If Baroness Thatcher was divisive in life, she is proving no less so in death. Indeed, the proverbial Martian might conclude from the extremes of approbation and acrimony that have consumed Britain since the former prime minister’s fatal stroke on Monday that, in fact, two different people had died.
One was the country’s saviour, a straight-talking political titan who restored an ailing Britain to health and hastened the end of the Cold War. The other sacrificed the post-war consensus to the idol of the free market, destroyed lives and livelihoods across swathes of the North, and fostered a culture of greed and selfishness, the deleterious effects of which we still suffer from.
To their credit, most politicians have maintained a sense of perspective. Formal tributes were delivered to a hastily recalled Parliament yesterday with due decorum, and Ed Miliband, in particular, deserves credit for his carefully calibrated tone. But such restraint has by no means predominated. Rather, Baroness Thatcher’s death has unleashed an almost medieval public mood, with pro- and anti-Maggie factions – many of whose members have no memory of her time in power – battling as ferociously over her death as her life.
Amid so much froth and hyperbole, neither side can be taken seriously. It may be ludicrous for Mrs Thatcher’s supporters to detect a left-leaning bias in BBC news presenters not wearing black ties; to demand a state funeral, even though the honours planned are such in all but name; and to call for a statue in Trafalgar Square and a minute’s silence at this weekend’s football games. Yet it is hardly more sensible for her detractors to routinely claim that she railroaded a reluctant populace – overlooking the three election victories – and to baulk at the taxpayer funding her obsequies.
What is striking, though, is the depth of feeling. This is no measured debate about the past; this is red raw and right now. With the traditional reticence of the British so wholly overturned by the public outpourings over Princess Diana, perhaps the floral tributes left at Baroness Thatcher’s Belgravia home are not as remarkable as they would once have been. But the same cannot be said of the celebratory street parties, the jubilant graffiti and the gleeful vitriol that followed the news of her death.
There is much to be lamented, here. Yet there is also cause for comfort in the cacophony. Is it in bad taste to rejoice at the demise of a frail, old woman? It certainly is. Does much of the venom go too far? Undoubtedly it does. Such excesses could hardly be further from the gun-to-the-head communal mourning that accompanies the demise of the world’s less democratic leaders, however. For all that we might decry the inappropriate revelries, then; and for all that we might consider George Galloway’s “May she burn in the hellfires” tweet to be unpalatable; such outbursts can nonetheless be celebrated as the marks of true political freedom.
There are other positives, too. At a time of increasing electoral disinterest, it is no bad thing for a politician (even one who is dead) to provoke such elemental passions. Equally, at a time when the political class is so often dismissed with the weary observation that “they’re all the same”, it is no bad thing to be reminded so forcefully that this is not always the case. Some of Westminster’s current crop might even grasp the notion – from so arresting an example – that leading public opinion, rather than slavishly following what focus groups suggest it to be, might be a decent aspiration to have.
One of Baroness Thatcher’s friends said this week that the former prime minister would have been proud to have caused such a stir. In death, as in life, she did not need to be liked. And in that, at least, she is a lesson for all.