Years ago, Chumbawamba (one of my favourite bands of all time, writer/performers of my fourth-favourite album of all time) recorded an EP that was to be released when Margaret Thatcher died. You had to pre-order it, and in return the band would mail you out a copy on the day of her death. After they announced their split, the band confirmed they would still honour the deal, and that the EP would be sent out when she died. The EP was mailed out on Monday, and the band spluttered briefly back to life on their website, to confirm that they had dispatched the record, and to comment briefly on her death. This is part of what they said:
Twitter set off at a pace with a thousand ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ messages only to be followed by a slew of bleeding heart liberals bemoaning the fact that people were daring to celebrate someone’s death.
Pah! Let’s make it clear: This is a cause to celebrate, to party, to stamp the dirt down. Tomorrow we can carry on shouting and writing and working and singing and striking against the successive governments that have so clearly followed Thatcher’s Slash & Burn policies, none more so than the present lot. But for now, we can have a drink and a dance and propose a toast to the demise of someone who blighted so many people’s lives for so long.
Now, Chumbawamba, as well as being one of my favourite bands of all time, have also been a big influence on my political thinking. Not in a straightforward mentor/ mentee way, but in terms of the way they opened up my mind to new ways of thinking about politics. Specifically, they served as my gateway to understanding the possibility of an anti-authoritarian politics that was still authentically leftwing, to understanding that respecting individualism and self-determination didn’t automatically mean endorsing “every man for himself” selfishness. I’ve never been an uncritical devotee of Chumba’s every political statement, but I do tend to sit up and take notice when I find the band ascribing views not so very different to mine to ‘bleeding heart liberals’.
To be fair, in my Thatcher post I didn’t actually ‘bemoan’ the fact that other people were celebrating her death, just expressed the view that I couldn’t see anything to celebrate in it. I wouldn’t make for much of an anti-authoritarian if I didn’t automatically respect the right of people to celebrate, after all, and I also find bemoaning a relatively pointless activity: much better either to keep quiet, or try and persuade people that they’re wrong. But the two positions are closely related, for all that, and as such I should think about why I find myself occupying what’s been labelled ‘liberal’ ground.
The truth is that I don’t believe my position is a liberal one. I think the liberal position would be to talk about how she was a ‘divisive’ figure, and to try and draw a distinction between her politics and her ‘personal achievements’, then praise her for the latter and ignore the former. That’s, in essence, what Ed Miliband did in his speech in the House of Commons.
My reason for not celebrating Baroness Thatcher’s death is pretty straightforward: she left office 22 years ago. She had no opportunity to hurt or harm anyone once she left office, even if her policies, as continued and extended by her successors, continue to hurt and to harm right up to the present day. Her legacy – the extent to which she is a political touchstone for the right, a constant exhortation in their ear to be more cruel, more selfish – would be the same whether she died last Monday or had died three months after leaving office. As I said last time, all that happened on Monday was that an old lady in frail health died.
So the question is why anyone would want to celebrate that. Some people seem to be stuck in a 1980s time warp, and are planning to protest her funeral more out of nostalgia than anything else, taking advantage of that one last chance to shout “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, out, out!”. (Chumbawamba escape censure on that score since, even in their brief statement, they stress the importance of continuing to campaign in the present.) Other people seem to be a little more confused, and to think that in some way her death means that she lost, or they won. Given that everyone dies, that’s a pretty desperate attempt to claim victory.
That leaves the third strand, the one alluded to by Chumba when they state that ‘we can have a drink and a dance and propose a toast to the demise of someone who blighted so many people’s lives for so long’. To paraphrase: sure she was just a powerless, ill, forlorn old woman when she died, but because she was nasty to other powerless, ill and forlorn people, it’s ok for us to be nasty now she’s died. I disagree.
Margaret Thatcher may have taught us that gratuitous cruelty was a virtue, but I refuse to learn that lesson. Neither do I believe that my refusal to do so makes me a ‘bleeding heart liberal’. If that were the case, it would mean that liberals have a monopoly on kindness and compassion, and I refuse to surrender those virtues to them. If that makes me sound like a prig, well, fine, I’ll plead guilty to being a prig – but not a liberal.
The longer I think about it, the more convinced I become that kindness is central to my politics, as a necessary counterweight to prevent anti-authoritarianism sliding into Ayn Rand style right-libertarianism. The same idea has been explained in a number of rational and quasi-rational ways – enlightened self-interest; the lesson from game theory that, in the long run, altruism is more beneficial to an individual than selfishness – but in the end it all comes down to kindness. Being kind to others increases the likelihood they’ll be kind to you, and membership in a society that guarantees kindness to all its members guarantees that you’ll be treated kindly yourself. Libertarianism to protect the individual’s right to self-determination, and formalised kindness to ensure that every individual can survive and prosper: those are the twin principles that lie behind the voluntary collectivism that I would regard as political utopia.
Celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t be a serious infraction of those principles, but it’s still something I prefer not to do. By all means, I’ll talk and write about her unpleasant, ineffective policies and her baleful influence (I hope I did both in my last post), and I’ll avoid crying any crocodile tears. But the fact remains: Margaret Thatcher had no more power last Friday than she has today, and her influence last week was no greater than this. Her transition from living to dead has made no material difference to anything, and there’s no reason to celebrate her death, other than indulging in the kind of gleeful cruelty that she championed.
Haven’t her values corroded our society enough already, without us handing her this kind of posthumous validation? Do we really want to send her off into the darkness with a demonstration that we really are all as selfish and cruel as she taught us to be? If there’s a post-Thatcherite politics to be built, it will centre round kindness, compassion, mutual concern for one another – all those values that she so thoroughly despised. We can’t build those new politics while we’re still indulging in the Thatcherite vices.
Some people will protest or celebrate at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, and they’ll think that by doing so they’re “sticking it to the man”. The presence of the police, the condemnation of their actions by people in expensive suits, the outraged editorials in the rightwing press will all persuade them that they’re doing something that pains the establishment. But they’ll actually be playing right into their hands if they allow themselves to become part of the three-ring circus that is the state – sorry, ceremonial – funeral.
The funeral is a distraction from what actually matters in contemporary politics, and the greater the furore surrounding it the greater the distraction. Forget the woman herself, Margaret Thatcher’s ideology is alive and kicking. Let’s focus on burying that, not her corpse.