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Laurie Penny: What we talk about when we talk about Margaret Thatcher

The left have been painted as tasteless, heartless people trying to make political capital out of Thatcher’s death. Only the government is allowed to do that, says Laurie Penny.

An effigy of Margaret Thatcher in Trafalgar Square. Photo: Getty

To celebrate the death of another human being is always abhorrent. Whether or not it is also appropriate is a question of context. On the night that Margaret Thatcher suffered a fatal stroke, hundreds of people gathered in Brixton for a death disco. Some of them drank champagne and some drank milk.

"Now that Thatcher's dead, we thought we'd start reversing her policies one by one - so we're starting with free milk handouts," said Sky, a student giving out quarter-pints of semi-skimmed from a shopping bag, who must have been born after Thatcher gained her "Milk Snatcher" moniker. "It's my parents' grudge, really," Sky admitted. "But looking at the world we're living in now, I understand that a lot of it evolved from her policies."
 
Nine days ago, Margaret Thatcher died in a suite at the Ritz and the country lost its wits. Her political legacy lives on and it's that legacy that is really being debated in the escalating frenzy around who gets control of the funeral narrative. This isn't about Thatcher. It never really was: not the parties, not the screeching pundits, not the ludicrous battle to get the song 'Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead. Actually, it's about us. It's about Britain and about the battle for control of the national narrative. Thatcher's death has become the occasion for a grand psychodrama of a vicious and divided nation.
 
Make no mistake: the funeral taking place today is a political statement. A ceremonial funeral of this kind, attended by the Queen, is a specific British state honour that has only been given to one other non-royal in recent history - Winston Churchill, who led a united war cabinet. Respect for the dead is one thing, but demanding acquiescence in the face of an enormous, costly political statement is quite another.
 
Britain has been waiting for this for a long, long time. The major news outlets and commentators on the left and right were so quick to publish pieces variously condemning, praising or condemning the praise of Thatcher's legacy that you might almost suspect that they had these articles in stock and were just waiting to fill in the dates. You might even suspect that the reaction to Thatcher's death had been entirely pre-scripted.
 
It has all been choreographed for years, the tributes already written, the formalities in place. All of the responses were planned, as were the responses to those responses. I was told, before writing this piece, to keep my head down and say nothing inflammatory, because the right wing would certainly seize on anything that any prominent left-wing person said for their pre-scripted invectives against tasteless, heartless people trying to make political capital out of Thatcher's death. Only the government is allowed to do that.
 
While we're on the subject of tastelessness, some bright spark decided that Thatcher's funeral should have a "Falklands war theme". Yes, that Falklands war, the one that Warren Ellis succinctly called "the most shameless, vote-grabbing, artificial war scam in 50 years".
 
The hundreds of Argentinian sailors who died on Thatcher's orders as the Belgrano was retreating will not be represented, but there will be full military honours and a "ring of steel" in place to prevent "troublemakers" lifting a single placard. Thatcher will be buried as a war hero, just like Churchill was, even though the Falklands conflict was, in territorial and strategic terms, a mere blip on the radar of history. The war of which Thatcher was the hero was quite a different war, a war whose territory was hearts, minds and markets, a war waged against social democracy, labour rights and the idea of the commons. It is this war whose general is being buried today.
 
The Conservatives' attempt to enforce a national day of mourning for their former leader was announced so far in advance of the key event as to be macabre but at least half of the public aren't buying it. The latest ComRes poll shows that over 60 per cent of the British public believe that the funeral should not be paid for out of state funds. That, however, is part of the point. We're not meant to like it. We're meant to accept it. That's what a victory parade is form and this funeral is a victory parade, a political statement paid for at public expense with military guns blazing and the Iron Lady's corpse right up there in front of the band.
 
The London Evening Standard reports that "Blanket stop-and-search powers are expected to be introduced . . . with officers using powers of pre-emptive arrest to target known troublemakers." In this case, "troublemakers" includes anyone who dares to raise their voice or a banner without prior permission. Dawn raids are planned on locations where suspected protesters might be sleeping on the day of the funeral, just as they were on the day of the royal wedding in 2011, when squats and anarchist centres across the city were invaded by cops with cuffs and batons. Surveillance, pre-arrests and police brutality: that's the order of the day in post-Thatcherite Britain.
 
