Margaret Thatcher’s death this week received a stern warning from politicians that celebrating it would be “wrong and in bad taste”. The 87-year-old former Prime Minister was a ‘divisive leader’ to say the least, playing a key role not only in bringing about the first Gulf War; denouncing Nelson Mandela and his ANC as “terrorists”; destroying trade unions; while others argue she repaired Britain’s broken international reputation. Unsurprisingly, a widespread backlash has since ensued from both political figures and the voting public. Yet within two weeks, there has been a rather stark contradiction from the same notables issuing these ‘bad taste’ warnings.
Both Chancellor George Osborne and the current Prime Minister David Cameron were thought to have been ‘exploiting’ the deaths of six children killed in a house fire in Derby, by their parents Mick and Mairead Philpott. Within hours of the guilty verdict being read, Mr Osborne questioned why the taxpayer should pay for benefit “lifestyles” such as those of the child killer. Instead of deeming the remark “in bad taste”, Mr Cameron backed the Chancellor’s comments, insisting that the case did raise “wider questions” about the welfare system and saying society had to consider what “signals” benefits sent.
The Prime Minister said: “I think what George Osborne said was absolutely right. He said that Mr Philpott was the one to blame for his crimes and he should be held responsible. But what the Chancellor went on to say is that we should ask some wider questions about our welfare system, how much it costs and the signals it sends. And we do want to make clear that welfare is there to help people who work hard and should not be there as a sort of life choice. I think that is entirely legitimate.”
So why is it right to make political capital from the deaths of six children, but condemn remarks against an ambiguous political public figure? Guardian columnist and associate editor Seumas Milne was immediately put on the ‘naughty list’ by blogger Steve Hynd, along with a host of other notable leftists for expressing their views in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death. Milne referred to his 2012 article about the Iron Lady, in which he described her as “the most socially destructive British politician of our times”, while the Conservatives denounced the Liberal Democrats for not suspending their Leicester City Council election campaign after her death.
Conservative deputy county council leader Byron Rhodes said: “It’s sad and disrespectful. She was the greatest Prime Minister of our lifetime and she changed the face of British politics.” Even the usually politically-inclined BBC coverage was accused of being “disrespectful” by Tory politicians. The news channel aired a live interview with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who said “working-class communities in Ireland were devastated by Thatcherism…her draconian policies prolonged the war here, she is most famously remembered for the 1980s hunger strikes.”
Many critics spoke out against the interview, describing the decision to air his words as “disrespectful” given the IRA attempted to kill Lady Thatcher. Tory MP Ben Wallace said: “I think it’s disrespectful to give such a significant amount of coverage to a man who belongs to an organisation which tried to murder her.” There seems to be a timescale in terms of the Thatcher debate in which certain opinions are permitted to be expressed while other ‘negative’ comments are deemed impertinent.
Yet was there any sensitivity shown towards the Philpott case? Within two hours of Mick Philpott being handed down a life sentence for the manslaughter of his six children, the Chancellor said: “It’s right we ask questions as a Government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidising lifestyles like [Philpott’s]. It does need to be handled.”
A Daily Mail article following the comments said that Mick Philpott “embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state” and described how he allegedly treated his children as “cash cows” to generate a £60,000 a year income from benefits. The article emblazoned with a photograph of Philpott and the six young victims, hones in on the Philpotts’ desire for a “bigger house”. While there is no justification for Philpott’s behaviour, there is a time and a place to “cash-in” on the affair for political gain.
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls subsequently launched a scathing attack on what he called the “cynical, nasty and divisive” way Mr Osborne linked the Philpott case with the broader issue of state benefits. Mr Balls said the “desperate” Chancellor had offended millions of hard-working people and was playing politics with a tragic case for his own political gain.
The double-standards seem to reflect the type of person targeted. Tellingly, few people have trouble understanding the need for balanced commentary when the political leaders disliked by the west pass away. For instance, the Guardian reported upon the death last month of Hugo Chavez: “To the millions who detested him as a thug and charlatan, it will be occasion to bid, vocally or discreetly, good riddance.” No one used the grounds that it was disrespectful to the ability of the Chavez family or the rest of the Philpott family to mourn in peace unlike Thatcher.
As the Guardian’s civil liberties columnist Glenn Greenwald writes about the “misapplied death etiquette”: “There’s something distinctively creepy – in a Roman sort of way – about this mandated ritual that our political leaders must be heralded and consecrated as saints upon death… If anything, it becomes more compelling to commemorate those bad acts upon death as the only antidote against a society erecting a false and jingoistically self-serving history.”
Therefore, it’s a question over who is worth grieving – according to political needs. The bottom line is that the Conservatives still hold up Thatcher as their trailblazer; as Mr Cameron expressed “Thatcher made Britain great again”, while Chavez and Philpott are just instruments of the ‘terrible welfare state’ or ‘evils of Communism’.