Friday, 19 April 2013

Getting over that death and getting a life

It’s sad that the very qualities that win Brits grudging admiration abroad, alongside the usual derision, are the ones that tend to go fastest when some major event occurs.

The qualities are a sense of humour and a certain civility. You know, the good manners that mean we check with our hapless victim that the electrodes are comfortably attached to his genitals, sir, before turning on the current.

The major event was the death of an old age pensioner last week. She’d played a significant role in politics a generation ago, had been stitched up by her closest friends, and had left the stage in some disarray.

That’s her in disarray, but also the stage. Her immediate legacy was decline, into a corruption without even
 the redeeming feature of grandeur – you know, the larger-than-life drama that goes with a Richard Daley in the States, a John Profumo in the UK, a Mohammed Karzi in Afghanistan – and marked instead by the sleaze that merely provokes ridicule. 

One remembers, for instance, a fine tabloid paper set up a Conservative MP, Piers Merchant, by getting a young woman to kiss him in a park – oh, and he kissed her back too, naturally – while their photographer was lurking in the shrubbery snapping the whole scene.

Cue one career-challenged MP and the Beckenham constituency needing a new representative.

However, twice as much time has passed since Maggie left office than she spent in it. When she died, it seemed to me to be a moment for historians, politicians and journalists to make a few appropriate comments, maybe publish a paper or two, but for the public to do no more than any other historical footnote merited.

But of course the Conservatives are back in power now, and not doing well in the polls. Whatever they could do in the way of riding a Maggie wave back into some popularity was worth trying.

And that’s when the sense of humour and civility failures click in.

First the civility. There were a number of parties celebrating Maggie’s death. Odd, really. In dying, Thatcher became the equal of all of us, who will in turn also have to face that same dreary exit some day, in a way she hadn’t been for years. Surely that was a moment for some restraint; the time for parties was at the time of her political assassination by her supposed allies back in ’90.

Much funnier than the parties was the campaign to get people to download the 1939 Wizard of Oz song, Ding, dong! The witch is dead. I refused to take part, for the same reason I wouldn’t have gone to a party: I’m against celebrating death. But the controversy was great to follow. Why, the other side decided to get in of the act too, and set out a little late to persuade people to buy I’m in love with Margaret Thatcher. In the end, Ding dong didn’t quite make it to number 1, falling one place short. I’m in love only got to 35.

What amazed me is how few people can make that much difference to a song’s place in the charts: Ding dong sold just 52,605 copies. In a nation of nearly 60 million. That’s what it takes to get to number 2.

Even more amusing were the reactions. Tory grandees were lining up to suggest that, despite their total and unshakable commitment to democratic principle, and all that free speech stuff, doncha know, they really rather felt that the BBC should do the decent thing and not play the song on its Chart Show. A new entry. Straight in at number 2. But the BBC caved and another victory was notched up for the humourless, over the adherents of the good old phlegmatic British inclination to say, ‘boys (and girls) will be boys (and girls); let them have their fun.’

Then protesters travelled down to her funeral to turn their backs on the procession as it went past. Strikes me if you want to reduce the event to its real insignificance, the best thing is not to go at all. By turning up in person, you surely give the moment substance – as though protesting against Thatcher hadn’t become irrelevant two decades ago.

That’s where the sense of humour failure showed through too. Nigel Lawson, Lord Lawson, told the BBC that the protesters were exercising a right Maggie had done everything she could to protect. On the other hand – oh, wasn’t it obvious there was another hand coming along? – it would be a terrible pity to show the world an image of Britain as a place that couldn’t show respect to that fine, fine woman.

This from the man whose resignation from Maggie’s cabinet triggered her eventual fall.

Hey, lighten up a bit
It’s pretty significant that he mentioned that point about the image of Britain abroad. Many eulogies to Maggie have pointed out that she converted ‘basket-case’ Britain of 1979 into a nation that won the respect of others.

Well, basket-case Britain had one child in ten living in poverty. Eighteen years of Tory rule later, internationally respected Britain had taken that ratio to one child in three.

International respect paid for by little children? You can keep it. The kind of respect I’d appreciate – and show myself – would be for those who did what they could to alleviate the suffering of little children, not to increase it.

And I might also feel more respect for the country if it learned to take itself less seriously again. To see the funny side. So that instead of working up outrage in response to a little tasteless protest, people just shrugged, walked off and got a life.

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