Why Maggie Won’t Have a Respectful Send-Off

Perhaps the United States once really was “the land of the free” – but I see no historical evidence that it deserves this label (unless it refers simply to the freedom of white people to grab land, in the early, pioneer days). An illustration of the power of US corporate propaganda is the way in which Ronald Reagan, a global terrorist and domestic criminal, who redistributed large chunks of the US economy to the super-rich, is today seen by many Americans as a hero; or at least, a nice old man. He even has a provincial airport named after him. This Stalinist-style rewrite of history is an American speciality. The truth is dead – long live the propaganda.

Reagan’s loyal sidekick, Margaret Thatcher, died last week, and the right immediately tried to begin another rewrite of history; the media has pushed a largely establishment view, and the old lady has been given a state-funded funeral, with military escort, to take place this Wednesday. The British establishment is trying to airbrush one unfortunate fact out of history: Thatcher is widely loathed by much of the British public – probably by more people than ever supported her. Unfortunately for the Conservative party, right-wing media and wider establishment, the British people have less of a tendency towards amnesia than our American cousins, and, it appears, less of a tendency to lie down and let the state roll over us.

Thatcher, I commented on Twitter, was the most hated Briton of the 20th Century. I only received one dissenting reply, which suggested Ian Huntley (the murderer of two young girls) as an alternative. Perhaps he was right – but reaching for a child killer underlines my point rather than destroying it.

The point of most of the protests, blogging and anger is deadly serious: to prevent Thatcher from getting the Reagan treatment. It’s important that the long series of tragedies that marked the Thatcher era is kept in the public memory. Even the combined might of the right-wing media has failed to hide that Thatcher is hated by millions of people.

Some clever person thought up a way to reveal the extent of Thatcher-hate: by suggesting that people buy the Wizard of Oz song, Ding Dong the Witch is Dead. The single rocketed up the iTunes chart to number one (before mysteriously settling back to second place in the hour before the count closed on Saturday night); the right, still failing to comprehend the truly mass nature of the anti-Thatcher feeling, tried to replace it with a pro-Thatcher song, “I Love Margaret Thatcher” (which was actually satirical – there are no known pro-Thatcher songs). This effort was promoted by the right-wing media – and still flopped dismally, reaching a pathetic 35th position. Despite what the media was telling us, there was no groundswell of pro-Thatcher feeling to rival the anti-Thatcher feeling.

The BBC and Capital Radio both decided to censor the charts. You see, it’s fine for the mass media to tell people what tunes to buy, but when the public choose the top single for themselves, to make a statement? That’s dangerous sedition. We now have an established precedent: when a fact (in this case, the extent of hatred for Margaret Thatcher) is inconvenient to the British establishment, the media can and will impose censorship.

Anti-Thatcher banners were displayed at football matches. Plans for a minute’s silence at stadiums were shelved, because football fans would have refused to stay silent. Every attempt to paint a picture of a nation in mourning failed.

The right resorted to snivelling: “An old lady has died… Think of her family.” But then why is such a hated woman awarded a state-funded funeral that is bound to generate anger and protest? Why is there a military presence, and why are the chimes of Big Ben to be silenced? Because then future generations can be taught that she was a national heroine; that her vindictive and deliberate destruction of Britain’s social fabric was actually done in the national interest. The fact of the funeral itself can be used to write history – how different is this from the state-sanctioned worship of North Korean leaders? These tyrants can prove how “loved” they are by showing videos of cheering, flag-waving crowds. Tomorrow’s event is made-for-TV. The pictures will show the burial of a loved woman, not a hated one. Millions can express their hatred for Thatcher on the streets, online, at football matches, by buying singles; but the final story that the establishment wants to tell is a different one altogether.

This is why the protests this week have been important. This is a battle for memes: a struggle to control which version of history goes into the history books. Because for all the praise over Thatcher’s legacy, the British people have not forgotten:

