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Lady Thatcher is Dead – and some people celebrate

Margaret Thatcher has died.  A few people have declared that this is grounds for celebration.  ‘A great day’, they have announced.  Pop open the champagne.

Well, we know that Lady Thatcher was the most divisive British prime minister of the 20th century.  Still, this response puzzles me.

Why would a person’s death ever be good in any way? There are various possible answers to this. 

First, a death might be good if the person who died was doing great damage or would have done great damage in the future. 

Second, it might be good if the death were a useful deterrent in some way to other people.  That’s one rationale people use to justify capital punishment. 

But neither of these arguments applies to Thatcher, an octogenerian with dementia.  A third reason for celebrating death (though not one I would ever give) might be on retributive grounds – if, by dying, a person received their just deserts.  But again, it can’t be the case that those who declare themselves happy by Thatcher’s passing think that the death of a woman who’s lived to a ripe old age reflects some sort of natural justice. 

All I can imagine is that the celebrators somehow believe that Lady Thatcher’s existence in the world was a kind of metaphysical stain on the universe.  That’s one heck of a thing to believe….

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19 Comment on this post

  1. David, you’re trying to read more rationality into these responses than there actually is. People are celebrating not because they think it’s good that she died (after all, it’s not like we didn’t know it was going to happen), but because the news of her death makes them happy. It may be interesting to speculate about why that should be, and what that says about the people concerned (it certainly didn’t have that effect on me), but I think we need to be very cautious before seeing this as evidence that they saw her existence as some kind of a “metaphysical stain”. More likely, Thatcher was for many people a hate figure, a (largely imaginary) personification of ideas, policies and characteristics that they despise, and her death therefore represented a symbolic victory over those vices. Does that mean that they saw her existence as a “metaphysical stain”? Perhaps, in a way. But not in any way that should surprise us.

  2. It’s basically the same thing that was going on when people celebrated after 9/11, except perhaps more disturbing because it is our friends and supposedly civilised Westerners that are doing the (metaphorical) flag-burning.

  3. Anthony Drinkwater

    A fourth reason why death might be good is that, at least for a well-publicised death, it is a public reminder of the inevitability of human mortality : that we are ALL mortal, including the famous and the great.
    Perhaps those who are celebrating her death are really (although, in my view, unrealistically and metaphysically) expecting that now that she’s dead her legacy will evaporate and we’ll return to the world of the 70’s when everything was perfect?

  4. The reaction was hardly unexpected. Remember the miners’ song from Billy Elliot — “Merry Xmas Maggie Thatcher, // we all celebrate today // ‘cos it’s one day closer to your death”? It was a long time ago, but such stark events are not soon forgotten.

    She was a sectarian tyrant, let in by a broken electoral system on a vote that never exceeded 44%. I remember that just about her first action, like an incoming Roman emperor, was a bumper pay rise for the police, whom she then sent around the country as an internal army to crush those courageous enough to oppose her with action. And crush them she did, permanently as it proved. Thatcher is dead but Thatcherism, that peculiar combination of economic liberalism and social authoritarianism, never went away and continues in rude health, so I think that part of what we have is a roar of impotent rage and thwarted desire for revenge among the defeated.

    It is irrational, especially as it tends to emphasise just how defeated and marginalised those opposing the Thatcherite settlement still are. If there is a small rational element in it, it is this: people know there are going to be eulogies and want to make sure that their dissension is expressed and noted, that there are plenty of brickbats in among the roses, to be noted by rulers to come.

  5. I’ve been pretty down about the attitudes of some of my friends to her death. I think a lot of people on the academic left seem to think hate is ok as long as it is directed towards the right people*: the same people will, I’m sure, rejoice when various US presidents die, when Tony Blair and David Cameron die, and so on. I can’t see any difference from when white racists rejoiced in the deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. Sure, those guys from the 1960s had their deaths brought forward by bullets, but the principle is the same, right? It’s just: this person is dead and so a great evil has been removed from the world.

    I think this sort of response is based on a particular sort of impotent rage: the rage of the person who finds themselves on the wrong side of history. White racists celebrated the deaths of particular persons because they knew their own cherished beliefs were dying. Similarly, people in the UK who’ve looked forward to Thatcher’s death (and are now celebrating it) are doing so partly in response to the fact that the post-war consensus was dying (and Thatcher put it out of its misery). So in my pop psych explanation, person A looks forward to the death of person B when person B is implicated in the death of some sustaining illusion of person A (whether those sustaining illusions are bonkers theories about race or bonkers theories about economic and social policy). But in neither case does it seem to me that person A is actually justified in taking out the dismantling of their illusions on the personal circumstances of person B. We usually, rightly dismiss such a move as ad hominem.

    *Especially if Morrissey, Elvis Costello or some other policy-inept hipster with a guitar has written a song sanctioning such rejoicing in these deaths.

