LONDON — While some Britons mourned the passing of Margaret Thatcher, others raised glasses of champagne in impromptu street parties. And “The Wizard of Oz” song “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” is surging up the UK singles charts.
A Guardian newspaper cartoon depicted Thatcher descending into hell, the Socialist Worker front page said “Rejoice,” and a movie marquee was rearranged to read: “Margaret Thatchers Dead LOL.”
Many societies soften their take on divisive leaders as they age — notably the United States, where even unpopular presidents are warmly eulogized in death — but emotions in Britain are as raw as they were when the Iron Lady was in power.
Yes, Thatcher was an unusually divisive figure blamed by many for crippling Britain’s labor unions and sabotaging workers’ rights, but the willingness of small groups of Britons to publicly mock a longtime national leader hours after her death reflects a British contempt for power and its practitioners that many believe stands in contrast to attitudes in the United States.
There were no similar scenes of jubilation after the 1994 death of Richard Nixon, a polarizing figure who is the only U.S. president to resign from office, said Robert McGeehan, an associate fellow at the Institute for the Study of Americas.
“This really shows the dissimilarity between the two countries,” said McGeehan, a dual national who worked with Thatcher in academia after she left office. “One does not recall, with the passing of controversial figures in the U.S., anything remotely resembling the really crude approach we’ve seen over here,” he said. “There is a class ingredient here that we simply don’t have in America. They like to perpetuate this; the bitterness goes from father to son.”
In contrast, he said, Nixon — disgraced by the Watergate scandal and facing impeachment — eventually rehabilitated his public image and was treated as a respected elder statesman by the time of his death.
There are key differences between the two political systems, despite their common roots. In Britain, the prime minister is not the head of state — a position filled by the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who is also the head of the Church of England — while in the U.S. the president fills the dual role as head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
While some Britons are comfortable condemning a prime minister they detested, they would not act that way after the death of the queen or a senior royal, said Robert Worcester, an American who founded MORI, one of Britain’s leading polling firms.
“Any member of the royal family will be revered, but few prime ministers are,” he said, pointing out that thousands of people stood on line for hours in the middle of the night for a chance to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when she died in 2002 at age 101.
Worcester said there is general affection for Thatcher in many quarters but that it would not be possible, for example, to name a major naval vessel after her because shipbuilders would “put down their tools” rather than honor the woman blamed by many for destroying the labor movement. He predicted that some opponents would carry “Good Riddance” signs to her funeral next week.
The anti-Thatcher movement spread to Northern Ireland, with celebrations of her death in several cities and taunting graffiti appearing overnight. “Rot in hell Maggie Thatcher” was one offering in Belfast.
Americans tend to put presidents on a pedestal, particularly after they leave office and move beyond the political give-and-take of the Oval Office. They are called “Mr. President” for the rest of their lives — and the first woman president will be called Madame President or something similar after she leaves office. But no one in Britain calls Tony Blair, John Major or Gordon Brown “Mr. Prime Minister.”
There is also a strong tendency in Britain to tear people down after building them up, and many have no qualms about attacking leaders they disliked, even in the emotionally charged days between their death and their burial.
“Having lived in both places, I can see the UK is far more deprecating, far more critical, and has far fewer taboos in criticizing leaders,” said Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House think tank. “In a way, her death is allowing people to vocalize the sense of frustration they are feeling with the current economic crisis.”
While others condemned anti-Thatcher rallies as in horrendous taste, Niblett said they reflect how Britain does not need to build any patriotic myths about its leaders.
“America is building itself still and needing to believe there is a higher goal to which all Americans aspire, despite the partisan battles,” he said. “When I see the trashing of Thatcher, I think of how strong Britain is and how in a way we don’t need to do that. We don’t rally round the flag, except in the most desperate moments. We don’t eulogize our politicians.”