Earlier this year, an ancient skeleton found under a car park in Leicester was confirmed (in so far as such a confirmation is possible) to be that of Richard III. The man lived in turbulent times, arguably made all the more turbulent by his actions. Upon his death, his naked corpse was reportedly slung over a horse and abused by the townspeople of Leicester as his skeleton appeared to show.
The reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death this week is precisely the same thing.
I grew up in a city the was ravaged by Thatcher’s policies. The leader of the country was a hated (and I use the word with caution) figure. The sentiment towards Thatcher in Liverpool was entirely unambiguous and, I believe, it was appropriate. Her government manifested a disregard for the welfare of its citizens on an unprecedented level.
But this week I’ve read things like this, “glad some rancid old cow that destroyed my entire city is dead” (and that’s one of the nicer ones), written by friends of mine (and note, they were referring to a different city).
I recall 1990, when Thatcher was forced out of office. I played in a band at the time, and we had a song for the occasion, “Goodbye”, a charge-sheet laid out against Thatcher in lyric form. It was in parts obscene, certainly angry and still to my mind entirely reasonable. It had a chorus of “Goodbye, Mrs Thatcher” at which point I was supposed to lay down a funky guitar riff. It wasn’t very good.
But it didn’t need to be. There was a mood of celebration in Liverpool and elsewhere then. I recall discussing it in school and a classmate, a thoughtful girl and a real scouser, taught us all a lesson. Looking at the iconic picture of Thatcher in tears, she told the class that while she was as happy as everyone else that Thatcher was gone, she couldn’t take joy in the obvious pain of someone else. That stayed with me.
Much has changed in 23 years, much of it, we are told, caused by Thatcher (or perhaps, to the movement she was a vanguard of) summed up in the possibly apocryphally-attributed quote, “There is no such thing as society”. I understand that sentiment to be essentially Randian: you do not have obligations to others, only to yourself. And this is certainly the behaviour that people manifest – you can do whatever you like, as long as its in your own interest. Both conscience and manners seem to have evaporated. In this sense, I see the unpleasant, troubling and tasteless reactions to the news that a senile old woman has died to be an extension of the individualism that the 80s ushered in.
I’m bothered by this. After all, the cult of individualism also seeks to expose the individual. And Thatcher’s policies were only, only justifiable if one would assert some moral superiority of one class of people over another. I’ve never believed that. No life matters more or less than another. But for that to be true, we all have to exhibit a basic humanity towards each other.