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These ceremonial funerals are death-drags on a vast stage set, with us as the deluded extras

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

At the time of Diana Spencer’s funeral in 1997, I remember writing this: “When the corpse of a 36-year-old woman is dragged around town on a cart you have to acknowledge something strange is going on . . .” My concern was to consider the deathdrag as an example of how London acted as a stage set upon which collective fantasies of intimacy with power were being played out. Sixteen years on, the sentence requires only minor adaptation to establish the necessary degree of anthropological estrangement from the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.

With Spencer’s funeral, the cortège travelled in a complete revolution – Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey, via Trafalgar Square, before heading north for her island interment at Althorp. This death-drag allowed for her corpse symbolically to visit sites of pleasure (the Royal Parks) and power (the Palace of Westminster), while its circular form symbolised her feminine mystique. With Thatcher the death-drag was linear – even phallic – a straightforward spear-chuck from the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the bowels of parliament to St Paul’s.

Thus Thatcher’s corpse took the journey made by living English monarchs when, upon accession, they were required to meet with the aldermen of the City of London and renew its charter. It was decanted into St Clement Danes, before being hauled on by a fresh team of warriors. I say “warriors” advisedly: the key thing about Thatcher’s death-drag was that while it connected temporal power (parliament), with Mammon (the City), and this connection was sanctified by men wearing dresses (the high priests), the set-dressing projected an image of a fallen warrior queen (think Boudicca). Thatcher was said to have sanctioned this route, which allowed her body to draw sustenance for the afterlife from the bronze imago of Churchill and the stone one of Nelson. The crowds who turned out to line the route of the death-drag were – compared to those who witnessed the Spencer charade – sparse. But in both cases the numbers were far lower than the intense pre-mediatisation of the event would’ve led one to expect. In part this has to be a function of positive feedback loop embodied in mass behaviour: a crowd increasingly stays away the more it is told that greater numbers are anticipated. But the failure of people to turn up for Thatcher’s funeral also betokens – or so I like to think – a certain credulousness about the event itself. Intuitively, people grasped that Thatcher’s interment had very little to do with Thatcher or her “legacy”, and everything to do with the parlous state of representative democracy.

Those who did line the route and who applauded – and even cheered – the removal of the boxed corpse from the Temple of the Sky God (an astonishingly infra dig performance for such ardent Churchillians, many of whom, surely, would’ve been aware of the universal hush that attended his death-drag), were as deluded as those who turned their backs on the procession. Their madness was to take the spectacle at face value; in Freudian terms, they saw only its manifest content and were blind to its latent meaning. I would go further – but then I always do – Thatcherites and anti-Thatcherites were co-opted into a fantasy of historical agency, in which their support or lack of it was integral to the sanctifying of the state’s monopoly on violence.

Thatcher’s mystique – contra that of Diana – rested entirely on her deployment, when in office, of internal repression – directed against NUM picket lines, the IRA, poll tax rioters etc – and external violence – primarily enacted in the form of the murders of 323 Argentine sailors (mostly young conscripts). The military honours accorded Thatcher were the recognition by the current holders of the monopoly – the coalition government – of her perceived effectiveness in maintaining this, and their ardent desire that the crowd should see them, by association, as similarly effective monopolists. All so-called opposition MPs who colluded in the deathdrag were complicit in this mass-hypnosis.

The truth is, of course, that Thatcher died a long time ago. She died when she left office. Then, when the Alzheimer’s began to cobweb her synapses, she died again. This tripledeath of Thatcher underscores the dialectic which now achieves a new synthesis. The death-drag passed off without too much trouble, overseen by men (and the odd woman) armed with fully automatic rifles capable of firing 600 rounds a minute.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.