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The Distasteful Death Watch For The Iron Lady

Twitter death hoaxes have been around about as long as the microblogging platform itself. (Who can forget Jeff Goldblum's tragic New Zealand cliff plunge in 2009?) But no public figure’s demise has been falsely touted as routinely, or as gleefully, as that of Margaret Thatcher.

In August, a bogus ‘Thatcher is dead’ tweet elicited this effusive tribute from Fox News anchor Sean Hannity. But Twitter is only the tip of the iceberg. When the former British prime minister was hospitalised in October 2010, a UK website called racked up 20,000 Facebook likes. It has since passed 87,000.

Indeed a cursory trawl of the internet would suggest that the Conservative leader’s (long assumed imminent) demise is being anticipated with relish by a significant section of the British left. Celebratory songs have already been written. Street parties planned.

<p>Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images</p>

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Former British PM Margaret Thatcher in June 2012.

At the national Trades Union Conference in September, a party pack called Ding Dong, Thatcher’s Gone containing “themed balloons, party whistles, party poppers and special invitation cards to give your friends” sold out in two days. T-shirts also proved “very popular”.

As someone broadly left-leaning myself, I’m sure I’m not alone in finding all of this extremely distasteful. Thatcher is not a monarch, pontiff or president-for-life. She departed public office more than 20 years ago and her death is unlikely to advance any particular cause. So why are people still so keen to see a (now senile) old lady pop her clogs?

For Thatcher’s enemies, her suppression of 1984/85 miner’s strike, support for General Pinochet of Chile, and intransigence in allowing 10 Irish Republican Army hunger strikers starve to death in British prisons justifies just about any amount of enduring animosity.

Undoubtedly, the Iron Lady was a polarising figure in her day. But as George W. Bush can probably attest, even the most controversial politicians tend to fade from public memory after leaving office. For this writer, having witnessed at close quarters my late grandmother’s struggle with dementia, it seems grotesque to think that anyone could wish harm upon such a helpless, vulnerable old lady.

The left’s reaction to this criticism typically follows a course. While not exactly condoning the desire by some to dance on Thatcher’s grave, my left-wing friends tend to argue that Margaret Thatcher was a uniquely malevolent, divisive leader. And that the level of hostility towards her, even in old age, should be seen in that context.

But was her malevolence or divisiveness really all that unique? And if wasn’t, why has no other major leader in the English-speaking world (that I’m aware of at least) been subject to this type of ghoulish abuse?

I tend to throw out a couple of names at this point.

Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair are both often accused of crimes far more serious than anything Thatcher’s worst detractors have ever laid at her door. Their most vocal critics call for these men to be arrested and put on trial as war criminals. But almost no one, to my knowledge, has ever expressed an ambition to dance on their respective graves. (Google it, if you like. The most I could find were these.)

“Yes,” my left-wing friends counter. “But that’s only because Thatcher’s policies caused such suffering at home! Kissinger and Blair’s crimes were committed overseas.”

Fair enough. I offer my trump card: Richard Nixon. By any reckoning, Richard Milhous Nixon was one of the most despised and loathed of modern leaders. He presided over a United States certainly more bitterly divided than Britain in the 1980s, and was forced from office in a scandal that traumatised the nation. Yet when he died in 1994, even gonzo counterculture writer Hunter S. Thompson (who hated the man’s guts) would write “Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it.”

Nixon’s dotage occurred on the cusp of the internet age. I’ve trawled the web and failed to find any references to anyone salivating over his approaching demise. The closest I’ve come is a claim, after Nixon’s death, by the militant rock band Rage Against the Machine to have written a song celebrating his passing. (Nixon’s name does not appear in that song’s title or lyrics.) By the mid-1990s, it seems, America had simply moved on.

So what is it about Margaret Thatcher that singles her for such vindictive treatment? She’s certainly not the only retired former leader with a legion of critics. Neither is she the only one to have taken unpopular decisions that rankle to this day. But perhaps she is unique in another way. She is Britain’s first, and to date, only female prime minister.