  6. Everyone dies; it’s not some rare tragedy but a simple fact of life for all us. It’s perfectly legitimate to respond to the deaths of diverse individuals in diverse ways. When a person one likes and admires dies, one is obviously likely to feel sad and to use the occasion to express one’s positive assessment of their life & times. When a person one regards as evil and destructive dies, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel glad and to use the occasion to express one’s negative assessment of them. And yes, to crack a bottle of bubbly if one is in a festive mood. Many people have understandably been looking forward to Thatcher Death Parties, and I’m attending one myself this weekend.

    1. I don’t know. Feeling glad that someone has died feels problematic to me, let alone actively celebrating it. I can certainly understand why people do this (as my earlier comments testify), but to call it “perfectly reasonable” seems to be condoning an activity that seems to me to have little going for it, either ethally or even for the individual concerned.

      Seem other commenters have suggested reasons why this might be at least partly a “rational” response. (Actually I’m less concerned about whether it’s “rational” than whether it makes the world a better or a worse place, and the two are not the same in my view. But that’s me being all utilitarian again.) I’m thinking in particular of Leo’s “brickbats in among the roses, to be noted by rulers to come”. Perhaps another, apart from the short-term (and surely rather superficial?) catharsis, is that it might strengthen emotional bonds between people who share the kind of values and beliefs that made them see Thatcher as “evil and destructive”.

      Another consideration, which may be at least marginally relevant, is that we really don’t know what “would have happened if Thatcher hadn’t existed”. I put that in quotes not because I am quoting anyone but because it might be more useful to express it thus: “what happens in those parallel universes/scenarios that are similar to our past in most respects other than that Thatcher doesn’t exist. For example, Thatcher’s parents decide not to have sex that particular, fatedul night. What happens?

      Certainly, I don’t think Callaghan’s government would have lasted long…

      1. Nikolas Schaffer

        “but to call it “perfectly reasonable” seems to be condoning an activity that seems to me to have little going for it, either ethally or even for the individual concerned.”

        You’ll need to explain that. There are people who use their presence in the world to actively and knowingly bring misery to large numbers of other people, for no rationally defensible reason. Margaret Thatcher was one such person. To celebrate the death of such a person is to celebrate the end of one prominent strain of active evil. The fact that we had to wait so long after Thatcher’s own effectively “active” period had ended, merely underlines that this is a person who not only got away with being very destructive, but was rewarded for it with a very comfortable refuge in her own vulnerable years. Thus, a vocal display of joy at her death was even more called for, to remind people (and to counter the fact) that the British political system is still happy to reward disgusting tyrants.

        1. Yes, that is basically the “brickbats in among the rulers” idea, isn’t it? To be honest I’m not really sure what do make of it. I can see the point, but I also can’t help feeling that there are better ways to pass the message than rejoicing over someone’s death. As I said, feeling glad that someone has died feels problematic to me. That people take the opportunity of her death to remind everyone how horrible they think she was, and perhaps protest against the recognition and impunity that she received both before and after her death is one thing, but to actually *celebrate*? That makes me grimace.

          1. Nikolas Schaffer

            As I said, everyone dies. It’s not some shocking surprise. And if you’re someone who seeks to touch the lives of many other people, as Thatcher was, whether those people will be sad or glad when you leave us is largely up to you, during the course of your life and its decisions. I’m confident that Thatcher – who was a genuine psychopath – would have been very disappointed if lots of people out there hadn’t been happy to celebrate her departure.

            1. Personally I’m not remotely convinced that she was a psychopath according to any usual definition of the word, and I very much doubt that she actively wanted people to be miserable, or would have been particularly pleased at the thought of people being happy when she died. I think she had a sense of mission, which was certainly to an extent delusional and self-serving, but to call her a psychopath and draw the inferences you have drawn about what she wanted seems highly tenuous to me.

              Admittedly, I was certainly not one of those most obviously or directly affected by her policies, so I never developed that visceral hatred of her that some people have developed. But it bothers me that you are seriously seeking to justify something as grim and nihilistic as celebrating someone’s death.

  7. Nikolas Schaffer

    “But it bothers me that you are seriously seeking to justify something as grim and nihilistic as celebrating someone’s death.”

    Hmm, I can’t say it bothers me that it bothers you that I believe Thatcher’s death was worth a bit of celebration. Maybe you’re just someone who is easily bothered. But I’m confident that your botheration has nothing to do with ethics, practical or otherwise. Thatcher was a self-consciously nasty person who very clearly knew that many perfectly decent people loathed her. Your refusal to accept this widely acknowledged reality would appear to be your problem, mate.

    1. By the way, it’s not clear to me that owing that many perfectly decent people loathe you makes you a “self-consciously nasty person”. Leaders often have to take unpopular decisions, and can expect from time to time to be loathed by them. When Thatcher took over the country was in many respects a mess, and has already become highly polarised. Many people were looking for the kind of change she promised (and in some respects delivered); that others loathed her for those changes did not in itself make her a “self-consciously nasty person”, any more than it made those people less decent.

