Mark Steel: You can't just shut us up now that Margaret Thatcher's dead

If someone robs your house, you don’t say: “I disagreed with the burglar’s policy, of tying me to a chair. But I did admire his convictions.”

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Maybe a more modern way of broadcasting the news would have been for Davina McCall to announce it, saying: “She’s gone, but let’s have a look at some of her best bits.” Then we could see her denouncing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and befriending General Pinochet.

Instead it began as expected, with the Hurds, Howes and Archers phoning in their “remarkables” and “historics”, and we were reminded how she brought down the Berlin Wall and rescued Britain, then an article in The Times claimed she was responsible for ending apartheid, and it seemed by today we’d be hearing she stopped Gibraltar being invaded by Daleks and made  our goldfish feel proud to be British and took  8 for 35 against Australia to win the Ashes.

“Even those who disagreed with her, respected her as a conviction politician”, it was said many times, as if everyone would participate in the mourning. But soon it was impossible to pretend there was a respectful consensus, not because of the odd party in the street, but from a widespread and considered contempt. In many areas it must have been confusing for Jehovah’s Witnesses, as every time they knocked on a door and asked, “Have you heard the good news”, they’d be told “Yes mate, I have, do you want to come in for a beer?”

Before long came the complaints, such as Tony Blair saying: “Even if you disagree with someone very strongly, at the moment of their passing you should show some respect.” Presumably then, when Bin Laden was killed, Blair’s statement was: “Although I didn’t agree with Osama’s policies, he was a conviction terrorist, a colourful character whose short films were not only fun but educational as well. He will be sadly missed.”

The disrespect was inevitable, as millions were opposed to her not because they disagreed with her, but because she’d helped to ruin their lives. If someone robs your house, you don’t say: “I disagreed with the burglar’s policy, of tying me to a chair with gaffer tape and stripping the place bare, even taking the pickled onions, which I consider to be divisive. But I did admire his convictions.”

For example, a Chilean woman living in Britain was quoted in The Nation magazine, saying: “The Thatcher government directly supported Pinochet’s murderous regime, financially, via military support, even military training. Members of my family were tortured and murdered under Pinochet, who was one of Thatcher’s closest allies and friend. Those of us celebrating are the ones who suffered deeply.” Yes, but she was able to buy shares in British Gas so she was better off in other ways. In so many areas, the party that insists we show compassion for their departed heroine made a virtue of showing none when she was their leader. She didn’t just create unemployment, she gloried in it. Her supporters in the City revelled in their unearned wealth all the more because they could jeer at those with nothing.

But this week Thatcher fans have been unrestrained in their abuse for anyone not displaying “compassion”. Maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt and accept they’ve just discovered it. They’re all going to the doctors saying: “I’ve been getting this strange sort of caring feeling towards someone who isn’t me. Do I need antibiotics?” If they’re puzzled as to why there isn’t universal sadness this week, maybe they should visit Corby. It’s a town that was built in the 1930s, entirely round a steelworks, and thousands of unemployed Scots moved there for the work. As a result its people still have a strong Scottish accent, even though it’s in Northamptonshire.

But in 1980 Margaret Thatcher’s government shut down most of the steel industry, as part of her plan to break the unions, and the effect on Corby was like someone taking control of the Lake District and concreting in the lakes.

I was there to record a radio show about the town, and met Don and Irene, both in their seventies, at the Grampian Club. Don’s father had walked to Corby from Larkhall, near Glasgow, in 1932. I mentioned the steel strike and plant closure to Don, but he gestured as if it had somehow passed him by. It would have to be mentioned in the show, so I tried to find someone in the town with a story, an anecdote, something. But no one wanted to say a thing about it. During the recording, I asked if anyone had a story to tell from those days, but no one did, until it felt as if the whole audience collectively passed a motion that went: “I think you’d best move on to another subject, Mark.”

Afterwards in the bar, Irene told me: “We weren’t being rude, love, when we didn’t have a lot to say about the closure. But it wasn’t an easy time. Don marched from Corby to London with a banner. It made him angry about everything, we split up for a year because it was too much to live with. But we were lucky, two of our closest friends committed suicide in the months after the closure. So people would rather forget about those times really. But apart from that we really enjoyed the show.”

Still, even those who disagree with her policies, will surely commend her achievements.

Strangely, it’s now her supporters who are insulting her memory, with a funeral paid for by the taxpayer. Surely it would be more fitting to leave her where she is, and say: “If you can’t stand on your own two feet, you can't expect help from the state.”

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