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Margaret Thatcher’s Death Brings Intense Feelings, Highlights Cultural Differences

Flowers placed by well-wishers surround a portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outside her home in Belgravia, London.
Flowers placed by well-wishers surround a portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outside her home in Belgravia, London. Photograph by Lewis Whyld, AP/PA

Earlier this week I posted a story about the passing of Margaret Thatcher on April 8, sharing some lesser known facts about the life of the former British prime minister (including that she had been a food scientist who worked on soft serve ice cream before she entered politics). That story struck a nerve with our readers.

The post got 7,500 Facebook “likes,” 384 tweets, 478 Google+ likes, and lots of comments. We noticed that many Britons pulled no punches when it came to expressing their anger at the Iron Lady.

Hil from the U.K. wrote, “Thatcher ruined our country, she sold of[f] our industries to the highest bidder, put millions [of] people out of work and many communities today still live with her legacy, decimated by the loss of jobs due to her policies. A great leader has wisdom an[d] humanity, she has neither. I am glad she is dead.”

Perhaps emblematic of some of the simmering anger at Thatcher over her victory in the 1982 Falklands War, Martin from Argentina wrote, “Oh yea! to swimming in the flames of hell.”

We also noticed that a number of commenters, especially from countries other than the U.K. or Argentina, expressed dismay at the rawness of such attacks on a newly deceased leader. In the U.S., for example, we are more accustomed to regarding our deceased presidents with a high degree of formality and respect, even if we didn’t care for their policies.

Gale from Australia wrote, “I am so saddened by above comments for our future world. You may love her, like her or not admire her work as a politician. But how very wrong to speak ill of her upon her death. Why are people so very unkind? RIP Margaret.”

That got us wondering, is there something unique to British culture that permits its citizens to so freely criticize those who have led them and then moved on?

A British Brother and Sister Relate Opposing Views

We asked a Briton who has been living in America for some time about the differences in attitudes between the two countries. Lucie McNeil, vice president of program development for explorer programs here at National Geographic, told us there is a “difference between Brits and Americans writ large. Saying something critical of America could be seen as unpatriotic here, but we Britons are conditioned to be critical of our country.”

McNeil added via email, “To talk about ‘respect’ [for Thatcher now] is to completely miss the point…  It’s about feelings.  We are a small, joined up island. Respect in public office is only earned; it’s not part of any constitution.”

McNeil said that when it comes to the Iron Lady, “There is nobody else who has polarized the public more.”

She added that she grew up in northeast England, “one of the areas most affected by her policies. There was a lot of closing of shipyards and mines… Those against her believe she viscerally took apart working class families, communities, and lives at a very individual level and those people are still alive.”

McNeil also argued that Thatcher’s policies and character were “conflated and intensified during that media era because she was a woman, who really appeared as leader from nowhere on the British political scene…  Britain (the media particularly) wasn’t ready for that S&M voice, that handbag and hair, and demeanour.  If a man had done and led the way she did, it wouldn’t remotely have had the historical and current attention lens it’s had.”

McNeil concluded,  “I was never a fan of her execution, but I have huge, huge respect for her as a female leader doing that job, at that time in Britain (I was eight when she became PM).”

McNeil’s brother John still lives in the U.K. Over email he told us that many Brits felt like they had an essentially personal relationship with the Iron Lady. “Her impact on all parts of society was unavoidable,” he told us via email.

“Factor in that she was female (with the ‘wrong’ background); she wasn’t the usual stuffed shirt that the British expected (in or outside of Parliament); she was both enigmatic and a winner (while we often tolerate glorious failure).”

John McNeil noted that Thatcher’s time in office was marked by considerable change in society and around the world, punctuated by labor riots, terrorist attacks, and war. “So those who know little of her politics or her times will peruse some headlines and quickly distil that: Closing Mines & The Poll Tax = Irrefutably Evil. Or they might instead find Winning Wars & Defying Terrorists =  Rather Super…  As with everything to do with Thatcher, the truth lies somewhere in between.”

A Writer Weighs in

Writer Adam Nicolson, who lives in East Sussex, England, told us via email, “I certainly don’t remember any previous figure being attacked like that after their deaths. So, I think this says more about her than about British culture. Her stock in trade was polarization.” (Nicolson has a piece in the upcoming July issue of National Geographic, and recently penned a series for BBC on the 17th Century.)Nicolson said Thatcher had purposefully tried to shake up her country to awaken it from a static, even declining state of post-war, post-imperialist paralysis.

