Go Glenda

Glenda Jackson’s stirring eh, tribute, to the recently deceased Margaret Thatcher. As you’ll learn at the finish, “nothing unparliamentary has occurred here”.

Also note: on news of Thatcher’s death, Ding Dong the Witch is Dead rocketed to number one in iTunes download chart. Normally this would lead to BBC Radio One (the public broadcaster’s pop music channel) putting it at the culmination of its Sunday chart countdown, but precedent may be broken in this case.

How can we explain all this giddy disrespect for the deceased?

Three reasons:

One of course is that Thatcher’s government, like Reagan’s in America, was the one that re-wrote the rules and thus allowed the income share of the top 0.1% to skyrocket. That money came from somewhere – partly in the deterioration of public schools, hospitals, mental health care etc. that Jackson notes, partly in a declining share of national income for the bottom 90%. The deed is not forgotten, because it was no ordinary act – it changed the rules of the game, weighting the dice far more than before in favor of the rich.

Second, those from abroad may not be aware a British Prime Minister has far, far more power within the UK than, say, any US president has within the US (“within” because of course the US president has more power in the rest of the world): Thatcher personally made very important choices and in the UK system of government there was no filibustering senator, no powerful committee chair, no supreme court with a written – conveniently vaguely written and antique – constitution to interpret, to block her or to force compromise. That outsized power does mean that she is due some outsized responsibility.

Finally, she was, despite Jackson’s protestations to the contrary, a woman, and so it is easy to personalize the barbaric counterrevolution she led, to shrink it into the single figure of a witch. I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books to my six year old son. First among the several educational minefields those books require us to navigate is the misogyny (if you think this label is in any way unfair to Lewis, check out what he says about women and spiders in Surprised by Joy), most notably in the figure of witches who – in three of the seven books – single handedly turn an entire country or world into a vile, servile, joyless (or in one case simply dead) place, and whose death brings instant liberation, Wizard of Oz style.

Thatcher of course died not a powerful witch but a senile old woman. Ding Dong the Witch is Dead is being sung and downloaded – and danced to – not by deluded people who believe in the C.S. Lewis / Wizard of Oz narrative, but by people who are treating Thatcher not as an individual but as a symbol of Thatcherism. Treating a person’s memory in this way brings forth accusations of bad taste, but it is fair. A great public figure loses some rights to her or his own persona; Thatcher’s name had become an ism, had come, with justice, to mean not a person but the UK strain of neo-liberalism, the rejection of a regulated and negotiated economy in favor of one run by and for the rich, given blessing through incantation of the virtues both of unregulated markets and individual aspiration (a priestly office often seized by economists). There is celebration things are said with such venom and such joy not because Thatcher the person is dead, but because Thatcherism is so very much alive.

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