Death parties: One thing for Hitler, but another for Thatcher

There is a difference between tyrants with a consistent record of mass murder and democratically elected politicians

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The Independent Online

There have been tweets, updates, banners, the usual slew of bad-taste jokes, and even campaigns to get obscure songs to number one.

I’m not talking about X Factor of course but the death of Margaret Thatcher and all of those things that I’ve listed above have sat pretty easy with me, made me smile, perhaps even made me giggle, but – and I am a very open-minded person – I find that an inner line has been crossed when I hear about people holding parties to celebrate her death.

Not that you care, I’m sure, but as a sort of apologia to what is about to follow, I feel I have to make it clear that I am, to the marrow of my bones, a liberal left winger. If there was a genuine left wing party in this country I would almost certainly vote for it. I am an active campaigner for Greenpeace. I am a vegetarian. I would certainly never have voted for Thatcher had I been old enough to do so and I would probably have joined in public protests against many of her policies. I am also from a firmly working class background, having grown up on a council estate in a single-parent family surviving solely off state benefits. As such I feel that I’m in as good a position as anyone to be not-too-favourably disposed towards the Iron Lady.

Okay, apologia over. Despite all these things I find it abhorrent that people are celebrating her death. In fact I would go one step further and say that I would rather go and pay my respects at the funeral of the ‘milk snatcher’ than attend a death party such as the one planned for Trafalgar Square on Saturday.

Death parties, I think, are probably only remotely justifiable in cases like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and their ilk (even then I’m not totally convinced) but not a leader of the British Conservative Party. A friend recently challenged me on this point, asking how you can draw an arbitrary line on the scale of leadership between those who deserve a death party and those who don’t, especially when leaders such as Margaret Thatcher were arguably guilty of war crimes like the sinking of the Belgrano. It’s a good point but I think you can, and should, draw an arbitrary line on this, admittedly surreal, scale and that it should probably mark the division between unelected tyrants with a consistent record of mass murder and democratically elected politicians who may or may not have committed crimes in the course of a war.

And I don’t buy the argument recently expressed in Independent Voices that respect for the dead is an outmoded way of thinking that should somehow be gotten over, as if it’s somehow championing free speech to light bonfires and set off fireworks when someone dies. At the heart of free speech is respect for the rights of the individual and surely that involves the right of response, a right which dead people don’t have. For me, our innate respect for the dead and instinctive urge to remember the positive aspects of their lives is one of the few unsullied reminders we possess for some kind of inherent dignity in the human spirit. And if all that fails, what about respect for the living? How would the writer feel if he went out on the day of his mother’s funeral to find people noisily celebrating her death?

I think there is something beyond death parties at stake here however. The celebrations are a symbol for something deeper. I detect the whiff of two familiar but insidious enemies – bandwagonism and overly one-sided thinking.

I have heard Thatcher blamed for everything recently from single-handedly destroying the world economy to giving seemingly healthy adults brittle bones in their childhood. Assumptions are bandied around like sparklers at a death party, like the one that says everything she did was motivated by class hate – as if these people can magically hop back in time and discern her real, hidden motives. Isn’t it an equally valid assumption that she might have thought that the short-term suffering caused by her policies would be outweighed by the long-term benefits? But assumptions like these have no place when the sparklers are being passed around.

As a kind of bookend apologia, I must admit that I have asked myself why I feel so motivated to go against my own roots and beliefs to argue against people that I should, by rights, be joining. Am I a closet Tory or – even worse – middle class? Perhaps. I can’t even assume to know my own hidden motives, but I prefer to believe that I’m arguing against the ugliness of lop-sided thinking and in defence of balance which, as the ancient Chinese believed, is the key to health in all things.