Friday, 19 June 2009

Which Old Witch?

There were stories in the press this week about an 83 year old woman in the early stages of dementia returning home after a fall in which she broke a bone in her arm. Naturally I felt a bit sorry about her situation but almost immediately, uncontrollably I felt annoyance at myself for caring at all about someone I’ve spent most of my life hating. She may be a harmless and fragile old woman now, but Margaret Thatcher is, like those frail, white-haired old Nazis at 1980’s war crimes trials, still guilty of her lifetime’s actions.

Let’s get the silly stuff out of the way up front. I have a long standing commitment to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher by purchasing a bottle of champagne from the nearest bottle shop and sharing it with whoever is with me at the time. People who know me well understand the weight of this admittedly puerile act because they know I am a tight-arse who never spends more than $15 on a bottle of anything.

My pledge was first made in the middle of all the hoo-ha about the death of Diana (remember her? the Queen-of-our-Hearts princessy one?) That outpouring of emotion was so bizarre and unexpected one couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else’s passing could generate such waves. The spot-lit death of Jade Goody is the closest thing since to a post-Diana grieving frenzy (despite the Pope popping his clogs in 2005), but in those limited-internet and pre-reality TV days it seemed that only Thatcher’s demise was capable of stirring up British hearts all over again.

Of course the difference with Maggie is her position as one of the most celebrated and reviled politicians of the modern era, depending on which side of the tracks you hail from. Her passing will be unique because for all the solemn trappings that come with the death of a former Prime Minister (including most likely a state funeral) in many parts of Britain there will be partying in the streets.

It’s a thought most people probably don’t dwell on much, but there is already a large groundswell of anticipation for the big day. Songwriters have long-imagined the day, notably Elvis Costello’ in Tramp Down the Dirt (“when they finally put you in the ground, they’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down”) Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine (“people like you make me feel so old, when will you die?”) and Hefner’s The Day That Thatcher Dies.

More recently there were two fairly well publicised British plays;
Maggie’s End and the unambiguous Death of Margaret Thatcher. Both explore the possible reactions of the British public, one take on which you can probable guess from a lively Facebook group called ‘We’ll only pay for a state funeral for Thatcher if she’s buried alive.’

There are clearly a number of us on death watch. Thatcher cannot cough, sneeze or collapse embarrassingly in public without it making the news. There is always a barely concealed subtext: Not Long Now. The right speak of her brave battle against dementia, whilst some on the left joke that she’s been senile for decades. It’s clear that both sides are preparing the ground for what will be a pivotal moment in defining Thatcher’s final legacy.

My own reaction to hearing that Thatcher had dementia last year was one of sympathy. Dementia in all its guises is a terrible, disorientating and crippling disease. I realised that despite it all I truly don’t wish it on my worst enemy. This unexpected sympathy initially made me question if it’s not time to grow up a little. After all, no one wants to sound like
Rik from the Young Ones. My champagne pledge was made as an idealistic student, big on talk but small on walk. It’s a crude idea (I don’t even particularly like champagne) that has stayed with me mostly because it sounds funny. Surprisingly it can also still shock people, horrified at the thought that a death – any death – could be celebrated.

But in truth it does still serve an important purpose because it reminds me what was and what shouldn’t be forgotten. My hatred was never arbitrary, nor was it naive. True, it came from growing up in a family that would perform a comedy ‘spit’ every time her name was mentioned, but it was also born of experience. It came from watching Thatcher’s revenge-based policies tearing apart communities she knew nothing about; my communities. It came from seeing an industry that my dad and his dad had devoted over sixty years to developing divided up by accountants and sold off for pittance. It came from watching miners practically having to beg to stay alive because she had to have the last word. It came from seeing people robbed of their jobs and being left with nothing else to live for. My family still live in a town where decades of under investment in infrastructure and industry has created unemployment so chronic my sister hasn’t been able to get a job for over six years. Time and distance has put Vaseline on my lens so anything that knocks me out of my stride and makes me remember the viciousness of her attack on a way of life is a good thing.

Why? Because until very recently the argument went that Thatcher was the change that Britain needed to have. She modernised, deregulated and cleared the way for years of prosperity enjoyed by millions in the UK. No need for council homes when everyone can own their own home. Industry regulation, unions and tight-knit communities were obstacles to the freedom that the UK needed to prosper and only Maggie had the balls to take them all on. It may have been a Labour government that oversaw the good times, but Blair was really a good little Thatcherite with a red tie. Deep down Thatcher’s dream was our dream. No society; just individuals looking after themselves and all doing alright, thank you.

Had Thatcher died in 2007 she would no doubt have gone to her grave with obituaries trumpeting these sentiments and lauding her courage and vision in shaping modern Britain. What joy then, that having stuck around she has lived long enough to see the dream fall apart. Far from freeing up the UK to the unfaltering benefits of the market, she can now be seen as being responsible for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Years of deregulation and unfettered greed have left the UK tragically under-equipped to deal with the global financial crisis, with the recession striking hardest against homeowners encouraged to borrow more than they could afford.

Unsurprisingly the world has lurched left. We have seen nationalisations of banks and building societies, calls for greater levels of government intervention from within all manner of private industry, caps on executive salaries and general decrying of businesses who put profit over people. Were Thatcher in her grave she'd be spinning pretty fast.

There is never closure in politics. The only thing certain about governments is that one day they will be elected out. Tides will turn; strong opinion poll ratings will become landslides to the opposition; theories and policies will drop in and out of favour. There is no such thing as the last laugh, as Gordon Brown and the champions of New Labour are currently finding out, and as David Cameron will understand when the public see past his novelty and realise he stands for nothing. We can only acknowledge and learn from our mistakes during the bad times, and enjoy the good times as they happen.

So it may be childish and it may be morally wrong, but I will make sure that bottle of champagne gets bought when the news of Maggie’s death finally comes through, and I’ll make sure I share the enjoyment with as many people as I can. To give the final word to Hefner

We will laugh the day that Thatcher dies,
Even though we know it’s not right
We will dance and sing all night

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