As this week’s whirl of opinion and reaction has clearly shown, Margaret Thatcher is as divisive in death as she was in life.
When in power, she left no middle ground to stand on: you either bought in to her Rule Britannia rhetoric, or rejected the steel toe-capped policies of her government.
The deep fault lines that Thatcherism created have cracked during the past few days, reanimating that division, and rousing social and political passions that have idled or festered for over two decades.
It is a strange aftershock to witness – the loyalty and the fury can be no less real, but is sepia-tinted, recalling an era that seems quite distant. While many will have never forgotten the lasting impact Thatcher had upon their lives – from miners’ families to the Falklands’ bereaved, from bankers to council-home owners – it has been a long time since their feelings have been so publicly aired.
My experience of Mrs T began in the late ’70s, when I was eight years old. As our local MP, Thatcher had the honour of opening the school fête. She stood on a little outdoor stage and said a few words, and then wandered round some of the stalls. Of course I didn’t really know who this woman was, but I do remember thinking she seemed a bit scary.
Her smile said one thing, her actions something else
She held the ‘highest office in the land’ throughout my teenage years, and the chill she provoked did not diminish. Far from it. As I learnt more about the world, I developed a strong disliking for the British prime minister.
From what I could understand, her politics seemed to lack compassion, and I was always struck by the pretence in her demeanour: the concerned tilt of the head, the softening of the voice, the carefully chosen words. I didn’t buy any of it. Her smile said one thing, her actions something else.
I was at the ripe old age of 19 when I joined the millions on the poll tax march. It wasn’t really the act itself I was protesting against, but the draconian government in power. I knew little of paying taxes, and certainly nothing of miners’ lives, or losing loved ones in conflict. But it was clear that Thatcher’s mob was content to shut down lives and communities up and down the land, and that demanded resistance.
The subsequent years have proved just how damaging Thatcherism has been for the UK, particularly the seismic shift to free-market economics. Taking the reins off the City, selling off public utilities, privatising national services, encouraging commercial competition at seemingly every turn – these policies laid the groundwork for a country that now has one of the highest levels of homelessness in Europe; where youth unemployment is rocketing; where the economy pivots around the volatile finance industry; and where economic inequality has grown faster than in any other developed country.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
So my antipathy towards Margaret Thatcher has not withered. Yet whilst I sympathise with the vitriol expressed in the wake of her passing, I find the celebrations of her death distasteful, and a bit odd.
Metaphorically dancing on someone’s grave – the tweets, the street parties, the buying of iTunes songs – surely displays the same fundamental lack of humanity that Thatcher herself was accused of. And she has wielded no direct influence upon the nation since 1990, so what exactly is there to rejoice? That an old lady has died?
Perhaps the anger the former PM still provokes needs to be channelled into something positive. We could start with recognising that many did, and still do, believe in the notion of society, which Mrs T famously rejected. So maybe you could ignore the ‘all but’ state funeral next Wednesday, and pop round to your neighbour’s to say hello. Or offer your time to a local charity shop. Or invest in a social enterprise. Or give the bus driver a smile, just because you can.
Perhaps – and this will be hardest of all – we should learn to forgive the actions of one who is no longer with us, and take heart from those that are.