What, exactly, is the problem with throwing a party when someone you dislike dies? This isn’t a rhetorical question – it might appear obvious, but it’s not as clear as it seems. Is it because celebrating someone’s death is disrespectful to their memory? Nope, that doesn’t really stack up. As Glenn Greenwald points out, it doesn’t suddenly become illegitimate to express negative views of public figures just because they’re dead. It would certainly be wrong to go up to one of Thatcher’s presumably-mourning children in the street (her actual biological children that is, as opposed to the metaphorical kind who are called such simply by dint of being born in Britain in the 80s) and talk about how much you hated her while she was alive, but that’s because it would be intruding into private grief. A street party – if it’s not actually held on Carol Thatcher’s front lawn – can’t really be said to fall into that category. Besides which, as Greenwald also highlights (and as I suggested on Monday when her death was announced), there weren’t many on the right who spoke up against celebrating the death of Hugo Chavez, so suddenly getting all outraged now about the vital need to respect the memories of those who are no longer with us just because this time it’s about someone you happen to like does seem a wee bit inconsistent.
How about the argument that celebrating someone’s death is just plain distasteful? You can certainly make a plausible case that vocalising your dislike for Thatcher in the wake of her death is one thing, but actively throwing a party at anyone’s death, no matter how reviled, is a bit sick. Sure, there are people who apply this principle inconsistently (as in the case of Hugo Chavez, or, more pertinently, whoever decided that Thatcher’s own funeral should have “a Falklands War theme”) but all that proves is that people are hypocrites, not that the principle is a bad one. I have a lot of sympathy for this argument, but toasting the demise of those we dislike seems to be pretty well-embedded in how we behave. You might not have wanted to raise a glass when either Thatcher or Chavez died, but what about Osama bin Laden? Harold Shipman? Saddam Hussein? Ceausescu? I’m sure there are some among us who could honestly say they didn’t feel the slightest inkling of happiness on hearing the news of anyone’s death no matter how heinous the deceased’s crimes when they were alive, but I’m equally sure that they’re very much in the minority. I don’t deny that it’s an unpleasant disposition, or that humanity as a whole would probably be better off without it, but I don’t see it going away any time soon. It’s particularly hard to begrudge this sentiment when you see it coming from people rejoicing at the death of a political figure who directly caused them harm while they were alive. Is it really so wrong that there were Libyans who were overjoyed at Gaddafi’s death? Or Chileans who felt the same about Thatcher’s old friend Pinochet? Thatcher, for all her faults, was no dictator, but many of the people cracking open the champagne are those whose lives were blighted by her actions – the ex-miners left with no alternative way to earn a living in devastated communities, the anti-nuclear campaigners smeared as Soviet sympathisers, or the gay men and women who were at school in the 80s and 90s and whose teachers were banned by Section 28 from telling them that their sexuality even existed. It might not be right to feel happy about the death of someone who caused you significant suffering, but at the very least it’s understandable.
Even if you agree with that, of course, you could point out that plenty of those out partying in the streets on Monday night weren’t even alive when Thatcher was Prime Minister, much less old enough to remember what life was like when she was in office. And there’s something in this – Jon argued precisely this point on this very site a couple of years ago. But you don’t have to be able to remember Thatcher’s reign to feel the effects of her policies. Anyone who’s grown up in the North of England and been unable to get a well-paid job after leaving school because of the collapse of manufacturing, or is stuck on a Council Housing waiting list because of the Right To Buy-induced social housing shortage, or even just happened to notice the high prices and poor service provided by their gas or water company, has, to one degree or another, lived their life in Thatcher’s shadow. In the end though, maybe that’s actually a conclusive reason not to celebrate. As Salman reminds us, more than two decades after she left office, her imprint on British political life remains largely intact. Whether she’s dead or alive doesn’t change that.