The debate: Does the NUS conference cheering Thatcher's death alienate it from British students?


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The Independent Online

Margaret Thatcher's death was greeted with a cheer from some segments of the NUS conference yesterday. Today, two current York students debate whether or not these cheers are problematic for the NUS.

Jo Barrow: Thatcher's awful legacy is speaking for itself

Here we go again. We get a perfectly crafted moment in time to properly examine Thatcher’s legacy for students, and then a single moment of apparent impropriety storms the Internet, shoving the primary narrative firmly into the margins.

"How dare you," the assembled critics shout en masse, "behave in a way other than completely representative of everyone at all times?"

Well, firstly, it wasn’t the entire NUS conference that erupted into a fanatical standing ovation, but rather a handful of particularly jubilant students. People are #morallyoutraged at the delegates’ response to the news of Thatcher’s death. They claim that the representatives aren’t speaking on behalf of students when they cheered.

I suppose, if we follow that line of reasoning, I would recommend a poll of students to gauge their response to Thatcher’s death, and find out if the number of students applauding is proportionate to those who silently fistpumped when they heard the news. Then, and only then, if the numbers add up, can people claim that their behaviour was unrepresentative. However, that would be ridiculous. So, I think we can assume for now that these students responded with glee for their own sakes.

The idea of celebrating anybody’s death is repugnant to most people. From all corners of the political spectrum, commenters have been sure to respect Thatcher's life as an individual, acknowledging that she leaves behind friends and family. However, surely, the way in which you achieve your notoriety affects how people respond to your death? When your life is political, your death becomes political too. 

Those who hated Thatcher before her death would be hypocritical to rein it in because she’s dead and some kind of ‘respect’ is demanded. Her legacy is far more insidiously widespread than its impact upon her family and those who knew her. Perhaps it’s just typically Tory to elevate the needs of the few (those who knew her personally) above the rights of the typically disenfranchised (those who suffered during her tenure and their families) or even just the right of free discourse about the impact and legacy of Thatcherism. We must respect their right to grieve, we are told, but that only should only apply when we’re in earshot of them. Otherwise, all bets are off.

If those of us who hated Thatcher were to bite our tongues and submit to the inevitable hagiographies and her canonisation in the wake of her death, we would be sitting passively by as history is written. It is dangerous to allow moral hysteria gag voices that need to be heard. It is vitally important that aside from whatever good she did, it is also remembered that she called feminism ‘poison,’ and crippled the North East, among many other things. Most importantly, she elevated and enshrined a culture of greed, the legacy of which we are still struggling with today.

Which, I suppose, brings me back to the NUS. Having established that the delegates were acting on their own behalf, their actions have not alienated the student population at all. I hope those who applauded upon hearing the news keep their responsibility to students by angrily standing up for the right to dissent against overwhelming opposition, by not giving in to the tidal wave of whitewash that threatens to dominate the news and by clinging onto the optimism that as long as their kind of political engagement happens, there will never be another Thatcher.

Alex Finnis: Cheering the death of anyone is completely inappropriate

“This is a day I’ll never forget, and if you look at the news headlines you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

These were the words of the NUS Chief Returning Officer speaking at Monday’s NUS National Conference just minutes after news of Margaret Thatcher’s death became public. They were greeted with applause from an audience of the country’s most senior student politicians.

Aside from the disrespect this displays from many people who should know better, the lack of thought for family and friends of a woman who, despite her 'Iron Lady' nickname, was still a human being, the reaction of these students only serves to further damage the reputation of an already ailing union.

YUSU President Kallum Taylor spoke of how he felt 'alienated' by the applause, while NUS President Liam Burns stated later that day that it 'would reflect extremely badly upon us if we were to show disrespect at this time'. The damage, however, had already been done.

Taylor could not have picked a more perfect word than alienated, though perhaps not for the reasons he intended – a large portion of the student population already feels alienated by the NUS – the way they were heckled off stage at the National Demo and the popularity of the 'Inanimate Carbon Rod for NUS President' campaign has confirmed this. Such vocal condemnation of such a divisive figure as Thatcher, especially at the inflammatory time of her death, will only serve to enhance it.

Student politics tends to be dominated by the left, which is understandable. However, representatives are supposed to represent all students, not just one political branch. All too often we find them seeming to forget this and instead using their power to give extra weight to their own opinions, and worse, to further their individual careers.

This is highlighted in Burns’ response to the applause – a generic and carefully crafted statement that did not address the conference’s reaction directly, but merely sat himself in a position from which he is made immune to any personal criticism regarding the events.

In the statement, before saying anything else, Burns still felt the need to make it very clear that he was 'the last person to agree with Margaret Thatcher’s politics or her policy record as prime minister' – indeed his dislike for Thatcher was the only thing of concrete to come out of what he said. In my opinion, he may as well told the conference floor: 'Look, I know you guys all hate Thatcher, but please try not to say too much about it right now, you’ll make us all look bad.'

This whole ugly debacle has only further confirmed that to succeed as an organisation the NUS simply must get back in touch with its student body. For starters, votes in its elections should be open to all students, not just a handful or delegates – how can they possibly get the bigger picture if they are essentially listening only to the views of a like-minded clique?

At risk of speaking for a fair portion of the country, I feel it’s fair to argue that the majority of students would feel cheering the death of a former Prime Minister, indeed one adored by many, including students, is inappropriate. Perhaps this is a sign that the NUS should start listening to them on other issues too.

Jo is a second year English student at the University of York, leftie student journalist and pop-culture fiend. Alex Finnis is a third-year English Literature student at the University of York and former Editor of student newspaper York Vision. Follow them on Twitter here and here.