IT’S ALWAYS distressing, and even shocking, for any human being to learn that the things he or she holds dear are seen in a very different light by other members of the same community. You value certain people or ideas, you think their value is self-evident; and then you realise that others, not far from your own front door, view those same cherished things with hatred and contempt, and a visceral wish to see them brought down.
And it’s this kind of shock – or so it seems – that is being felt by some Conservatives in Britain, as they contemplate the public response to the death of the woman they regard as their greatest peacetime leader: Margaret Thatcher. Faced with the truth that some people’s first impulse, on hearing of her death, was to pour out on to the streets and start partying, they express horror that anyone, outside wartime, could so rejoice in the death of another human being; surely you can disagree with her policies, they argue, without dancing on her grave, or writing “burn in hell” on the walls of rundown city streets.
All of which I can understand, up to a point. It would not be my personal choice to celebrate the death of a frail old lady whose final years were spent in sad circumstances, despite her great wealth; Margaret Thatcher’s personal fate has nothing to do with the ongoing power of her ideas, particularly among the world’s leading power-holders.
Yet those who deplore this week’s outburst of visceral celebration, in some quarters, should note this: that this is not the first time, in the past half-century, that people in the United Kingdom have had to face the shocking truth that the things they value most about the society they live in are, in fact, held in contempt by powerful forces in their own nation, who intend to weaken and destroy them. I can still remember the physical sensation I felt, as a student of 20 back in 1973, when I first encountered the proto-Thatcherites of St Andrews University, Michael Forsyth among them, and registered the depth of their cold hostility to all that had been achieved in Britain since 1945. I came from a Labour-voting home where those gains – the cradle-to-grave welfare system, the spacious Parker Morris council houses, the decent wages for ordinary working people, the free higher education, and the National Health Service – were celebrated daily as obvious markers of social progress and increasing social justice. I had also lived through a childhood where even the Conservatives seemed to accept that settlement.
So to hear people speaking of those policies with bitter contempt, as burdens that would have to be smashed to allow Britain to “progress”, was almost literally like being punched in the stomach; I remember briefly losing my breath. And when, half a decade later, that ideology had both taken over the Conservative Party and succeeded in winning enough votes, mainly in the south of England, to gain a large majority in parliament, I felt as though the country I grew up in – the centre-left Britain which rebuilt itself as a decent social democratic society after the end of the war – had been taken from me by a bunch of wide-boys and money-grubbers with a wholly different set of values, and set on a political and economic course that I would never be able to follow.
And it is because Margaret Thatcher delivered that hammer-blow without compunction, and so proudly and aggressively broke that key binding element of Britain’s post-war identity as a nation, that she is still passionately hated by millions in Britain today. She looked at the country that elected her in 1979 and saw millions upon millions of its people – all those who were part of Britain’s organised Labour movement, whole swathes of professional and public-sector workers – not as fellow citizens with whom she might disagree, but as “the enemy within”, to be defeated and humiliated. And today, despite the bizarre narrative of a country “saved” endlessly repeated by Margaret Thatcher’s admirers, we are still living with the huge moral, social and financial costs, and the profound political consequences, of that destructive and divisive impulse, turned against a large minority of the nation’s own people.
Yet now, in a final ruthless demonstration of how Margaret Thatcher’s belief-system continues to prevail with Britain’s ruling class despite its obvious failures, we are apparently to see this most controversial and divisive of Prime Ministers – alone of all her peacetime peers – being given a ceremonial funeral on a scale to rival that of Winston Churchill; for all the world as if the millions in this country who deplore her legacy simply did not exist. In Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, young Helena protests that her friends would not mock her so, if they had any “pity, grace or manners”; and it is a phrase that is haunting my mind just now.
For if Margaret Thatcher and her ideological allies had had any pity, grace or manners back in the 1980s, they would not have sought to break the lives, communities and dignity of so many millions of their fellow Britons as they did; or have celebrated that cruel victory with so much champagne, for so many years. If her political heirs and successors had any pity, grace or manners now, they would not parade their utter indifference to the views of half the nation by according such extraordinary honours to a politician whose legacy is a matter of fundamental and serious dispute.
And where those with so much wealth and power will not show a trace of magnanimity or wisdom in victory, it is perhaps a tall order to expect those who suffered most from the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies to show unfailing courtesy and decency in defeat. Under the circumstances, indeed, what is surprising is not that some are celebrating in the streets, but that so many millions whose families and communities once felt the cold steel of Margaret Thatcher’s hatred do not return like for like, but have learned to turn the other cheek, and to live on by that commandment Margaret Thatcher once said she found so difficult – the one that asks us to love one another, and our neighbours as ourselves.