The Distasteful Death Watch For The Iron Lady
By Eoin ButlerNovember 16, 2012
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 IsThatcherDeadYet.co.uk 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.
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.