“For Thatcherites the only future was confrontation—of the facts of rust-bucket industries and over-mighty trade unions, in the lack of self-motivation in a country of enormously high taxes and shrinking private ownership of wealth,” said Nicolson. “And so accommodation, any sense of joint enterprise, any belief in the social virtues were all anathema to her. ‘No such thing as society,’ as she didn’t quite say, but as everybody believed she had said.”

And so Thatcher moved to break down the power of the unions, slash taxes, and privatize industry and public housing. Nicolson added, “The Falklands war was symbolic for her not because it was a return to empire but because it seemed continuous with the war she wanted to wage on ‘the enemy within’—the unions, the old consensus-based wets etc.”

In Nicolson’s view, the flames of anger against Thatcher are still being stoked by the current Tory government, presiding over a time when many social and wealth differences have actually increased, and many marginal communities still feel under threat.

He added, “The attacks made on her memory, with her body still warm, are not signs of a ferocious, unforgiving culture, but of the very opposite: a society which wants to attack ‘Thatcher’ precisely because ‘Thatcher’ sets its face against all the more tolerant, liberal, inclusive, and uncompetitive ideals which have been of central importance to it for centuries. It is almost as if these street parties are celebrating the cutting out of a cancer which it never wants to see return. At the same time, of course, there are people piling roses up outside her house and eulogies in Parliament.”

Russel Brand Shares a Youthful Take

British celebrity Russel Brand is a rather polarizing figure himself, but he has made waves in the U.K. with a recent op-ed in the Guardian, which has received more than a hundred thousand “likes” on Facebook.

“Thinking about it now, when I was a child she was just a strict woman telling everyone off and selling everything off,” Brand wrote.

“All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people’s pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful. Perhaps there is resentment because the clemency and respect that are being mawkishly displayed now by some and haughtily demanded of the rest of us at the impending, solemn ceremonial funeral, are values that her government and policies sought to annihilate,” he added.

If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t,” wrote Brand.

What do you think, is it ok to talk tough about a leader who always demanded toughness, even after she died?

Comments

  1. Edward Paul Campbell
    Brighton, East Sussex, UK.
    June 11, 2013, 7:31 am

    Thatcher, among her many criticisms was known as ‘the children’s milk stealer’. I grew up in the 1950’s, and in those days, a daily 1/4 pint of milk was issued to children at school, to ensure they had a minimum amount of calcium and vitamins to help ensure healthy bones, in a time when rickets was still a problem, in deprived families living on the breadline.

    Later, in the 1980’s-90’s Thatcher’s government permitted double mortgages for single properties, which caused massive inflation. Ordinary people were boasting that their property was going up at a £1000 a month in value.

    Then came the massive crash, when the property bubble burst and people could no longer afford the spiralling mortgage interest rates. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes, building companies went out of business like last years fashion, and many committed suicide.

    The building industry has continued to bump along the bottom in this country with 10s of thousands of unemployed or short-time building workers.

    With a second bubble bursting a few years back, along with the banking crash, the building industry is still on its knees, while we need hundreds of thousands of new homes building or old ones upgrading every year, but few investors. Least of all the ‘caring’ governments that poor people still blindly vote for – in a country with a preponderance of crumbling Victorian and outmoded post-war building stock. While the super-rich get richer.

    Meanwhile, millions of derelict buildings and whole communities suffer from a stagnant housing market, and even fewer jobs. This crypto-fascist coalition continues look after its backers, increasingly punish the poor and unemployed with slashed benefits, and fails to stimulate any new jobs to speak of, thanks to our cowardly baling out criminal banks and their crooked directors. We will be paying for this present ‘Wall Street – Greed is Good’ mantra for generations to come, until the next greed-bubble bursts.

    What Thatcher and her legacy did best – policies leading to economic and social disintegration for ordinary working people, and their societies ‘north of Watford’, in many cases – while victimizing the vulnerable and least able to fight back with any power of executive influence. In a country where one can now buy a house for £1 in a depressed northern town, while offering 1 Hyde Park for £68 million… Or am I missing something here…?

  2. Bernard
    April 15, 2013, 10:00 pm

    It looks like she “cured” the UK by replacing a hopelessly bad situation with a heartlessly bad one. A change, yes. An improvement? For some.