  • Thatcher’s “economic miracle” never happened: British GDP has grown in line with Germany and France - and this happened at the time of a North Sea oil boom in the UK.
  • Thatcher therefore didn’t create wealth with her policies – she merely redistributed it, from poor to rich, as shown by the Gini coefficient.
  • And the long-term economic legacy? According to Thatcher fans, we now have a country of opportunity for hard workers. Yet Thatcher actually made it harder to succeed – social mobility fell, and is among the worst in Europe, with only Portugal lagging behind us. This fact, more than any other, destroys the central myth of Thatcherism.
  • Thatcher’s one true economic achievement was to turn London into a global financial centre; but this happened at the cost of losing Britain’s position as a manufacturer, leaving Germany to soar ahead; and the 2008 crash showed that the City boom was far less valuable to the nation than had been previously assumed. It had been built on sand.
  • Some “libertarians” have declared Thatcher a fighter for individual liberty – these people clearly don’t remember the most authoritarian regime of the post-war era, probably even beating New Labour’s control-freakery after 9/11. The police were given a blank cheque by the Thatcherites: as a result, police corruption and violence soared. Deaths in custody were ignored. When young people turned away from politics and embraced rave culture, the police were even there to stop them dancing in fields. Thatcherism did not approve of dancing. “Free” people must consume, not dance.
  • Despite the rise in brutal policing (or more likely, because of it) violent crime rose throughout the 1980s, peaking in the mid-90s before starting to fall again (see “Trends in Crime” graph in this BBC article).
  • Thatcherites spread the myth that privilege is now about hard work, not birthright; yet when Thatcher’s moron son Mark attempted to engineer a coup in Equatorial Guinea and was arrested, strings were pulled on his behalf, and he was fined and released.

So Thatcher’s death is being used by conservatives to reinvent her life. Don’t these people have any respect for a frail old lady who has died, or for her family? Despite a torrent of media lies and censorship; despite the police acting to prevent peaceful protest; despite the tabloid wailing about “leftie extremists”, the British people have acted to stop history from being rewritten. The British love of free speech wasn’t given to us from above; it’s deep in our culture, and it’s the people who claim to defend it who most want to take it away.

Why Progressives Should Defend Ken Clarke

You won’t often find me defending British Conservative ministers – especially ones who (allegedly) think that some rapes aren’t so bad – but, to quote the song, There’s Something Happening Here…

My 1980s self would be shocked to find me thinking sympathetically about Clarke. He was a minister in the Thatcher government – about as close to an Axis Of Evil that we’ve had in this country. What my young self didn’t know was that even the nastiest, most brutal of politicians can become wiser and more pragmatic with age. Make no mistake, Clarke is still conservative to the core, but some of his views are liberal enough that his appointment as Secretary of State for Justice last year upset many on the Tory right.

What particularly upset the flog-’em and hang-’em brigade was Clarke’s pronouncement that prison sizes have become too large, locking up more people doesn’t make for a better society, and that his goal in government was to reduce the size of the UK’s prison population. That made me reflect on how right-wing and authoritarian Labour had become under the Blairites. When a pragmatic Tory minister makes Labour look right-wing, you know the left has taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Yesterday, Clarke was giving a radio interview about his plan to increase the “good behaviour” time that would be offered to prisoners from 33% to 50% for those who plead guilty. In a discussion about rape, he tried to explain that, in the eyes of the law, there are different degrees of rape, pointing out that “…if an 17-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old and she’s perfectly willing, that is rape…” – in other words, what’s known in the US as Statutory Rape. (Note that the age of consent in the UK is 16).

I doubt anybody reading this would disagree with his point: to claim that a consensual sexual act could be as bad as a non-consensual one would be crazy, and would lessen rape as a crime. However, Clarke went on to talk about “date rape” when (it appears) he meant statutory rape.

The media and political opposition love to jump on apparent slips by government ministers, so yesterday afternoon’s outcry was unsurprising. But by this morning, the attacks on Clarke had ramped up: and were almost entirely from the right-wing media.

Notably, the most outspoken media were also the ones who have a poor record in defending women’s rights.

The right hates the fact that Ken Clarke is attacking one of the things they hold dear: locking people up and throwing away the key. They smelled blood and they went on the attack, calling immediately for his dismissal (“and with him”, you can hear them thinking, “the idea that prison populations should be reduced”).

The right did exactly as you’d expect – no surprise there. Unfortunately Labour leader Ed Miliband and much of the “progressive” Twitterati followed suit. “What? Ken Clarke said something about rape that seems to have upset somebody or other? DISGRACEFUL – FIRE HIM”… kind-of knee-jerk stuff.

Miliband’s intervention was a sad reminder that party politics come ahead of progressive values; most Labour supporters should be pleased that Clarke, rather than someone far more authoritarian, is the Justice Secretary. But Miliband simply saw the chance to score cheap points.

As for those people who instantly decided that Clarke was guilty – remember, we progressives pride ourselves on bring the smart ones? Read what he said. Think about it. Forcible rape really is worse than a teenager having consenting, underage sex. At least, I think so.