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Sunday, 14 April 2013

On Not Mourning Margaret Thatcher

As in her life, so in her death:  Mrs. Thatcher remains a deeply divisive figure. I have been searching inside myself this past week for elements of regret, or feelings of loss, or any of the sadness that is a normal part of mourning. But search as I have, there is nothing there – just a hard-heartedness that seems to mirror what I always thought was her defining quality: an imperviousness to feelings of concern, an absence of empathy, a failure to imagine the desperation of others who were affected by her actions.  

Whether as a mother to her own children or a ‘mother’ to her nation, she seemed indifferent to the pain she was causing. She was entirely wrapped up in her own convictions: how she saw the world was right – and everyone else was wrong. What she thought was to her, self-evidently, The Truth  – and other opinions were faulty thinking, errors, and could be dismissed with disdain. No wonder that to live through her years of premiership was an enraging experience for so many millions. And the feelings that have ben released this week, since the news of her death, seem to testify to the way in which some of those feelings linger on,  raw and alive in so many. I don’t share Ed Miliband’s politically-calculated  deference to her achievements.  As his Labour colleague Glenda Jackson - maybe freed to speak her mind by her decision to step down at the next election - said in the Commons, Thatcher was guilty of wreaking over a decade "the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country”.
Whether Mrs. Thatcher was consciously intending this, or whether it was a by-product of her conviction politics, is not the point. What matters is that her years as Prime Minister saw the destruction not only of communities throughout the land, particularly in the north of England and in Wales, but the destruction of a sense that community bonds matter – “there is no such thing as society”.  That a fulfilled life is sometimes more about service to others than what one can get for oneself was an ethic that was overridden by the individualistic ethos she promoted in the public domain. By appealing unashamedly to personal aspiration – always a vote-winner – rather than collective values involving care for others, compassion and generosity (the hallmarks of what makes life with others workable and worthwhile), the 1980s became the decade in which greed and selfishness came to be seen as virtues.
There was a rigidity in her thinking and in her manner that was frightening – as well as the lack of a sense of humour, which often suggests someone whose emotional or inner life lacks vitality. In the latter years of her premiership there were clear signs – if you had eyes trained to see these things – of mental disturbance: her long decline into dementia  came as no surprise.
Whether hard-hearted of me or not, whether I remain too attached to my own prejudices and beliefs or not, I cannot find it in me to mourn her passing. I wouldn’t ‘dance on her grave’, as that rather ugly sentiment puts it, and I would give her credit for being the first major politician anywhere to draw public attention to the potentially devastating effects of climate change (this was in 1988). But when I re-read the words she declared on the steps of Downing Street in 1979, in her carefully-tutored-for-the-cameras enunciation , words borrowed from Francis of Assisi (though probably not his either) – “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony...where there is despair, may we bring hope” – I can only shake my head in disbelief, and despair, at the gap between her words and her actions, and the consequences of her actions for so many millions of people in the UK. Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: in 1979, one in seven children in the UK lived in poverty; when she left office in 1990 it was one in three.
There are plenty around this week ready to hymn her praises, so I leave that to others.  From a traditional Jewish perspective there is no moral obligation to mourn for an ‘unrepentant sinner’  - that is, someone who has caused suffering and has not made material or emotional restitution (which can involve acknowledging ‘wrongdoing’ and asking for ‘forgiveness’). This seems to be a bit of arcane lore/law that has its own deeper wisdom. Thatcher never seemed capable of self-reflectiveness, nor was there ever a recognition of harm done to individuals, or to the fabric of the nation.
So I won’t be mourning on Wednesday, I won’t be watching on TV, I won’t be regretting her going – for many in the younger generation she was already history (as my son emailed me, “Was Thatcher cyrogenically frozen?! I thought she'd been dead for years. Next they'll be telling me JFK died”).
But those 1979 words still echo: “Where there is error, may we bring truth...”  - frightening it is when politicians pick up the rhetoric, the mind-set, of fundamentalism.  Killing off one’s enemies – those who see the world differently - is never far behind.