A lot of people may have been thinking the same when they heard the news. I’m a typical lefty liberal and I certainly won’t be shedding any tears. But there is a difference between thinking it and shouting it on the streets or on social media in such a tasteless way.”
Fox also challenges the notion that the scenes in some of our largest cities on Monday night were anything new. “If we can cast our minds back before the era of 24-hour rolling news, these people were not the first to mark a death like this. I imagine the end of Richard III might well have been greeted by something similar.” In 1822 jeering was reported along the route of the funeral cortege of the deeply unpopular foreign secretary and Leader of the House of Commons Lord Castlereagh, although it is said that this was exaggerated by the radical press, forerunners perhaps of Socialist Worker.
Another curious feature of Monday night’s protesters was their age. Most were too young to have been alive when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Saul Adamczerwski, who carried a banner in Brixton reading “the bitch is dead”, explained to reporters: “She was so particularly evil and hated by everyone”. But he was two when she left office, so how does he know?
“It is likely that there was something going on that was about more than dislike of Mrs Thatcher,” suggests Kate Fox. “Indeed, I doubt if many of the young people there were even trying to make a serious point. There aren’t many opportunities for rioting and dancing in the street. They sensed this might be one. Anthropologists have a name for such moments – 'cultural remission’. The death of Mrs Thatcher legitimised their deviance because it was a time when the normal rules were briefly suspended.”
Others, though, see this outpouring of hatred as more focused. The comedian and actor Alexei Sayle grew up in Liverpool and has been an outspoken critic of the blight of unemployment and hopelessness visited on his city by the economic reforms of the Thatcher era. “I personally am not interested in taking to the streets to celebrate her death,” he says. “I don’t care enough to do that. Thatcher dying is less tragic than David Cameron still being alive. But I understand the anger that people still feel about what she did, even if it can seem a bit incoherent after so many years.”
Among those trumpeting most unambiguously that they will not be mourning her passing have been representatives of the mining communities left redundant after the pit closures that followed the defeat of Arthur Scargill’s strike. Many still hold her responsible for their current economic woes. “I know some will say that they are just living in the past, trying to pin the blame on her rather than themselves,” Sayle says, “but it is hard not to live in the past when your future has been annihilated.”
However divisive her legacy, some aspects of her demonisation in the past 48 hours are extreme by any standards. The use of “witch” to describe her harks back to the medieval inquisition that targeted women as figures of hatred, and used the popular anger whipped up by such scapegoating to justify torture and murder.
Does such an outpouring of bile against an individual come more readily to those on the Left than those on the Right? Whatever the views of some activists, it is hard to imagine UKIP quite so shamelessly delighting in the demise of Jacques Delors, architect of all that they loathe and despise about the European project.
Indeed, it is equally impossible to contemplate any politician, of whatever hue, from the grey generation that followed Margaret Thatcher – arguably another of her legacies – exciting such enduring hostility. The one contemporary name that might just stir enough animosity to allow Thatcher one day truly to rest in peace is that of the man she is reported to have regarded as her true heir – Tony Blair.
His legacy is equally divisive and Blair has one over her in that the visceral dislike of him seems to exist on Left and Right in politics. Still, it is hard to imagine that when the moment comes, news of his departure will be celebrated in the streets with cries of “to hell in a hand cart with the warlock”.