I’ve been scratching my head for the past half hour trying to work out how I would react if I were a Conservative MP and a BBC reporter stuffed a microphone in front of me and told me that Arthur Scargill had just died. I know I wouldn’t punch the air, but a syrupy tribute?
I think not. It would go something like this: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Scargill was a charismatic leader to his followers but one whose legacy was to destroy the industry he loved, and all for his own ego.’
Would I expect to be hauled over the coals for saying that? Surely it is not unreasonable to react to the death of a political figure with a genuine assessment of their foibles.
Yet the left’s reaction to the death of Lady Thatcher was bizarrely schizophrenic. Handfuls of activists did indeed attempt to create the Mafeking they had promised, with fireworks, balloons and whistles, to name a few of the contents of the party packs put together by the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centre and on sale at last year’s TUC conference. Yet the numbers attending impromptu street parties were pathetically small.
Meanwhile, the mainstream left maintained a front of sycophancy. To read through the Twitter accounts of Labour MPs one might have thought they were paying tribute to Fidel Castro.
‘My condolence to the Thatcher family,’ swooned Harriet Harman. ‘First woman PM, a towering figure.’ Yes, this is the same Harriet Harman who, when spending our money on a ‘Women in Power factsheet’ to distribute to schools in 2009, omitted to mention Mrs Thatcher at all.
Labour MP Chris Bryant put out an almost identical tweet: ‘Warm condolences to the extended Thatcher family. A towering figure who was never afraid of controversy.’
This from a man who told the Independent in 2010: ‘It was when I saw the effect of Mrs Thatcher’s policies on our inner cities that I realised Conservatism was divisive, uncaring, economically incompetent and morally wrong.’
Almost simultaneously, the Twitter feed of former Labour minister David Lammy burst into life, stating: ‘RIP Margaret Thatcher. Whatever you think of her she will remain a political giant. End of an era.’ All from a man who remembered in the New Statesman recently the ‘tears of joy’ he had cried when he heard she had resigned as Prime Minister.
Between this and the unpleasant contributions on the outer fringes of the left, the worst being George Galloway’s ‘may she burn in the hellfires’, there has been virtually nothing. The unions have remained almost silent.
What’s wrong with them? Why can’t they say what they really think, which in most cases is that Mrs Thatcher was a callous Prime Minister who cared more for her free market ideology than she did for human beings?
I wouldn’t have thought any the worse of Ed Miliband if he had enlightened us as to where he thought Thatcher had gone wrong, rather than laying on his condolences with a trowel. He, Blair and Brown all made pointedly more generous tributes than did Michael Heseltine, John Major or Geoffrey Howe. Labour’s reaction looks co-ordinated, as if the spin doctors had calculated that even slightly barbed words would be used against them. Emotional correctness has trumped even the left’s visceral hatred of Thatcher.
But there is another possible explanation for Labour’s reluctance to trample on Lady Thatcher’s grave: Labour’s own failures have taken all the sting out of attacks on Thatcher and her government. How do you accuse her of having bumped off the sick — as Kinnock liked to claim — when it was during Labour’s great NHS spending splurge that the worst NHS scandal of all occurred: the deaths of up to 1,200 patients in Mid Staffs? How do you accuse Thatcher of encouraging greed when the yuppie bankers of her day earned peanuts compared with those of Brown’s Britain, who not only stuffed their pockets but drove the banking system to ruin?
At least the privatisations of Thatcher’s day worked well for the taxpayer, which is more than you can say of current train-operating companies and PFI hospitals.
Compared with the excesses of recent years, the 1980s now come across as rather quaint. Even her housing boom was relatively sane compared with what was to come. True, Thatcher’s comments on Nelson Mandela and Clause 28 still give the left some means to attack her as heartless. But try to condemn her on most economic grounds and all Labour politicians will manage is to draw attention to things about the Blair and Brown years that many of them would rather forget.
No wonder Lady Thatcher has enjoyed a gentle passing.