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Thatcher: You’ve got to fight! For the left! To party!

Commentators on both sides of the political spectrum say Thatcher ‘death parties’ are the thoughtless, tasteless products of a bandwagon-jumping youth. They should have more imagination, writes Siobhán McGuirk. This is an iconoclastic moment
April 2013

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 McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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Bobby Ball 12 April 2013, 13.44

This is what is wrong with western professional politicians. Neil Kinnock (opposition to Maggie) would NEVER have said what Ed Milliband said. But then Ed was trained to be a politician at university and that my friends, is the chunky fuckin nub of the issue.

Career political goons are not good for our future.

Lesley Hughes 12 April 2013, 14.08

Well said, and it needs to be said. If people allow this eulogising of Thatcher to continue, it will give Cameron and his cronies the green light to continue destroying the poor of this country. They will use support of Thatcher as further propaganda for their so called welfare reforms and austerity measures. I am disgusted when the poor of this country are being forced to live on hand outs from food banks that they can suddenly find 10 million plus for a state funeral and pay themselves up to £3,500 in expensive to return to Parliament to pay tribute to Thatcher. Talk about showing complete and utter contempt to the families in this country that are struggling

DavidUK84 12 April 2013, 14.11

Celebrating death sum up the left. Hateful, vicious and futile.

Let this sorry bunch of vile communists, mindless thugs, embittered losers, and bone-idle teenagers have their “death party”. Thatchers defeat of their murderous and destructive dogma will last long after they are also dead and buried.

Andrew David 12 April 2013, 14.25

The establishment opposition – the Labour Party – embraces much of Thatcherism.
In power, after the 2015 election, they will continue in government most of the austerity measures already in place since 2010. You have no other democratic alternative.

Andrew David 12 April 2013, 14.29

‘The rioters that set London ablaze in August 2011 received similar condescension.’

The rioters that set London ablaze in August 2011 were criminals, convicted by the courts, and rightly, sent to prison. How can you argue otherwise?

Alex Nunns 12 April 2013, 15.53

Nice piece! When Thatcher died, the media instantly went into reverential mode. But later in the day they were forced to grudgingly concede that there wasn’t a consensus of grief in the country. The death parties were the most visible expression. They helped to shift the narrative slightly away from “our greatest prime minister” to “a divisive prime minister”, which is a marginal improvement.

Imagine what it would have been like if everyone who had a critical opinion about Thatcher had just shut up – it would have been like Ronald Reagan’s death was in the US: a week of historical distortions and lies where no dissent was transmitted. We’ve had a lot of that anyway in the UK, but we would have had a lot more if people hadn’t forced the issue by expressing contrary opinions in the most obvious way possible. That Soviet style official grief for Reagan in the US did a lot of damage – many Americans now have a completely false impression of their history as a result. We can’t let that happen here, because we are still living with Thatcherism. It isn’t an arcane academic debate, and the parties aren’t pointless expressions of joy in a vacuum. They’re part of the contemporary fight against everything she represented.

Mike Jones 12 April 2013, 15.57

Thatcher said, thought and did exactly what she wanted to the extent that her own Cabinet rebelled against her. So why shouldn’t other people do the same? She never cared what other people thought about her when she was alive, so I don’t think that she will be bothered now.

Patrick 12 April 2013, 20.14

I concur with this article. The barrage of eulogising across the media this week has been infuriating. The parties in Belfast, Bristol, Brixton & Glasgow really did serve a purpose ; to remind the media that Baroness Thatcher remains the most widely depised British politician of the 20th century & beyond. I don’t deny the support that also exists to this day, for the values she represented. However, the ceremonial splendor of her funeral service next Wednesday, implies consensus regarding her legacy. No such consensus exists and public displays such as the Trafalgar Square party tomorrow will serve to remind us that keywords such as ‘divisive’, ‘destructive’ & ‘disputed’ are far closer to the truth of her story.

Tory myth-making should be nipped in the bud.

Milly Shaw 12 April 2013, 20.30

Great article. Thatcher was a symbol, and people are using celebrations as a way of showing their ongoing anger at Thatcher the public figure and political leader. It’s not about Thatcher the private individual.

However, I’m not sure I’d agree that equating Thatcher parties with the summer riots is warranted – this is a legitimate political statement, that was apolitical violence and greed.

Robert Cook 14 April 2013, 21.22

The simple fact is that she kicked the shit out of the left while she was in office and all the left can do now is feebly kick against her corpse in death. How brave and courageous! Typical toothless low class British reaction.

Simon Ashworth Wood 15 April 2013, 10.04

Any “the witch is dead” party is more politically conscious and progressive than the popular holiday where citizens of the UK burn images of the anti government rebel, Guy Fawkes.

Why aren’t you criticising Guy Fawkes night parties instead? Why aren’t you criticising Thatcher and all other politicians of the exploiter class instead? Prefer to criticise any popular egalitarian expressions, eh??? Prefer to side with the filthy rich and their politicians and politics of inequality, eh???

I’d rather listen to George Galloway anyday, than read such rubbish!!!

Michael Kenny 15 April 2013, 16.09

It’s worth reminding people that one of Thatcher’s pet hates was the European Union. If she saw the EU as an obstacle to her policies, then how logical is the far left’s knee-jerk anti-EU obsession?

Siobhan McGuirk 29 April 2013, 15.44

Thanks for all the comments and feedback. On the riots, I was thinking about journalists rush to characterise and condemn rioters as similar to the rush to discredit Thatcher revellers, rather than compare the actual riots to the recent parties. I could have been more clear there: I don’t see the events as similar themselves.

As for democratic alternatives, I agree it looks bleak. I hope that public opinion can sway Labour left, or more likely empower smaller parties to fight for seats.

I should point out that as a journalist for Red Pepper I have no input over the deleting of comments or not, and I have my photo next to my byline as is standard practice and requested of all Commissioning Editors.

I’m not sure how to respond to the comments left by Tony Warton otherwise. Tony, you are entitled to your opinion but you aren’t raising any points for discussion. We have very different ideas over the content of my character and the value of my writing to contribute to a debate playing out across the nation (at lest, it was three weeks ago). I am quite content with my sense of decency, and stand by my writing. If others want to celebrate my death, that is up to them to decide. I would hope they had better things to do, to be honest.

admin 3 May 2013, 07.59

I should clarify that we removed the comments by Tony Warton because they were personal abuse with no political substance. We do not allow personal abuse in Red Pepper’s comments section.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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