Sexism and misogyny in politics are hot-button issues in Australia, where Prime Minister Julia Gilliard’s parliamentary tirade against Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott on the subject created headlines internationally last month. But in Britain, these issues are rarely raised in relation to the treatment of Margaret Thatcher.

The British left bristles at any suggestion of misogyny. Instinctively, they regard that as a sin of the right. Indeed, feminists rank amongst Thatcher’s most vociferous critics. But in truth, misogyny is a primordial reflex that transcends left or right. No one witnessing the Tea Party’s unhinged outrage at the benign economic policies of Barack Obama would automatically discount unspoken racism as a possible motivating factor.

Might this obscene salivating over an old lady’s death be caused by an equally deep seated, unconscious misogyny? On some fundamental level, does the British left regard being ruled by a woman as a perversion of the natural order and resent Thatcher with added venom as a result? It’s only a theory. But as theories go, this one makes a lot more sense than any other I’ve come across.

13 comments on this story
by Darryl Snow

Some years ago when Thatcher first fell ill and discussions turned to whether she would be offered a State Funeral a Facebook group sprung up. Entitled "We Will Only Pay for a State Funeral for Margaret Thatcher if she is buried alive" it was full of dark humour and outright hatred.

The old saying that "everyone loves you when you're dead" might be on its last legs along with Thatcher.

November 16, 2012 @ 6:13pm
by Jeff Poole

The author is obviously FAR too young to remember Elvis Costello's 1989 song 'Tramp The Dirt Down'.

The fact that this predates the interwebz rather destroys his point.
Thatcher was thoroughly hated well before she became PM.

She was also the first in the world of what has now become the norm. An extreme rightwing leader who ran a divide and conquer government, destroyed social safety nets, vilified gays and lesbians, tried to wind back equal rights for women and concentrated on elevating the rich at the expense of the poor.

Reagan followed suit, but 'Thatcher the milk snatcher', as she was known when, as education minister, she took subsidised milk from primary school children, was the first.

So of course she's reviled more than the pale imitations that came after her. Reagan, Bush, Howard, and Cameron simply aren't in her league...

November 16, 2012 @ 7:17pm
by John Trotter

Leave the poor old duck alone, says this old leftie

November 16, 2012 @ 8:58pm
by Tom

The conclusion in this essay doesn't really follow from its points.

1. Margaret Thatcher was uniquely disliked, even compared to other unpopular leaders.
2. Unlike the other unpopular leaders, Margaret Thatcher was a woman.
3. Therefore, Margaret Thatcher was uniquely disliked because she was a woman.

The same could be said of research chemists in office! I'd say the reason she was disliked is probably the reason given - unpopular policy.

November 16, 2012 @ 9:43pm
by Dee Scarland

I came to Australia in the 1980's as a refugee from Thatcher. I think that you miss the point with her. The neoliberaliism and "dry" right wing policies that she (and Reagan) espoused are still with us today and have caused all the currrent misery in Europe and the USA. I wish that past leaders like Thatcher and Bush could be held accountable for all the chaos and mayhem they have caused. Though they might not have been guilty of genocide, the policies that they enacted have had repercussions nearly as severe as the crimes of the Serbian leaders in the last Balkans war. I don't condone wishing her dead and now that she has dementia she can never be tried or held to account but I for one will be glad to see the back of her. As far as the misogyny charge goes, to be honest she was more of a man than most of the male Tory leaders in Britain since the last war.

November 16, 2012 @ 10:26pm
by Mac Hoban

What a load of bollocks. Thatcher sewed the wind and is now reaping the whirlwind, (not that she knows anything about it probably in her current demented state). It has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her vitriol, her ruthlessness and the corrosive effect her government had on the fabric of British society. Thatcher's stock in trade was hatred; what goes around comes around.

