Division in life and death

Guardian front page 9.4.13I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that Margaret Thatcher had resigned as leader of the Conservative Party and thus was no longer PM. I was sitting in my classroom, having just returned from a day trip to the Commonwealth Institute with my fellow class of nine year olds. I don’t remember how the teacher reacted, but I do remember watching the news later that evening at a friend’s house, and there being some rejoicing. No one in our household had voted for her (though close relatives had), and for the first time in my lifetime, she was not in charge of the country.

I can also remember exactly where I was when I decided that, when she died, I would not be rejoicing. It was my first term at university, and still with some idealistic political aspirations, I’d joined LSE Labour. One of our first meetings of term involved a Q&A with Ken Livingstone (still 6 months away from becoming the first London Mayor). I’ve no memory of much of the meeting, though I can picture exactly where I was sitting in the small, stuffy seminar room, but I do remember that one student asked him the following question: “When Margaret Thatcher dies, will you send flowers and attend the funeral?” As far as I recall, the question got some chuckles – including from Ken himself. I can’t remember the precise words that Ken replied with, but it was effectively no, he wouldn’t, it would be a cause for celebration instead. I was a little horrified (my poor, naive, 18 year old self!) – how could you possibly contemplate rejoicing in someone’s death?

The thing was, between 1990 and 1999, something happened that made Margaret Thatcher human to me. True, I’d already worshipped in the Methodist Church she had grown up in (it’s where my grandparents now go) and on every trip to Grantham we’d drive past the shop her father owned. But, most importantly, half a decade after her resignation, my mother attended a wedding where the former PM was sister-of-the-mother-of-the-bride. All of a sudden we knew someone who was a relation. Someone who, when Margaret Thatcher eventually did die, would be grieving – just like any one of us who had lost a member of their family. I worked alongside this person for several years and yesterday, it was her and her family that I was thinking of as Twitter exploded in a cacophony of vitriol.

I said nothing about Margaret Thatcher on Twitter or Facebook because I didn’t want to become part of that noise. An American friend lured me out of hiding by asking me my views on Facebook, but he kind of knew what I was going to say, because I think I’d already ranted at him on the subject.

Twitter and Facebook were not nice places yesterday (still aren’t, for that matter). On the one hand, the “ding dong the witch is dead” is crass; but it’s also patronising to ask “the left” or “socialists” to behave nicely. For a start, it’s not just those who are left-leaning who disliked Thatcher’s policies or who were hurt by them – whole communities were. But also, don’t get me started on the many ways in which “the right” have rejoiced inappropriately in similar situations. I don’t want this post to be seen as sanctimonious either – I saw way too much of that on Twitter too and it drove me up the wall. Many of my Tory friends (I say ‘many’, I don’t really have that many to begin with) retaliated with lists of all Thatcher’s achievements and amazing political initiatives – but I can’t agree with those either. I don’t agree with her policies and I don’t like the way in which some of them seem to be returning in the current government. I wish there was a way of separating the political commentary from the mourning – like having a week-long mourning window, before the political sniping begins – but that’s unrealistic. Is it too much to ask that people simply think, albeit briefly, about those who are directly affected by someone’s death?

Thatcher divided the country while PM and those divisions will never disappear as long as those affected by them are alive – or for as long as Thatcherism is an influential political ideology. We always knew the population would be divided in her death too, but couldn’t we have had a bit more grace in the process?

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