Politics v. Politesse

April 10, 2013 § 1 Comment

These days we really can blame politicians for the weather, by extension with their policies on the environment and much else. A different kind of weather has been talked of this past week, as politicians and others assess the stature of the late Margaret Thatcher. Roy Hattersley aligned her with Clement Attlee: the two major figures of the post-war period, both having changed the ‘political weather’. Throughout the Thatcher years it certainly felt like living with a permanent cold, an unchanging low-level misery, a blight that we knew was something much worse for those whose lives were wrecked by her heartless regime: among them miners, steelworkers, the young homeless – rough sleepers multiplied to a degree that invoked parallels with Victorian London. Thatcher’s morality was monetarism, the imperative of the free market, the legitimation of greed and its release from any idea of public good. Is this why Obama has praised her as ‘a champion of liberty and freedom’?

Yes, she did change the ‘political weather’, as did Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pinochet, Mrs Thatcher’s great friend (who made Chile the testing ground for neoliberal economics). Unlike her, they were all dictators, but she often forgot she wasn’t one. And she too had the ability to set a country on the road to ruin, a road that Blair and Cameron have followed. We have her to blame for the Big Bang, the deregulation of the banks; we have her to blame for ‘Austerity Britain’.

Why then do the likes of Hattersley, Kinnock and Ed Miliband speak of her with respect, even of her ‘greatness’? Their kind words are not just a matter of refraining from speaking ill of the dead (something that never seemed to have occurred to anyone last month when Hugo Chavez died – not a dictator either, though he too sometimes acted like one). They shun any condemnation, in favour of politesse. They avow mere disagreement with her views.

Surely everyone knows that Margaret Thatcher did not just have views, opinions or convictions (her ‘conviction’ has been fulsomely praised). She enacted them. Surely it is not her views that need to be judged, but her actions. She had power and she used it to destructive and divisive ends. For leading figures in the Labour Party to say nothing of this is bad faith.

I remember Franco’s death in 1976. At the time I lived in a communal household. A special cake was baked, a bottle of bubbly was opened. The demise of such a man is just cause for celebration. He had clung to power till the end, and his passing meant a new start for Spain, albeit with the reverberations of its long fascist past. In Franco’s case, death equalled downfall. By the time Thatcher left the political stage she had undone much of the good that Attlee’s post-war government achieved, and we are continuing to live with her legacy. There is little to celebrate.

But there is a lot to remember. The grand ceremonial funeral will be an insult to every one of us injured by her works: an establishment spectacle that needs all those counter-displays of opposition now being planned. Thatcher’s death does not free us from what she did, yet the surge of debate, the new flaring of anger provoked outside the precincts of Westminster, suggest a rekindling of collective memory, prompt a laying open of the Thatcher project at the heart of our present state of politics that might, if we’re lucky, be some kind of turning point.


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