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Margaret Thatcher’s Death Brings Intense Feelings, Highlights Cultural Differences

Earlier this week I posted a story about the passing of Margaret Thatcher on April 8, sharing some lesser known facts about the life of the former British prime minister (including that she had been a food scientist who worked on soft serve ice cream before she entered politics). That story struck a nerve with our readers....

Flowers placed by well-wishers surround a portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outside her home in Belgravia, London. Photograph by Lewis Whyld, AP/PA

Earlier this week I posted a story about the passing of Margaret Thatcher on April 8, sharing some lesser known facts about the life of the former British prime minister (including that she had been a food scientist who worked on soft serve ice cream before she entered politics). That story struck a nerve with our readers.

The post got 7,500 Facebook “likes,” 384 tweets, 478 Google+ likes, and lots of comments. We noticed that many Britons pulled no punches when it came to expressing their anger at the Iron Lady.

Hil from the U.K. wrote, “Thatcher ruined our country, she sold of[f] our industries to the highest bidder, put millions [of] people out of work and many communities today still live with her legacy, decimated by the loss of jobs due to her policies. A great leader has wisdom an[d] humanity, she has neither. I am glad she is dead.”

Perhaps emblematic of some of the simmering anger at Thatcher over her victory in the 1982 Falklands War, Martin from Argentina wrote, “Oh yea! to swimming in the flames of hell.”

We also noticed that a number of commenters, especially from countries other than the U.K. or Argentina, expressed dismay at the rawness of such attacks on a newly deceased leader. In the U.S., for example, we are more accustomed to regarding our deceased presidents with a high degree of formality and respect, even if we didn’t care for their policies.

Gale from Australia wrote, “I am so saddened by above comments for our future world. You may love her, like her or not admire her work as a politician. But how very wrong to speak ill of her upon her death. Why are people so very unkind? RIP Margaret.”

That got us wondering, is there something unique to British culture that permits its citizens to so freely criticize those who have led them and then moved on?

A British Brother and Sister Relate Opposing Views

We asked a Briton who has been living in America for some time about the differences in attitudes between the two countries. Lucie McNeil, vice president of program development for explorer programs here at National Geographic, told us there is a “difference between Brits and Americans writ large. Saying something critical of America could be seen as unpatriotic here, but we Britons are conditioned to be critical of our country.”

McNeil added via email, “To talk about ‘respect’ [for Thatcher now] is to completely miss the point…  It’s about feelings.  We are a small, joined up island. Respect in public office is only earned; it’s not part of any constitution.”

McNeil said that when it comes to the Iron Lady, “There is nobody else who has polarized the public more.”

She added that she grew up in northeast England, “one of the areas most affected by her policies. There was a lot of closing of shipyards and mines… Those against her believe she viscerally took apart working class families, communities, and lives at a very individual level and those people are still alive.”

McNeil also argued that Thatcher’s policies and character were “conflated and intensified during that media era because she was a woman, who really appeared as leader from nowhere on the British political scene…  Britain (the media particularly) wasn’t ready for that S&M voice, that handbag and hair, and demeanour.  If a man had done and led the way she did, it wouldn’t remotely have had the historical and current attention lens it’s had.”

McNeil concluded,  “I was never a fan of her execution, but I have huge, huge respect for her as a female leader doing that job, at that time in Britain (I was eight when she became PM).”

McNeil’s brother John still lives in the U.K. Over email he told us that many Brits felt like they had an essentially personal relationship with the Iron Lady. “Her impact on all parts of society was unavoidable,” he told us via email.

“Factor in that she was female (with the ‘wrong’ background); she wasn’t the usual stuffed shirt that the British expected (in or outside of Parliament); she was both enigmatic and a winner (while we often tolerate glorious failure).”

John McNeil noted that Thatcher’s time in office was marked by considerable change in society and around the world, punctuated by labor riots, terrorist attacks, and war. “So those who know little of her politics or her times will peruse some headlines and quickly distil that: Closing Mines & The Poll Tax = Irrefutably Evil. Or they might instead find Winning Wars & Defying Terrorists =  Rather Super…  As with everything to do with Thatcher, the truth lies somewhere in between.”

A Writer Weighs in

Writer Adam Nicolson, who lives in East Sussex, England, told us via email, “I certainly don’t remember any previous figure being attacked like that after their deaths. So, I think this says more about her than about British culture. Her stock in trade was polarization.” (Nicolson has a piece in the upcoming July issue of National Geographic, and recently penned a series for BBC on the 17th Century.)Nicolson said Thatcher had purposefully tried to shake up her country to awaken it from a static, even declining state of post-war, post-imperialist paralysis.

“For Thatcherites the only future was confrontation—of the facts of rust-bucket industries and over-mighty trade unions, in the lack of self-motivation in a country of enormously high taxes and shrinking private ownership of wealth,” said Nicolson. “And so accommodation, any sense of joint enterprise, any belief in the social virtues were all anathema to her. ‘No such thing as society,’ as she didn’t quite say, but as everybody believed she had said.”

And so Thatcher moved to break down the power of the unions, slash taxes, and privatize industry and public housing. Nicolson added, “The Falklands war was symbolic for her not because it was a return to empire but because it seemed continuous with the war she wanted to wage on ‘the enemy within’—the unions, the old consensus-based wets etc.”

In Nicolson’s view, the flames of anger against Thatcher are still being stoked by the current Tory government, presiding over a time when many social and wealth differences have actually increased, and many marginal communities still feel under threat.

He added, “The attacks made on her memory, with her body still warm, are not signs of a ferocious, unforgiving culture, but of the very opposite: a society which wants to attack ‘Thatcher’ precisely because ‘Thatcher’ sets its face against all the more tolerant, liberal, inclusive, and uncompetitive ideals which have been of central importance to it for centuries. It is almost as if these street parties are celebrating the cutting out of a cancer which it never wants to see return. At the same time, of course, there are people piling roses up outside her house and eulogies in Parliament.”

Russel Brand Shares a Youthful Take

British celebrity Russel Brand is a rather polarizing figure himself, but he has made waves in the U.K. with a recent op-ed in the Guardian, which has received more than a hundred thousand “likes” on Facebook.

“Thinking about it now, when I was a child she was just a strict woman telling everyone off and selling everything off,” Brand wrote.

“All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people’s pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful. Perhaps there is resentment because the clemency and respect that are being mawkishly displayed now by some and haughtily demanded of the rest of us at the impending, solemn ceremonial funeral, are values that her government and policies sought to annihilate,” he added.

If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t,” wrote Brand.

What do you think, is it ok to talk tough about a leader who always demanded toughness, even after she died?

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