      But I don’t want this to be primarily about Thatcher, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that she really was the monster you make her out to be. The ethical question here is whether, to what extent and why this might justify celebrating her death. Obviously the fact that I have a certain emotional/aesthetic reaction to the idea doesn’t make it unethical, but to say that it has “nothing to do with ethics, practical or otherwise” seems to betray a misunderstanding of what ethics actually is. Unless you buy into the moral realist delusion that morality is something that can somehow be computed on the basis of foundational principles that are wholly independent of our subjective, aesthetic moral reactions, then statements such as “it bothers me” HAVE to be relevant. Do you seriously disagree with this?

      1. Nikolas Schaffer

        OK, let’s pretend that some important public figure we could agree was nasty and destructive, who’d made an impact on many people’s lives in evil ways, were to then die and their death be reported in the media. Following your example, no-one would celebrate – they’d presumably just acknowledge the news in some neutral way and get on with the day as if nothing had happened. That would “bother” me, because it really would suggest a “grim and nihilistic” world in which the lives and deaths of evil, powerful people were of no moral consequence in the minds of the general public. It would be just as creepy as an absence of any public grief on the deaths of notably good and creative individuals. It does seem to be a matter of very basic moral arithmetic, which is why your botheration seems to me more a matter of “personal taste” than ethics.

        1. You seem to be implicitly using Kant’s categorical imperative (which I have long tended to view as a fancy way of suggesting that we should ask ourselves, “Suppose everyone did this?”). This is problematic, in my view, because in many cases the resulting scenario – such as the one you described – is so counter-factual as to be almost irrelevant. I prefer to take a utilitarian perspective and ask whether, *incrementally*, it is better for people to celebrate a bit more or a bit less when such a person dies. In other words is this something that, in general, we should be encouraging or discouraging?

          Parts of your argument are also relevant in that context, of course, but you seem to be making a highly dubious assumption when you state that in your imaginary world where *nobody* celebrates thisimplies that “the lives and deaths of evil, powerful people [are] of no moral consequence in the minds of the general public”. That reall depends why they are not celebrating. Certainly that wasn’t the reason I didn’t celebrate.

          1. Nikolas Schaffer

            “In other words is this something that, in general, we should be encouraging or discouraging?”

            Why not just let nature take its course? Many people will celebrate when locally relevant public figures, whom they judge particularly nasty, kick the bucket. In the case of Thatcher, this meant a bit of street dancing and some private parties like the one I attended (on the other side of the world), which were really just a bit of festive bonhomie with a “wicked witch is dead” theme, soon replaced by more interesting conversation. The Daily Mirror ran a report of a “Thatcher Hour” in a northern pub whose local community suffered particularly harshly under the Iron Bitch. Do you really begrudge them sinking a few pints in celebration of her final departure?

            1. “Why not just let nature take its course?”

              Well, mainly because I like participating in discussions about ethics, and whatever else ethics means it has to mean more than just “let[ting] nature take its course”.

              In this case, you posted a comment suggesting that it was “perfectly reasonable to feel glad and to use the occasion to express one’s negative assessment” of “a person one regards as evil and destructive” on the occasion of their death, and I decided to take issue with that, because it felt wrong.

              Do I begrudge people in a community that suffered particularly harshly “sinking a few pints in celebration of her final departure”? No, not really. Am I comfortable with you referring to her as “the Iron Bitch”? No: one does not have to be absurdly PC to find such language problematic, especially when used in what should, hopesfully, be the relatively non-emotionally-charged setting of an ethics blog.

              Do you need to care how I feel about these issues? No, obviously not. Might my feelings nevertheless shed some useful light on our ethical intuitions, and what we should do with them? Yes, I hope so.

  8. Anthony Drinkwater

    I have to say, Nicholas, that I’m with Dave Frame and Peter Wicks on this one.
    The fact that you describe Thatcher as a “genuine psychopath” or “self-consciously nasty person” (whatever that may mean), says more about you than about her, I suspect. Where is the evidence that supports your diagnoses ?
    Or do you think that if she had never been born the UK would still have dozens of operational coalmines (which kill, worldwide, several hundreds of miners each year – that is, a death toll magnitudes above that of Fukushima) ?
    Or that life before she came to power was a sort of idyll that she alone wrecked ?
    Or that the post-imperial standard of living of the UK could still be maintained, thus condemning hundreds of millions to a survival economy ?
    Or that celebrating her death actually changes anything ?

    Just to be clear, I’m the antithesis of a “Thatcherite”. But I agree with David Edmonds’ original post and Dave and Peter’s comments : I fail to see the ethics in celebrating a death, however much one might have disagreed with the politics of the defunct, especially some decades after they ceased to have any power.

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