Argentina’s farewell to Margaret Thatcher

Reactions to her death quickly turned from the personal to the political.

 

On 11 April 2013, we were informed that Margaret Thatcher had passed away at the age of 87. In the city of Buenos Aires, my new home of one month, the news wasn’t greeted by carnivals, street parties or funfair. On the other hand, it certainly did not go unnoticed. It is true that for many, she continues to symbolize the loss of the Falkland Islands, 649 Argentine soldiers and a sense of national pride. Some people, especially those who have direct links to a Falklands veteran, viewed her as a tyrannical dictator akin to the likes of Stalin or Hitler. To others she was cast the part of a "baddie" in a story which sees Argentina the victims against an intransigent tyrant. In both cases her death was accompanied by a strong to mild sense of justice. Young people especially, who seem more politically engaged here than in the UK, often participating in political protests in the capital city, had little or no problem broadcasting this point of view.

In the days following her death, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter were hosts to a handful of barely censored results, such as "Good Riddance!", which explicitly conveyed the feeling that  the "Iron Lady" will not be missed in this part of the world. To add to matters, her passing closely followed the Malvinas War Memorial Day on 2 April on which Argentines gathered to remember the veterans of the war as well as the determination of civilians who had offered time and resources to further the war effort. For some, the Memorial Day, celebrated only three weeks ago, heightened emotion surrounding Thatcher’s death and the desire to see the Falklands restored to Argentina.

On the other hand, there are many Argentines who believe that the demise of the junta military dictatorship, which Thatcher opposed, led to the first signs of democracy in Argentina. In 1983 the junta military dictatorship commanded by General Galtieri, surrendered power a year after war ended. They seem grateful to Thatcher for her courage in deploying the British Army to face General Galtieri, who was removed from power within days of the start of the war. It is safe to say that I have not encountered many people who harbour a deep-seated hatred towards her or expressed unashamed joy at the news. Even on the radio stations no more than a few moderate, predictable comments were made about her character and a questionable song or two played in her "honour" including "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead". Over the following days it became apparent that, to the man in the street, Margaret Thatcher herself did not pose the problem but rather the wrongful ownership of the Falklands to which she is inextricably linked. As such, reactions to her death quickly turned from the personal to the political. "Las Malvinas son Argentinas" (The Falklands belong to Argentina) was the sentiment that was renewed daily - one which the government began to propagate anew.

Equally, there are Argentines who reacted with indifference to the news and to whom Margaret Thatcher represents nothing other than a difficult period in history and a futile on-going conflict. Their perspective is that the islands have caused so many problems at this point that it is about time they became a separate, self-governing entity with ties to neither country. Other people I have spoken to seem to express more antipathy towards Britain and her people rather than Margaret Thatcher.

It is interesting is that the Argentine government has not as yet issued an official statement or expressed their sympathies to Thatcher’s family. The foreign secretary, Hector Timerman, has recently asserted that the decision of Thatcher’s children not to invite the Argentine president was an unnecessary provocation at a time when "the family should have sought to ensure peace". Nevertheless, the government’s response to this seemed to suggest a nonchalant lack of desire to be invited in the first place. While some politicians refused to comment directly on her death, perhaps wishing to remain diplomatic, several newspapers here including those known to be heavily censored by the government did not avoid printing explicit headlines such as "The Iron Lady sunk" and "Galtieri awaits her in hell". The latter refers to General Galtieri, thus illustrating how some Argentines attribute equal blame to both the contemporary Argentine military leader and the British prime minister. Politicians continue to debate the approach and subsequent methods President Cristina Kirchner and her administration are adopting to address the Falklands issue (in terms of speech content and dialogue with David Cameron). However, they do agree unequivocally on the message to be conveyed to Argentines and the rest of the world: serious talks are required to return the Falklands back to their rightful owners. 

 

Margaret Thatcher meets personnel aboard the HMS Antrim in 1983. Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle