This week and next, I will “close” on two subjects I have recently promised to return to. Today, I continue a bit more on an item that simply won’t go away: reactions to Margaret Thatcher’s death. Next week, I will return briefly to the debate about working from home, and to the outpouring of opinion around Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to require office presence for all employees.
On Wednesday, I was invited to lunch at L’Oreal headquarters in Paris with three prominent members of the company’s human resource group. One of them was English, one Italian, and one Croatian. We talked of storytelling, leadership development, communication, and possibilities for working together on a personal development project. Of course, there was also quite a bit of friendly conversation about world and business events. I found it interesting that one of the hot subjects (once again!) was Margaret Thatcher and her polarizing effect on the entire world.
That she remains such a heated topic of debate so long after her tenure as Britain’s Prime Minister is a phenomenon that continues to fascinate me. In death, just as she did in life, this woman casts an enormous shadow.
The Economist writes that her extraordinarily long shadow is perhaps due to the fact that she provided Britain a renewed importance on the global stage, one disproportionate with its size or resources. For it is certain that she changed the entire world’s perception of the United Kingdom. According to the magazine, she was the first British politician since Winston Churchill to be taken seriously by the leaders of all the major powers. (see “The lady who changed the world”, in the April 8th edition)
In fact, she is simply one of a very few peace-time politicians who can claim to have changed the world. Her unyielding conviction about setting people free from government launched a global movement toward privatization. And, the firmness of her stand against tyranny and oppression helped precipitate the fall of the Soviet Union. The Economist underlines her long-term impact with the observation that Churchill may have won a great war; unlike the Iron Lady, though, he never created an “ism”.
In spite of Thatcher’s historical importance and long shadow, however, the attitudes of her detractors are hardly softening as she moves to her final resting place. On April 10 and 11, the New York Times reported on some of the extremely harsh portrayals of the former prime minister that continue to this day among certain artists, political writers, and commentators in the media. In addition, numerous opposition members of Parliament made the unusual decision to boycott a special session devoted to Lady Thatcher’s memory. Such a public reaction by state officials to a dignitary’s death is indeed a rare event in UK history.
When the memorial sessions among lawmakers did take place, the atmosphere was civil but politically charged, and ongoing partisan sniping underscored the depth of division about Mrs. Thatcher’s life and legacy. Was all this happening because she was so completely a “conviction politician”, as the Brits call her, and by no means a consensus politician?
Even so, and however one might feel personally about this woman, it all makes me ask myself if there is no longer the traditional respect for the dead that once characterized mature nations such as Great Britain.
And, while one might say that the parliamentary debate was “relatively” civilized, it was not at all so on Britain’s streets. As soon as her passing was announced, “death parties” began to organize throughout cities such as London, Belfast and Glasgow. Some of the banners at these events read “Rejoice, Rejoice,” or “Rot in Hell, Maggie”. It is worth noting that such extreme vituperation was notably absent in the US when Ronald Reagan–whom many consider Mrs. Thatcher’s ideological counterpart–passed away.
I also wonder if, in today’s connected world, a good portion of the vitriol around such events can be directly attributed to the social media effect. On Facebook, Twitter and blogs, the hostile, mocking, and semi-humorous posts about Mrs. Thatcher proliferated, encouraging others to react and participate, and thus escalating the “noise”. Several newspapers reported that the street protesters’ anthem, “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” was spreading quickly across the Internet, and that there was a Facebook campaign to drive it to No. 1 on Britain’s popular music charts.
So, I continue to be amazed by the depth of feeling that Margaret Thatcher’s death has unleashed, and it all remains fascinating food for thought and debate.