So, the other day Margaret Thatcher died and street parties broke out across the UK.
If there are any outsiders left who still think of the British as aloof and reserved, this might seem shocking, but I always knew it was going to happen. “Mrs. Thatcher,” as she was then known, was in power for most of my childhood and a chunk of my adolescence, and even as a wee lad I heard a great deal of vitriol aimed at “Maggie.”
Growing up in Scotland, it was impossible to avoid. She managed to alienate almost the entire country, not just because the mines and steelworks and shipyards shut down, or because she took away my free milk, but also because of the high-handed way she treated Scots. For instance, she tested the unpopular poll tax in Scotland a full year before applying it to the rest of the UK. I went to a comic convention in Glasgow in 1990 and still remember Judge Dredd’s Scottish scriptwriter angrily instructing us all to refuse to pay up.
That’s whatit was like back then.
Thus it was no surprise to see parties breaking out in Glasgow or in Brixton (where there were race riots in the 1980s). I note, however, that many of the revelers in the pictures look very young and cannot possibly remember what life was like under Thatcher. At most they will remember Tony Blair, a man who loved wealth and power, and who sought to privatize things Thatcher did not touch, and who started more wars that were much more costly in terms of money spent and lives lost. And he, allegedly, was center left.
He has his detractors too, of course, but not like Thatcher.
The 1980s was an era of outsize political figures, many of whom provoked strong reactions. Aside from “Mrs. T.,” there was Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, Francois Mitterand, plus lots of colorful dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro who were not yet in their dotage. Indeed, the street parties celebrating the passing of Britain’s prime minister resemble the jubilation in Libya following Gaddafi’s downfall, more than anything else – only British weapons are not about to flood Mali and Syria as a result.
When Reagan died, there were no street parties, and yet when he was president he attracted immense amounts of vitriol: he was a fool, a moron, senile, a religious fanatic, a crazy warmonger, etc. You could buy toys in the shape of his head for your dog to chew. Yes, kids: that’s what it was like back then.
But when I got to the United States in 2006, I was amazed to discover that massive historical revisionism had already set in – Reagan still had his detractors, but he was now cited even by Democrats as a prime example of a good leader, a non-fanatic, and as a pragmatist who knew how to reach across the aisle and “get things done.” Barack Obama even likes to invoke Reagan from time to time, especially when he is arguing for a tax hike.
Pope John Paul II also came under heavy criticism when he was alive for his stance on abortion and contraceptives; but his long, dignified and very public act of dying earned him the respect of many detractors. Here was a man of unusual strength and character. At the very least, nobody was smashing the window of a charity shop in Brixton to celebrate his demise.
Fast-forward to the 1990s and you find another titan – Boris Yeltsin, who was epic only in the scope of his awfulness. He really did sell off an entire country to a handful of dodgy geezers, and presided over the total breakdown of law and order and the mass impoverishment of his people. But when he died, thousands lined up to pay their respects as he lay in state. If most Russians had not forgiven him, some had come to understand him as a flawed, weak man, who had tried but failed. He was all too human, perhaps. There were no street parties.
So what is it about Thatcher that has provoked such enduring vitriol, particularly from beardless youth who have never been near a mine? Is it rage that our first female prime minister, who should be a feminist heroine, opposed almost everything the left stands for? Or nostalgia for a period when there were still major ideological battles to be fought, as opposed to today, when British politics is a tedious saga of public schoolboys vs. spotty students in a country of declining global relevance? Or is it just a bunch of chumps behaving badly?
Who cares? I note only that unlike Reagan, or the Pope, or even Yeltsin, Thatcher’s political charm was without warmth. She never cared if she was liked. Like Lenin, she enjoyed a good fight with her ideological foes. And so I suspect these death parties would only have deepened her already profound conviction that, since she had annoyed all these ghastly people, she really had been right about everything all along. And thus the revelers pay homage in spite of themselves.