Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Legacy of bitterness

Former British PM Margaret Thatcher died a couple of days ago. The response to her death has been fascinating and instructive. Anticipating there would be widespread joy in some sections of society and the press over her demise, the Tories and even some Labour leaders publicly asked people to "show respect" for the deceased and permit the family to grieve in privacy and dignity. This is the kind of request that sounds reasonable when you first hear it, but in a few seconds you realise its flaws, and left-liberal media in the UK were quick to take it apart. Columnist after columnist argued that while the family of a private figure has a right to grieve in private, the death of a major politician who has had a powerful impact on her country and the world does not qualify for the imposition of reticence. One article pointed out that no such courtesy was extended to the family of Hugo Chavez when he died, with conservative newspapers all over the US and UK criticising his career and political impact in the most scathing terms. British writer David Wearing put the boot on the other foot by saying "People praising Thatcher's legacy should show some respect for her victims."

The Guardian featured an editorial about Thatcher last Monday. The first part is a survey of her influence on politics, but the second half is blunt and forthright in its criticism. Some sample quotes from the article:

"the harmony she sought in the long term was one whose terms were set overwhelmingly in the interests of the British business class as she perceived them."

A "good society", for her, was "a low-tax, home-owning, privatised, high-carbon, possessive, individualist, winner-takes-all financial model whose failure haunts the choices still facing this country today".

And here is the concluding sentence of the editorial:

"Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free."

That was two days ago. Today's Guardian has a dozen or so articles about her, with titles like: "Clearing up the mess that Thatcher left", "Thatcher's dark legacy has still not disappeared", and "A legacy of bitterness and division".

Of course these opinions are hardly uncontested. Today's London Times is full of stuff like "Royal respect as Queen leads mourners", "great Prime Minister but awful mother", and an attack on The Guardian via an opinion piece titled: "the selfish Left, not Thatcher, divided us". The Telegraph describes her as "kindly and careful". All this is no great surprise to me. Once a respected publication, the London Times is today a Rupert Murdoch-owned right-wing rag, at least that's how I perceive it. About The Telegraph, the less said the better.

The Times of India too has an admiring piece about Ms Thatcher by US journalist David Ignatius (who writes for another right-wing publication, the Washington Post). The basic thrust of this piece is that Ms Thatcher was great because she destroyed the ultra-rich and ultra-poor and gave everything to the middle class. Nice, if you're a middle class person with no ethical sensibilities.

On the other hand the poor did not appreciate being destroyed, and protested vigorously. One of their slogans was "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher". This came about because, according to Wikipedia, she "imposed public expenditure cuts on the state education system, resulting in the abolition of free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to eleven". (The right-wing newspapers dispute her role in abolishing free milk, so you see that almost any issue concerning this lady ends up being divisive.)

It's natural that this whole discussion makes me think about India. Here, when important figures die we aren't even allowed to question whether they should have a state funeral (note that Ms Thatcher is getting a "ceremonial funeral" which is one step below a "state funeral" even though she was a former Prime Minister!). And in India there are no polite appeals to withhold negative opinions - if any such opinions were expressed, however mildly, there would be violent people and a vindictive, politicised police force ready to attack.

But it gets easier to say what you think and survive it when the politician in question has been dead a long time. Ms Indira Gandhi has been gone nearly thirty years, and like Ms Thatcher (and scores of other politicians around the world) she was a powerful figure who caused lasting damage to society in her country. Positioning herself on the Left rather than the Right (which shows that damaging leaders can be of any political persuasion) she was a divisive figure and her legacy, like that of Ms Thatcher, is that of "public division". She systematically undermined India's democratic institutions and personalised politics by implanting in it her personal prejudices, her sycophants and her children - notably the uneducated, spoilt and brutal Sanjay Gandhi. She bullied and threatened the highest courts in India. Fortunately she was not successful in destroying their integrity, though some High Court and Supreme Court judges were not above being her sycophants as my late father complained on many occasions. While it was sad for India to have a prime minister assassinated in 1984, and I have no sympathy for the politics of her assassins nor for the concept of assassination itself, I certainly wasn't sorry when she was no more.

Sanjay Gandhi's demise was quite simply a joyful occasion. He unauthorisedly piloted an airplane belonging to the Delhi Flying Club, and literally drove it nose-first into the ground. Poetic justice had never been more poetic. A man who had bulldozed people's homes causing several deaths, and presided over a forcible sterilisation campaign, was destroyed by his own arrogance (and by his mother, who allowed him to pilot a plane without the requisite qualifications). It's hard to imagine the level of damage he could have caused this country, but at the least his death saved countless lives. On the fateful day I was in a train from Delhi to Bombay. Somewhere around Surat we got the news and passengers erupted in joy, myself included.