  3. Issy Valentine
    scotland
    April 12, 2013, 1:57 am

    I voted her in as i agreed britain needed change. I voted her out when i realised she did not listen to even her own party let alonethe people who lost their livelihood and community.
    Yes she gave us opportunity to buy homes.my parents bought their council house. Good thing or my 87 yr old widowed father would now be faced with the bedroom tax..
    But that change with everyone wanting to buy led to credit crunch and negative equity for many and ultimately the economic mess we have today.
    Cutting welfare shows the tories do not realise among those who do not want to work are those who had work but lost it as workplaces fold. With no jobs to apply for it is a dreadful time to label folk like that.
    Thatcher was focused and should be respected in death. No one really knows what todays politicians stand for. I think her policies were callous but she shook up the country. Her legacy is third generation unemployed all over scotland disillusioned with politics. Sadly this could lead to independence at a time weshould pull together.

  4. Gonzalo Rasmussen
    April 11, 2013, 8:10 pm

    It isn’t hard to understand the reactions Brian. I’m from Argentina, and even if I sustain our rights to the islands it would have been very naive to pretend that UK wouldn’t react to our invasion (even if it was as a way for Maggie to get more votes) so that’s not what bothers me. The problem is that she decided to sink the Belgrano that was out of the war zone, going back to the continent, it wasn’t a target. Because of that she was the responsible of more than 300+ deaths. Also, I was reading today the always very biased The Economist who had her on the cover. They called her a “Freedom Fighter”. This Freedom Fighter supported and was a very close friend of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who was responsible of thousands of dissapearings. And then, the domestic hate she caused, well that can be much better explained by people like this Scottish guy here.

  5. Sophie Carr
    London
    April 11, 2013, 6:46 pm

    We don’t expect people to “talk nice”. There’s a big difference between “talking nice about someone”, not talking at all, and talking horribly about someone when they’ve died. No-one expects people to say nice things if they disagreed with the woman’s politics – just keep their nastiness to themselves in the public domain – by all means share your feelings with your friends who have the same opinions, in private. I’m disgusted that any human being can publicly celebrate someone’s death – hopefully it’s just a social networking warped crowd psychology thing where people feel they can express these feelings because there’s some kind of anonymity in this medium.

  6. Mike Bell
    Perthshire, Scotland
    April 11, 2013, 5:45 pm

    The lack of compassion for Margaret Thatcher is a reflection of her own lack of compassion for those who lost their jobs and opportunities as a direct result of her policies.

    Privatisation and deregulation has been a disaster for the working class and poor of the UK with too much power and wealth in the hands of the few.

    Her “crime” was her lack of vision. She was a short term thinker who destroyed heavy industry without putting anything in its place. Many of the communities affected by her policies still experience higher than average unemployment and poverty.

    In Scotland she is almost universally despised. As the son of a coal miner I share that feeling. Miners along with steel workers and ship builders were treated like foreign invaders as she mobilised the police force against them as if it was her private army.

    Her legacy was carried on by Tony Blair, a pretend socialist, and is now being carried forward by a vicious Tory & Liberal Democrat coalition that has identified a new “enemy within”, the sick, the disabled and unemployed.

    I know that Americans saw her differently but she was probably the most divisive Prime Minister the UK has ever had and that in a democracy is something that should not be admired or celebrated.

  7. Sophie Carr
    London
    April 11, 2013, 5:25 pm

    Russell Brand’s comment just shows how different people within the British society interpret and understand things differently. Brand describes her as teaching “it’s good to be selfish”, but I interpreted it as “it’s good to take responsibility for yourself and your own welfare”, he described her as saying “other people’s pain is not your problem” which I interpreted as her saying “people who work hard should not have to pay for people who make no effort” and so on… Some of us believe in personal responsibility and we celebrate her life, and others believe that society owes you a living, and those people celebrate her death.
    Having said all of that, regardless of one’s own political and ideological views, I still find it repuslive for people to celebrate her (or anyone else’s) death. Even Lucie McNeill stated that she had “huge, huge respect for her” despite being no fan. I am embarrassed for the lack of respect and vitriol shown by a large part of the British population.

  8. julie bearryman
    Lincolnshire
    April 11, 2013, 5:24 pm

    Of course its okay to ‘talk tough’ about Margaret Thatcher. We can reflect upon her life and work whether we agreed with what she did or not. She is not family or friend she was a public figure so yes we can air our views. I did not agree with her politics at all, and can empathaise with those who were greatly affected by her political decisions. I do not think she should have such a pompous funeral….especially in these times of austerity. But it’s always the same in her life and death those who have more always want more.

  9. Heather Stirling
    United Kingdom
    April 11, 2013, 5:12 pm

    I don’t see any sense in talking nice about someone just because they died, if you never had anything nice to say about them when they were alive. She gets no respect from me dead or alive.

    • Brian Clark Howard
      April 11, 2013, 5:25 pm

      You do make an interesting point, thanks for sharing.