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At the Brixton death party, the usual angry radicals were joined by older people with tired smiles and sensible overcoats, young punks and activists handing out beer and their parents' grudges, and local kids and drunks who saw a gathering and just turned up. The local MP, Chuka Umunna, tweeted
that those who gathered to tramp down the dirt had nothing to do with the area but even he didn't sound convinced. Brixton rioted several times during Thatcher's reign and was one of the impoverished urban areas that her government was talking about when it advocated a policy of "managed decline". Translation: leave them to rot. This was the same government that placed the cold logic of personal greed at the heart of our national conscience, with the infamous mantra: "There's no such thing as
society. There are only individuals and their families." 
 
Now that Britain as a whole is in a state of mismanaged decline, most people here no longer talk openly about class. We talk, instead, about whether or not we hated Margaret Thatcher and wished her dead. That hasn't just been going on for a week but for 30 years, since Thatcher vanquished the industrial working class in the 1980s. Make no mistake: Thatcher-hatred isn't confined to the intermittently organised left. It's a folk memory thing, a tribal thing, passed down from parents to children in places where jobs in mines and steelworks and factories used to be passed down instead. The chant at the Brixton party lacked subtlety, but it at least got to the point:
 
 "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Dead, dead, dead!"
 
You will understand a lot more about Britain when you understand that across the country, perfectly normal families - families in Norwich and Newcastle and the Rhondda Valley, who eat cornflakes in the morning and go, in their unfussy British way, to church - have had money and booze put aside for decades for a party on the occasion of the death of one frail, old lady. This particular frail, old lady, of course, happened to be the figurehead and instigator of an aggressive neoliberalism that destroyed
their communities, ruined lives and drove millions into poverty and despair, as well as making a few people very rich indeed. The right-wing tabloids rushed to the street party in Brixton, as well as to Glasgow and Bristol, to fill in the blanks on the "despicable leftists" pieces they'd had on file for years. But those weren't the only celebrations going on.
 
In private homes and tiny, former-industrial towns where the press never goes unless there's been a murder, the pubs were full. Bed sheets with "The witch is dead" hastily scrawled on them were hung from windows.
 
"This isn't a celebration. It's catharsis," said the author Rhian Jones, who grew up in Thatcherism's Ground Zero - Tredegar, Wales, in the middle of the miners' strike that was the battlefield on which Thatcher took on organised labour and won, crushing the unions and the spirit of the British working class in one manicured fist. "We've heard a lot about Thatcher's legacy for the children who grew up in the 1980s," said Jones. "Part of her legacy to me was a family and a community who were completely devastated and are still trying to recover from that devastation."
 
By 9pm in Brixton, most of the cameras that gathered to take pictures of the left in its predicted grotesquery had vanished and everyone was hammered. At least two speaker systems ground out a bass-heavy mix of reggae and retro punk as kids who were born after Thatcher left office whooped and hollered and a banner reading "The bitch is dead" dropped from the roof of the Ritzy. This victory was always going to be a pyrrhic one and the people here were determined to warm their faces by the fire as it died. A solitary trombone played low and mournfully over the grinding reggae.
 
And still the party swelled. They had come to Brixton from Durham and Belfast and every wasted inner-city and former industrial town where today's young adults grew up being told that, whatever else they were doing, they would bloody well have a shindig when Maggie died. There were also a few confused foreigners trying to get into the spirit of Thatcher-hate, rather as one might try milky tea and Marmite: you might enjoy it but you'll never really understand it, unless you're from Argentina. The Ritzy Cinema across the road was advertising an Argentine film festival but, as the night continued, the decision was taken that this was too subtle. Kids in hoods leaped on to the awning, removed the letters advertising that day's showing and rearranged them into the words: "MARGRET THATCHERS DEAD".
 
There was an enormous cheer. There was also some consternation. Other hooded figures climbed up and fixed the spelling, so that it read: "MARGARET THATCHERS DEAD". The hoods and masks might have been a little excessive but, on the other hand, one never really knows any more what is and is not illegal when it comes to the merest squeak of indecorous behaviour on the streets of London.
 
After some more discussion, this became: "MARGARET THATCHERS DEAD. LOL". And then, five minutes later: "MARGARET THATCHERS DEAD, COMMUNISM IS THE KEY". There followed a pause for sectarian debate up on the ledge, while the police officers in attendance stared up, confused, and the wording changed again, this time to: "EQUALITY IS THE KEY". The argument heated up, aided by some chanting and booing by more radicalised sections of the crowd below, and eventually a compromise was reached. "MARGARET THATCHERS DEAD - COMMUNITEY [sic] IS THE KEY".
 
Some things don't change in this country and one of them is the way the far left chooses the opportune moment to make itself look like a Monty Python sketch.
 