Meanwhile back in England, yesterday there were parties to celebrate Ms Thatcher's death. I know it sounds tasteless. But the late Ms Thatcher is no one to complain about bad taste. In 1987 she famously referred to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress in the following terms: "ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land". Today the cuckoo seems to be on the other foot. Pallo Jordan, a former ANC minister, said of her death: “I say good riddance. She was a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime. She was part of the right-wing alliance with Ronald Reagan that led to a lot of avoidable deaths.”

There's so much more to say about this awful person and her instinct to ally with other awful people, for example General Pinochet. But I'm done here and will refer you to this very moving article in The Nation: "Why would anyone celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher? Ask a Chilean".

Footnote added on April 11: I've now come across the following speech about Pinochet on Margaret Thatcher's own website. Reading it has somewhat modified the opinion I had of her at the time I wrote the piece above. I should apologise for using words like "awful" and "evil" -  she was much, much worse than that! If there is no hell, let's hope someone is busy constructing one for her.


Gautam Menon said...

A few lines from Andrew Sullivan's (The Dish) piece on Thatcher. I don't disagree with the points you make, but I think the reality may be more complex, as it always is:

"To put it bluntly: The Britain I grew up in was insane. The government owned almost all major manufacturing, from coal to steel to automobiles. Owned. It employed almost every doctor and owned almost every hospital. Almost every university and elementary and high school was government-run. And in the 1970s, you could not help but realize as a young Brit, that you were living in a decaying museum – some horrifying mixture of Eastern European grimness surrounded by the sculptured bric-a-brac of statues and buildings and edifices that spoke of an empire on which the sun had once never set. Now, in contrast, we lived on the dark side of the moon and it was made up of damp, slowly degrading concrete.


I owe my entire political obsession to the one person in British politics who refused to accept this state of affairs. You can read elsewhere the weighing of her legacy – but she definitively ended a truly poisonous, envious, inert period in Britain’s history. She divided the country deeply – and still does. She divided her opponents even more deeply, which was how she kept winning elections. She made some serious mistakes – the poll tax, opposition to German unification, insisting that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist – but few doubt she altered her country permanently, re-establishing the core basics of a free society and a free economy that Britain had intellectually bequeathed to the world and yet somehow lost in its own class-ridden, envy-choked socialist detour to immiseration.

Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir preceded her; but Thatcher’s three election victories, the longest prime ministership since the 1820s, her alliance with the US in defeating the Soviet Union, and her liberation of the British economy place her above their achievements. What inspires me still is the thought of a young woman in a chemistry lab at Oxford daring to believe that she could one day be prime minister – and not just any prime minister, but the defining public figure in British post-war political history.

That took vision and self-confidence of a quite extraordinary degree. It was infectious. And it made Thatcher and Thatcherism a much more complicated thing than many analyses contain."

Sunil Mukhi said...

Gautam: Yes I'm sure the reality is more complex, but I suspect not in the direction Mr Sullivan implies.

One could always say "Hitler definitively ended a `truly poisonous, envious, etc period in German history'" and the statement would not be false. But it would be notable more for what it omits than what it says.

When Mr Sullivan talks about her "liberation of the economy". I think he means "privatisation of the economy". Depending on the circumstances this can be a good or bad thing, and I don't want to try and judge it here, but either way "privatisation" is the accurate word, while "liberation" is mere sloganeering.

The "young woman in a chemistry lab at Oxford" bit is particularly dubious: here is what an editorial in yesterday's New Scientist has to say on the same subject:

Having read chemistry at the University of Oxford, one might have expected her to oversee an expansion of science. It didn't work out that way. Thatcher's hard-nosed policies on privatisation and manufacturing led to a dramatic reduction in research activity in the UK.

Neelima said...

Margaret Thatcher also destroyed higher education in Britain,and a tradition of excellence in science that had lasted 400 years (starting with Newton).

I do recall that she ended a period of trade unionism gone mad, but what she put in its place was not admirable. Britain lost its place in the first rank of nations thanks to her servile support of US (read Ronald Reagan) policies.

She certainly deserves to be admired for her personal achievements. It was no mean achievement for a member of the middle class, a person with a science degree, and a woman to boot, to rise to be the first woman, and the longest reigning prime minister of Britain's class ridden society. However, I wish her agenda had been been better, and her legacy less divisive.

Ramanan said...

Rust In Peace, Iroan Lady