A young man is parading the streets of the city of Glasgow with a slogan daubed onto the back of his black leather jacket in big, freshly-painted white letters. “We’re havin’ a party,” it declares. “Thatcher’s dead.”
In what was the coal belt of northern England, a burly former miner lights up an enormous cigar and takes a satisfied puff. He says he’s looking forward to a few celebratory drinks.
Hundreds of miles to the south, in Brixton, south London, a boistrous crowd prances around, joyously boozing and setting off fireworks under the wary gaze of police in riot gear.
In Britain as elsewhere, there is a general taboo about speaking ill of the deceased in the immediate aftermath of death. No matter how deeply you loathe the individual concerned, you’re expected to show a degree of respect and keep your lip buttoned.
Yet the death of Margaret Thatcher has unleashed a level of vitriol and glee among some of her fellow citizens that suggests this custom carries no weight in parts of her home country, at least in her case.
Critics On The Streets, And In Cyberspace
There is a tsunami of attacks on Thatcher in cyberspace. The number of downloads of Judy Garland’s version of “Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead” from the “Wizard of Oz” has been soaring to the top of the charts, thanks to an online campaign.
On the streets, graffiti artists have been at work. “Iron Lady? Rust In Peace”, says a sign sprayed on a wall in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“Rot in Hell, Maggie Thatcher,” says another.
Concerns are emerging about possible civil disorder at Thatcher’s funeral next Wednesday, when her coffin will make a short journey through the heart of London on a horse-drawn gun carriage to St Paul’s Cathedral. Thousands of police will be deployed. In the coming days, Britain’s security services will rummage through the Internet in search of anyone planning disruptive protests.
Thatcher’s “greatest virtue by far was how little she cared if people liked her,” Hugo Young, author of a highly acclaimed unauthorized biography, said in a Guardian article written shortly before his own death in 2003, but published on Tuesday.
It is just as well she cared so little.
The reaction to Thatcher’s death has revealed that, 23 years after being thrown out of office, a significant number of Britons still hate her. Like Thatcher herself, they do not care a jot what people think of them for speaking their mind.
Tributes Of Support As Well
It is important to put this in context: Those who have taken to the streets actively to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s demise are a tiny minority, and include activists from the far left. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, is distributing posters saying “Rejoice! Rejoice!”
Glowing tributes to Thatcher have come from far and wide and are still streaming in. Half of the Britons surveyed in a Guardian/ICM poll view her overall contribution to the United Kingdom as positive.
Yet divisions run deep. A third of the respondents to that same poll think The Iron Lady was bad for her country. Many of them are now making little effort to conceal their hostility towards her.
Some are even grumbling about the cost of her funeral, and of recalling parliament for Wednesday’s debate paying tribute to her. There’s a tradition in Britain’s soccer stadia of holding a minute’s silence to honor the death of notable figures before kick-off.
The sport’s governing officials have decided Thatcher’s death will not be marked in this way, because of the risk of offensive boos and jeers. Some former coal miners and their families are reportedly planning parties to coincide with her funeral.
Why is all this happening?
The Internet, with its tendency to magnify extremes, is playing a role. But the bottom line is this: Britons hold totally opposing and irreconcilable views of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.
Her supporters remember her as the savior of a country that, when she took power in 1979, was on the brink of economic collapse. She broke the grip over government held by trade unions, and she heroically defended her nation’s sovereignty, especially in the European Union.
Her opponents remember riots, spending cuts, a costly war in the Falkland Islands, the destruction of the coal industry after a bruising year-long confrontation with striking mines. They recall a leader who sold off national assets, favored bankers, and was an ally of Rupert Murdoch, whose hold over the British media grew dramatically during her rule.
The acrimonious tinge to the debate over Thatcher’s legacy is adding strain to the fault-lines lurking beneath Britain’s political landscape today.
The bull-horn of the right, The Daily Mail, angrily declared Wednesday that “30 years of Left wing loathing for Lady T” have exploded in “sick celebrations.” The tabloid includes a list of critical comments about her death from various performers, politicians and others – and brands these people as “old Lefties, spewing bile.”
Calls For Restraint
Thatcher’s former mainstream opponents are calling for restraint. Leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, is thought to have asked his parliamentarians to respond respectfully to her death.
There’s no better example of the strange twists and turns of history than an appeal made by Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.
McGuinness is a former senior figure in the Irish Republican Army that for so long was at war with Thatcher’s government. He has also asked people not to celebrate Thatcher’s death.
“She was not a peacemaker, but it is a mistake to allow her death to poison our minds,” he said.
Perhaps the most eye-catching response comes from Tony Blair. Like Thatcher, he was a three-term prime minister. Like her, he is a divisive figure, largely because of his decision to join the U.S. in the unpopular Iraq war that began in 2003. He says the celebrations of Thatcher’s death are “in poor taste.”
Asked by a BBC interviewer whether he’s worried about a similar public response when he dies, he said: “When you decide, you divide.”
Blair thought Thatcher would have been “pretty philosophical” about her nation’s response to her death, and added: “I hope I will be too.”