Revellers in George Square, Glasgow
For the past two evenings, in two different Washington D.C. bars, I have chatted to American friends about the death of Margaret Thatcher. Both times, I was approached by men who, upon hearing my British accent, felt obliged to share their thoughts: ‘She can’t have been that bad, surely?’ I’m asked. ‘Even if she was, these “death parties” and jokes about going to hell can’t be justified. It’s sick, isn’t it?’ Their questions, of course, were rhetorical. These strangers, having heard Barack Obama’s praise, already had their answers.
Scanning over opinion pieces in the British national papers, from the Daily Mail to the Independent, I’ve felt similarly chastised. I’ve been told, by Stephen Glover and Grace Dent alike, that people like me, ostensibly gloating over the death of a frail old woman, are childish, ill-informed, and mindlessly jumping on a ‘bandwagon of hate’. A handful of friends on Facebook are saying the same.
Through whichever medium, I’ve been struck by commentators’ lack of imagination. Theirs is a wanton refusal to see something deeper in a bevy of street parties years in the planning. The satirical words and/or ‘sick jokes’ that have flooded social media sites, high street walls and banners unfurled across Britain are meaningful beyond being mean.
The media not getting it isn’t new, but is particularly frustrating coming from self-proclaimed leftists. Dent’s depiction of ‘death party’ attendees as middle-class, feckless youth echo the dismissive portrayals used to delegitimise student protests, Climate Camp and the Occupy movement over recent years. Her argument that, if people really wanted to be heard, they would ‘work in politics’ is both outrageously naïve and a reflection of her own privileged perception of choice in modern Britain.
The rioters that set London ablaze in August 2011 received similar condescension. At best, a youth acknowledged as disenfranchised was presented as misguided and uncouth. At worse, they were materialistic, violent and idle. The keenness with which their actions were condemned was alarming at the time. It became deeply troubling, on reflection, following the heavy punitive sentencing and further cuts to civic facilities it facilitated.
Any attempt to categorise Thatcher death party attendees as one type of person is thoroughly wrong-headed. Among the people I know personally dusting off their grave dancing shoes are social workers, journalists, teachers, artists, students, doctors, lawyers, youth workers, ex-steel workers and numerous trades men and women. They are Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh. They are working and middle class.
This group includes both professional and volunteer public service workers who tirelessly hold the screws in place in the ‘Big Society’ Cameron and his ilk tout but refuse to fund. They are political people, who write stern letters to MPs, and go on solemn protests. And they see these parties as political statements, too.
Interrupting the narrative
A handful of journalists have defended the revelry, or highlighted the dangers of ‘misplaced death etiquette’. I want to go further, and whole-heartedly advocate for these celebratory outpourings.
These gleeful celebrations represent much more than simplistic macabre response to Thatcher’s abhorrent policies, viewpoints and legacy. They are in fact public, vociferous interruption and contestation of the ‘savior, leader, icon’ narrative being written by a worldwide elite.
These conspicuous, pre-planned actions prevent a dreaded alternative from materialising: While the millions who despised her sit on their hands and silently shake their heads, a state-funded, jingoistic funeral procession roles by and the history books canonise a monster.
This alternative, which remains troublingly close to reality, is the truly sickening proposition. While banal flag waving is expected and encouraged around her funeral, there is little recognition that such action is as least as political, and far more asinine than holding a ‘Maggie burn in Hell!’ placard in Trafalgar Square. Many are ashamed, not proud, of Thatcherism and its progeny, and rightfully refuse to be silent. I support their right to say: ‘Not in my name.’
These parties, as crude as the banners adorning them may be, are iconoclastic events. Their message, despite fears to the contrary is not aimed solely at Thatcher. It’s frustrating to see protesters given such little credit, as if they are unaware she was but a cog in a giant ideological machine that has only grown in influence—within and beyond her party—since her ignominious Downing Street exit. They don’t need po-faced lessons that ‘Thatcherism isn’t dead’.
It is plain to see that Conservatives tried to distance themselves from Thatcher tactically, not politically. The distain once reserved for ‘the enemy within’ is now doled out to ‘scroungers’. The death revelers know it and now—precisely because there are parties as well as wakes—everyone is talking about it.
Public celebration provides a much-needed platform for an increasingly silenced public to air their views on, at heart, political issues. It’s patronising to claim otherwise, and to overlook the broader points made. I wonder, for example, if Tony Blair is still so confident that history will judge him kindly on Iraq? First and foremost, however, collective, gleeful action shows there is such a thing as society.
Russell Brand, writing in the Guardian, reflects that Thatcher’s policy aimed and succeeded to break ‘the spell of community’. She cast new spells, of course, of individualism; of anti-immigrant rhetoric and working-class scapegoating. Through her death, those spells might be broken.
For a left that has had little to celebrate for so long, Thatcher’s death is a symbolic victory, a promise that cannot be rescinded. She was a figurehead that millions nonetheless hold responsible for years of abject misery. She became an albatross around our collective neck, and we're exuberant to throw her off.
‘Ding, dong, the witch is dead’ is indeed a gendered slur. We would do well emphasise the line that follows instead, as an appropriate call to action for a left worn down and broken up through years of bitter disappointments: ‘Wake up - sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed.’
Seize the opportunity
In each public gathering there lies opportunities to unify and galvanize anti-austerity and social justice activists into mass action. Generations and fractions are coming together to share stories, effectively mourning their own, figurative loss of life under and after Thatcher. The millions born post-1990, who have been at the forefront of more recent, swiftly quashed uprisings against austerity and the state are listening, and sharing their stories, too.
Billy Bragg says: Don’t party, organise! I don’t agree that the two are mutually exclusive. There is no need to rush through the immediate opportunity: Educate! We can be grateful for, and seize the opportunity to party, and to tell everyone why.
Anti-Thatcher sentiment is vitriolic, but not thoughtless. Anger is easily dismissed as impotent rage, when those in power claim calm reasoning is needed. But, as Audre Lorde, a true feminist icon, reminds us, anger has its uses: ‘When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar. […] My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.’
Righteous anger spurs the ‘death parties’ planned for this weekend. Smear campaigns cannot detract from that fact. I believe they can and will be productive, transformative occasions. A revolution that starts with a party? Sounds ideal to me.
Siobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.