Dead politicians

Margaret Thatcher died today. As a staunch liberal I had no love of Thatcher’s politics, and no interest in her non-political life. I cannot therefore truthfully express any sadness at her passing. Most of my friends are staunch liberals as well, and have split themselves into 2 groups: the gloaters and the chiders. A friend of mine saw the below pie chart on Facebook, which summarises the likely range of reactions. (The lefties in-fighting in particular made me chuckle.)

Thatcher Pie Chart

I am an atheist. Related to which I do not believe there is such a thing as an immortal soul. I believe that our character, memory, and all things which could contribute to a sense of personal identity reside in the brain. I believe when blood stops being pumped to that brain, depriving it of oxygen, then the brain ceases to function. I believe all the information stored in there, and the capacity for hierarchical thinking which separates us from other animals, also disappears.

When someone dies, while I endeavour to be sympathetic to those grieving and will say whatever I deem to be appropriate, privately I abhor the term “Rest in Peace.” They are not ‘resting’; they are dead. There is no ‘peace’; there is nothing. And they no longer exist as an entity to be ‘in’ any state of any kind.

So I am not writing “RIP Thatcher” on my Facebook wall, either in a spirit of genuine mourning, or in a spirit of (perhaps grudging) respect for someone I disliked.

Nearly 2 years ago my 93 year old maternal Grandmother died. She was a lovely, warm, caring lady. She’d had a long, full life. She had suffered loss, known great happiness, and was eminently sensible and stoic. She remained interested in the world around her right up until she passed away. She died knowing she was loved by her friends and family. Would that we were all so lucky.

I don’t think that she is up there somewhere looking down on us all, but I know that I and others carry the memory of her with us. When considering my own mortality and the mortality of those I love – that is the thought to which I turn for comfort: that after a person’s death, the effect that they had on other people continues.

I think it’s fair to say that when someone’s obituary starts with the words “The former Prime Minister of The UK” one can assume their influence on other people was larger than most of us will get the chance to exert. I am not saying that politicians should be expected to sacrifice their humanity for their work, in fact I really wish they wouldn’t, but I think when you get into the upper echelons of government you become the mouthpiece of your party’s policies. To the majority of citizens in the country – who do not know you personally – your status as an individual becomes secondary to your status as a member of the government. Accordingly, the masses’ attitude to you will be entirely based on what you have done as a politician (and what elements of your personal life have been deemed relevant by the media and consequently thrust into the limelight.)

It is an occupational hazard of being in power that there will be those who despise you. It is impossible to please all of the people all of the time, as what all of the people find pleasing is heterogeneous. Those who are displeased with your decision to please someone else are likely to hate you for it. And as the power increases, the level of hatred increases too. This would be true of any politician, not just the particular ones who ‘polarised opinion’ (which I reckon will be one of the most used descriptors in the next few days.)

Today there are people expressing outrage at other people expressing glee at the death of a political figure. Those expressing glee are the people for whom Thatcher represented tremendous injustice, lack of compassion and cruelty. In celebrating her death, are they showing disrespect? Perhaps. But maybe they feel that disrespect is justified. Maybe that vicious instinct to jeer at the misfortune of others is the only way they have left to show how much anger they bore towards someone so instrumental in bringing about the hardships we face now. Are they forgetting that she was a person too? Perhaps. But in what meaningful sense was she a person to the majority of people? In the absence of any personal experience how could she be anything more than the figurehead of a political party? In fact, she was the person that party elected to shoulder the burden of public opinion, some positive, some negative. Much as I like to think that our current political system is populated with dunderheads, I refuse to believe there can be a serving MP anywhere with ambitions to become a cabinet minister, who is not aware of the following: if they become a ‘household name’, in some households that name will become a swear word, inextricably linked with the reviled party they represent.

Powerful people become ubiquitous pegs upon which a multitude of ideas can be hung. I’m sure that within the next few days there will be opinion pieces galore celebrating Thatcher’s status as the first (and to date, only) female British prime minister, or how she ‘stood up’ to the unions, or Argentina, or the IRA.

But surely this attitude is no different from those currently singing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead. It’s not about her, it’s about what she represented.

In death, the person that a politician was is lost to everyone except those that actually knew them. But what they represented becomes amplified, and frozen in time. No more blustering through interviews, insisting a quote was taken out of context. No more opportunities to debate an issue, raise awareness or jump on a bandwagon. And no more chances to make amends for the wrongs they have inflicted.

Dead politicians are remembered by vastly more people than they ever actually knew. I don’t believe in an immortal soul. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I believe that when we die, metaphysically all that remains of us is what other people remember. If you are a politician, be aware that for a lot of people all they will remember of you is evil. Because that is all they ever knew of you. To them, you were not a person.

On the other hand of course, you could remember that in actual fact you are a person. And you could try acting like that sometimes. Exercise some judgement, exude some compassion, exhibit some humour, show some humility. And then maybe, just maybe, some of those who disagreed with you will not put crass jokes on Facebook about dancing on your grave.

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