November 17, 2012 @ 9:23am
by Anne

Thats fine Dee, but I don't recall that Reagan got the same treatment. I don't know what you mean by your comment that she was 'more of a man etc....'. Thats sexism itself, and begs some self examination. She was and is a woman, and therefore can only BE a woman. Are you saying men are strong, decisive and hard hearted, and women are not?
I am constantly amazed at how unconscious this sexism and misogyny is, and the assertion that only men can be either. Of course women can disapprove, dislike and and of course, be deeply jealous of other women.

By the way I was in the UK pre Thatcher. All my workmates spent the day asleep at their drawing boards, while my boss went spare and broke.

November 17, 2012 @ 10:01am
by Ron

I agree with Dee! I was a policeman in the UK in the 1960s and one of many black marks against Margaret Thatcher was that, because of the way she dealt with the miner's strike, she politicised the Police.
Something else I could not understand was her yearning for 'a return to Victorian values'. I think she probably found the shortage of servants a bit of a problem.
If a male Prime Minister had done to British society what she did, I'm positive I would not be alone in my opinion of her.
Thankfully, I had left the country before she got to work on it . The UK is still recovering.

November 17, 2012 @ 1:00pm
by Tony.

My loathing of this woman has nothing to do with her age or gender, but all to do with the memories of the misery and hardship she inflicted on her country. She was utterly without pathos and consumed by an awful right-wing agenda that echoes painfully today still. That such an inhumane creature should be permitted to occupy her office as long as she did boggles the mind.
It's not misogyny, for Pete's sake. If only such a facile reasoning were adequate.

November 18, 2012 @ 7:10am
by udi

Eoin, Margaret Thatcher was uniquely malevolent, hateful and unremitting in her vitriolic attacks on the less fortunate in British society. She gave no quarter and sowed hate everywhere. You cannot say this about blair, Reagan, Kissinger, Blair or Nixon. While I can have sympathy for an old ailing woman, the memory of the decade+ long hate campaign and her reign of terror is fresher in my memory than tony blair's time in office. Dancing on someone's grave may be distasteful but the the unhealed wounds wrought by her attacks have been waiting a long time for some catharsis.

November 18, 2012 @ 3:03pm
Show previous 10 comments
by Laura

I disliked Thatcher's policies intensely, but I remember this incident during the aftermath of the Falklands War. A well-known male pacifist writer and illustrator of children's books came out with a book showing a grotesque and rampant Thatcher firing bullets out of her breasts. The message? How un-natural for a woman to be leading a war.

November 21, 2012 @ 6:57am
by Vince

Eoin, I hope we are not related!
I also hope you are not just being provocative or just filling in space?
I'm guessing you are not from the UK and/or lived through the 'Thatcher Years'?
Because if you had you would very well know the reasons why she was hated so much and it has absolutely nothing to do with her sex!
She "TBW" (coined by her own Team) ruined my home town of Coventry for example for the benefit of her City friends and created an underclass that has never recovered.
Go and visit sometime and spot the 'home of the motor car' and try and find any car makers now and any industry whatsoever. I could go on.
FYI she supported Pinochet because she used his rule as a model for her subjects.

November 21, 2012 @ 8:47pm
by Alex in Oz

I've always been amused by the title "Iron Lady" attached to Thatcher. It came, if I remember correctly, from the Russians, but was adopted by Thatcherites as a complement, denoting to them, I suppose, ruthless determination and steadfastness. Perhaps because I am of Russian ancestry, but I for one recognised it as a pun. The Russians of course remember that in their more-or-less recent history they had a strong leader who took his name from a certain ferrous metal. The Russians knew a Stalinist personality when they saw one, and subtly let it be known. So subtly it seems that no one in the West (except me perhaps), picked it up.

As for Thatchers up-coming funeral, I suggest she be buried in a public space in London and a urinal installed over her grave.

December 16, 2012 @ 12:01pm
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