The nuance behind the iron
There’s no time more apt for murmuring the ending of Brutus’s speech in Julius Caesar than the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: “The evil men do lives after them/the good is oft interred with their bones.” No time better, either, to add that the “evil” that, in this case one woman, did is little examined by her detractors, who prefer to stick to a diabolical version of her 12-year rule.
Margaret Thatcher (narrowly) won the 1979 election because the Labour government of the 1970s, under Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, had unsuccessfully tried to make a contract with the trade unions. In such a contract, pay would have been calibrated to productivity, and increases would be low in order to bring down high rates of inflation and to keep up investment in the socialized education, health and welfare institutions that disproportionately benefited the lower classes. It was the kind of social deal that the Germans and the Scandinavians had and still – in part – have: one that produces economies that, not by chance, have escaped the worst of the economic buffeting of the past five years.
But the attempt failed. The turn of 1978-79 was called the “Winter of Discontent” – another Shakespearean tag, this time from Richard III. Power failed; transport was constantly disrupted; hospitals and ambulance services closed. Most memorably, some gravediggers in Liverpool struck, and bodies piled up in a factory. All that Labour had held out as its usefulness to the nation – the ability to bring organized workers into a lasting, productive and stable agreement – was shattered. The party lost, but so did working men and women.
Thus, Britain’s large problems were given the free market, rather than the social democratic, treatment. That meant withdrawal of subsidies and widespread closures and unemployment. That was the prompt for much of the bitterness toward Hatcher, since not just jobs were lost but whole communities were rendered rudderless. Yet a victorious war against Argentina for possession of the Falklands, and a chaotic Labour Party, which had lurched to the left, saved Thatcher – and let her grow in stature, as the economy improved, and flourished.
This is not the story today’s Thatcher haters will listen to. Their dancing on her grave has disfigured public life in the UK since her death last Monday. I went to see a planned demonstration against both the present government cuts and her memory in Trafalgar Square over the weekend. It numbered in the hundreds, rather than the thousands, on a dank and cold day. Many there were drunk, and some turned the old cry, “Maggie Maggie Maggie; Out Out Out!” into “Maggie Maggie Maggie; Dead Dead Dead!” Although virulent, it also seemed lifeless, as if the malign chants took up all the energy there was.
Some also sang an old song that has had a burst of contemporary popularity: the Ella Fitzgerald version of a song sung by the cast of the 1939 film,Wizard of Oz – “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead … Yes let the joyous news be spread/The wicked old Witch at last is dead!”
The song has climbed rapidly up the charts, reaching – over the weekend – No. 2. It produced an instant headache for the BBC: Should it play it on its Radio One Official UK Top 40 Singles Chart program on Sunday afternoon, as it would any other? Or should it, out of respect for a former prime minister, ban it?
The choice, between a ban and playing, split the country and even her supporters. The new director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, at first said it would be played, citing the importance of free speech. Later, the Corporation partially backed down and, groping for a compromise, played only a seven-second clip, together with a balanced news story on the song.
Groups of protesters were bellowing it as I walked away with my twentysomething son. He said, “My generation has only one view of her: that she was awful.”
I said, in the way of fathers, even of adult children, that it was complicated. In the early eighties, when she was in government, I had briefly edited a weekly of the center-left – The New Statesman – that had opposed many but not all of her policies. I saw her as one who too wantonly cut down the trade unions, with no sympathy at all for their deep roots in the British working class and their ability to organize and to give an example of racial tolerance and promotion of equal rights for women.
Later, as a reporter in East Central Europe and what was the Soviet Union for nearly a decade, I found that Thatcher was one of the politicians who gave the most support to those living under communism. The people I admired admired her. They saw in her someone who offered not just hope but also legitimacy to those striving for a freer and better life. That she was a woman was important: She presented a sharp contrast to the stony-faced men who ran the communist bloc. Her vividness and spontaneity differed from their dull repetition of subservience to an exhausted ideology and a woefully inhuman economic model.
Margaret Thatcher had a split mind. She was for freedom, compellingly so at times. Yet she was also authoritarian, increasingly so as her premiership went on. Her instincts wavered between the two poles.
That a children’s movie song adapted to celebrate the death of a democratic political figure should find popularity is shameful. But so is the BBC’s feeble attempt to have it both ways. Its choice should have been clear. The best part of the former prime minister was her invocation of liberty: and liberty, as British political writing has for centuries insisted, must be extended to that which many, even the majority, find repellent. She may, or may not, have thought it should have been played. But had the better self won, she would have defended its broadcast.
PHOTO: A man reacts as he attends a gathering of people celebrating the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland April 8, 2013. REUTERS/David Moir