Celebrating Margaret Thatcher's death: Utterly disgraceful, or totally justifiable?

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While mourners placed flowers outside the late Margaret Thatcher's home in London, other Brits celebrated her death with street parties and champagne.
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While mourners placed flowers outside the late Margaret Thatcher's home in London, other Brits celebrated her death with street parties and champagne.

The late British prime minister's political enemies pop champagne corks, to the disgust of those who admired her — and even many who didn't

Unseemly street parties have erupted in the U.K. as Britons who thought Margaret Thatcher was evil celebrate her death. Many working-class Britons blame the former prime minister's conservative policies for inflicting suffering on people struggling to get by, and seven police officers were injured in Bristol when violence broke out at one of the spontaneous parties that erupted on the news that Thatcher had passed away Monday. Stephen Williams, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament from Bristol, said it was "entirely distasteful" for anyone to celebrate "the death of another human being," whatever their politics. Another politician called the parties "utterly disgraceful."

Some people think the parties are entirely appropriate. "This demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure's death is not just misguided but dangerous," says Glenn Greenwald at Britain's Guardian. It may be appropriate to discourage speaking ill of the dead when a private person dies, "but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power." Thatcher's fans are "aggressively exploiting" emotions generated by her death, Greenwald says. Her critics need to counter that to prevent all of the praise from permanently whitewashing her legacy, the way "the week-long tidal wave of unbroken reverence" did after Ronald Reagan's death.

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Whatever else may be true of her, Thatcher engaged in incredibly consequential acts that affected millions of people around the world. She played a key role not only in bringing about the first Gulf War but also using her influence to publicly advocate for the 2003 attack on Iraq. She denounced Nelson Mandela and his ANC as "terrorists", something even David Cameron ultimately admitted was wrong. She was a steadfast friend to brutal tyrants such as Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Indonesian dictator General Suharto ("One of our very best and most valuable friends"). And as my Guardian colleague Seumas Milne detailed last year, "across Britain Thatcher is still hated for the damage she inflicted — and for her political legacy of rampant inequality and greed, privatization and social breakdown."

To demand that all of that be ignored in the face of one-sided requiems to her nobility and greatness is a bit bullying and tyrannical, not to mention warped. [Guardian]

To many people, however, there's just no way to justify the ferocity of the criticism being whipped at the late prime minister. Ignore the left's "pathetic excuses," says Graeme Archer at Britain's Telegraph. "The miner's strike isn't a reason to cheer the death of any human being, whether or not they were Margaret Thatcher." Most on the left have behaved honorably — and, of course, "there are plenty of rude Conservatives in this world" — "but a huge number of Left-wingers have by now disgraced themselves" with their dancing and joyful declaration that the person they saw as the wicked witch is dead.

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Perhaps this is the iron lady's last, great service to her party and her country. Even her death has become a political act, throwing into sharp relief the gap between the mainstream — where her lower middle-class Conservatism lives; where most of us learned our values — and the wilder reaches of the socialist sensibility. All parties, it turns out, are not, in fact, the same. [Telegraph]

Of course, Thatcher was a polarizing figure — "perhaps the most in post-war British politics," says Matthew Champion at Britain's Metro. So it's important that Thatcher's political opponents avoid joining in her fans' celebration of her political achievements, or even her personal strength, as even some politicians in the Labor party Thatcher fought all her career have done.

By tiptoeing around Thatcher's legacy and praising her strength of will, Labor figures risk romanticizing a period of history that brought neoliberalism into the world, and blamed by some on the left for new levels of global impoverishment.

Speaking in 1982, then Labor leader Michael Foot, who died in 2010, said of Thatcher: "She has no imagination, and that means no compassion."

It is this same lack of imagination that leads to platitudes that on the face of it are apolitical, but are in effect dangerously partisan. [Metro]

One person who wouldn't have minded the celebrations in the streets? Thatcher herself, at least according to Conor Burns, a Conservative member of Parliament who visited Baroness Thatcher every week in her final years. "Funnily enough the parties that we're seeing, the things in some of these mining communities and those young people opening the champagne in Glasgow, they're a remarkable tribute to her you know," Burns tells The Telegraph. Burns remembers telling Thatcher that people had begun selling "death party packs" last year in anticipation of her demise. "She said the fact that they felt so strongly about her more than 20 years after she left Downing Street was a tribute to the fact she had done something in politics rather than simply been someone."

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