Most of the obituaries for Margaret Thatcher will concede that she sharply divided the nation she ruled, but for those who lived in the Great Britain of the 1980s, the hate she inspired among those hit hardest by her policies ran deeper than most can imagine. It's a hate that survived her exile from power, her late decline into dementia, and more than two decades of the passage of time. And it had no problem showing its face Monday as news of her death spread across the word.
Tramp the dirt down.— George Galloway (@georgegalloway) April 8, 2013
Mere minutes after it was announced that Thatcher had passed, George Galloway, a liberal British politician, tweeted that. It's the title of a song that Elvis Costello wrote about the Iron Lady in 1989. This is the full lyric:
"When they finally put you in the ground/I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down"
Not very subtle. Galloway is not just any old liberal. This is a sitting Member of Parliament metaphorically stomping on the grave of an iconic former Prime Minister. Can you imagine a member of the U.S. Congress saying such a thing about an ex-president? For that matter, can you imagine an American pop star writing such a song about any president while they were still in office? Why does Thatcher hate run so strong and why have her enemies found it so hard to forgive?
To liberals like Galloway, she was the worst kind of villain, and those who disliked her the most have not been afraid to celebrate. A former miner who did battle with the Thatcher government said that today was "a great day" and that he's glad he outlived her. Gerry Adams, a former adversary as a leader of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein by simply saying, "Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British Prime Minister."
And there were protests turned celebrations:
(Photo by Olivia Harris/Reuters)
(Photo by David Moir/Reuters)
A quick scan on Twitter finds all manner of jokes mocking Thatcher's demise, from variations on her closing furnaces in hell (a reference to privatization fights with the coal and steel industries) to zingers about her wish to be cremated (an outlet for more coal jokes) — or simply Wicked Witch of the West references. Two of the most popular hashtags are #nostatefuneral, a call to deny Thatcher a taxpayer-funded memorial (which she will receive), and #nowthatcherisdead, which was anything but wistful memories of her time on Earth. (Before it was hijacked by confused Cher fans.)
The established media was not much better. The Mirror went with a full-front page splash featuring a column by Paul Routledge, savaging Thatcher's legacy and calling for a full accounting of her career:
And if anyone is inclined to remind me that one should not speak ill of the dead, let me remind them that she had nothing good to say about us while she was alive.
In addition to compiling a grocery list of Thatcher's sins, Routledge even repeats a Marie Antoinette-worthy line—"A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure"—that she almost certainly never said before ending with final epithet of "Rest In Profit, Iron Lady."
Plenty of politicians make enemies in their lives, but few have inspired such vitriol from their critics. Even when they do, that enmity generally fades in time, or at least takes a break in the hours before the family has had time to mourn. When Ronald Reagan died in 2004, even those who had plenty of mean things to say about him still paid their respects, if only because they didn't want to be seen as "tramping the dirt down." If anything, the media was knocked for being too deferential, unwilling to even offer polite criticisms. (Though not everyone held their tongue, of course.)
Andrew Sullivan chalks up the venom for Thatcher to a particularly British spirit of jealousy disguised as egalitarianism. Though perhaps it's becoming more universal than that. Twitter didn't exist yet when Reagan died and the trend toward pulling no punches for the dead had not yet fully evolved. In recent years, it's become accepted knowledge that there's no time like a funeral to be brutally honest about the legacy of public figures. But perhaps we've swung the pendulum so far that "brutal" is now the default position, and everyone feels they need to get their attacks quickly and without mercy. Thatcherism changed lives, some of them for the worse. Those policy and the emotions they created will clearly outlive her.
(Top photo by White House)