Celebrating Thatcher's death in this way is not tasteless. It is in bad taste, which is something quite different, and deliberately so. The taste it leaves in the mouth is bitter; it's the taste of history repeating like bile from a bad meal in the back of the throat.
 
"I'm not here to celebrate the death of an old woman," said Seaneen Molloy, 27. "I'm here to be around people who hate Thatcherism and everything it stands for. Thatcherism is alive and kicking in Britain today."
 
And it's not as if there's much else to celebrate right now. "Everyone's really fucking depressed," says Molloy. "Everyone's miserable. Everyone's being brutalised. What can we say? There is nothing hopeful happening in Britain, nothing. Come, come, friendly bombs!"
 
The chanting starts up again, an echo ringing across 30 years of rage and defeat: "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Dead, dead, dead!"
 
"We're all going straight to hell," says Molloy, taking a swig of lager.
 
There's more than one road to hell. It is bitterly appropriate that Thatcher died in the month that the current Conservative-led government finished what she started. In the name of an austerity project that is driving the British economy into the dirt - our credit rating has been downgraded, unemployment has soared and we're staring down the barrel of a triple-dip recession - David Cameron's cabinet has completed the largest project of redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich in centuries.
 
The bill for the transfer can be itemised: the cost of the removal of Disability Living Allowance and of the bedroom tax that will cut the incomes of 660,000 families to starvation level has been spent on a new
lower tax bill for the top bracket of earners. Let's not dignify this with the term "austerity": this is a mugging, pure and simple, and like any mugging, protest alone rarely does any good and fighting back can be dangerous. This funeral, with its pomp and fuss and expense, feels like a well-timed spit in the eye.
 
If the Tories wanted to troll the working class, they could have made a lot less trouble for themselves. While the police trawl Twitter for anyone talking about effigies and pocket lighters, the Tories are planning to march in procession over the open grave of the British labour movement before the earth has even had time to settle. Thatcher, who loved a bit of kitsch, would have approved.
 
Both sides have oversimplified, because that's how tribal politics works. The right, with its smug condemnation of everyone not showing the proper respect for a deceased statesperson, is also guilty of a particular needling hypocrisy that becomes clear as soon as you google what British columnists had to say about the death of Hugo Chávez a month ago. There's also a large and largely silent chunk of the British population who see no reason to celebrate anything, who just want to let the Tories bury their monster without being obliged to join in the victory rut and get back to surviving in the seventh richest country in the world, where youth unemployment is over 20 per cent, one in three children live in poverty, and history repeats itself like a half-digested shit sandwich.
 
What began as a strained debate over the legacy of one woman has become an all-out war for the recent history of the nation, a history that is not being rewritten so much as scratched out and re-scribbled like an argument on a toilet wall, an angry mess of four-letter words and crude cartoons.
 
It's all just a little bit gross. The funeral celebrations are gross and the headlines are gross and the death parties are gross, though they at least have been refreshingly free of the hypocrisy that Thatcher so loathed. The Conservative Party that is now wetting itself over Thatcher's legacy includes some of the same Tories who betrayed her and forced her out of office in 1990. Their love for their "Boadicea in pearls" - I quote the Telegraph's truly grisly Thursday-morning headline - was never honest and was never truly for her.
 
What the Tories loved about Thatcher was what she represented, her status as a totem figure. They loved that they could wheel her out at events to rally the troops behind aggressive financial capitalism. Her infirmity, her growing senility, was even more convenient: her presence could be invoked without the possibility of her saying anything relevant and, if anyone complained, they were heartless, craven communists attacking a defenceless old woman. Do not be fooled by the buttoned-up exterior, the pretensions of dignity. There is a pent-up nastiness at the heart of British society that comes out chiefly when we drink, which we do a lot, and not just at street parties.
 
The story of Margaret Thatcher and what she meant to the people of Britain will not be written with an objective eye for many generations. The pain is too raw, the crowing too callous. But this funeral, the death parties, the global freak-out over the proper form of mourning, the demure calls for respect that got swallowed because the triumphant right-wing just couldn't resist a chance to strut its smug stuff and show its weapons - that's a story about a bitter, divided nation that needs to be told.
 
In telling even a tiny part of it, I find myself afraid for the country I was born in. It's becoming a colder, meaner, harder place. Margaret Thatcher was wrong: there is such a thing as society, and it's bloody annoyed, bitter and desperate and dancing on the grave of a broken old  tyrant because there's nothing else to dance about. And you can't help suspecting that that's just what Maggie would have wanted.