You party if you want to; this lad’s not for partying

I’ve had mixed comments for the title alone, so I doubt that the following comments will yield much more consensus. But, in many ways, that’s what politics is for. It has never been for or about consensus, as Margaret Thatcher understood very well.

Margaret Thatcher died on 08 April 2013. Her death was marked as controversially as her policies in government. It has since sparked all sorts of debates and questions about her legacy, her ‘haunting’ influence today, the way she should be buried, and how she has affected the Labour Party. But her death itself has been marked in no less controversial terms: from tributes and mourning, on the one hand, to opening bottles of champagne and death parties, on the other hand. Death parties occurred in Glasgow and London, and even locally in Sheffield. It has sparked outrage from the Daily Mail. It has also seen a curious defence on a Guardian blog.

These parties are sickening. There are numerous reasons for why we should not celebrate the fact that someone has died, and it is not about ‘death etiquette’. It is far more about human dignity and a separation between a person’s moral worth and that individual’s politics. We are, of course, defined by our politics; but that does not mean that we cannot separate an individual from the politics in which he or she believes. Politics may well be personal, but senseless tribalism does much to harm social cohesion and constrains meaningful debate. With regards to Margaret Thatcher, there is a rightful argument to be made that her politics negatively affected Britain (to put it very mildly). Yet, some people have argued that this gives them a right to celebrate her death. Some say it is only natural – even moral – to have an emotion when someone dies.

This position is inexplicable. The policies of Thatcher (which incidentally predated her reign as prime minister) had already occurred. Her power to affect politics was non-existent on 08 April 2013. Her death, then, changed little (if anything). So to express a desire to see a woman dead (a woman who had dementia and suffered from minor strokes at that) seems illogical. So what does a ‘death party’ achieve? What did a sign saying ‘THE BITCH IS DEAD’ do, other than reinforce misogyny in political culture? How does buying the song ‘Ding Dong: The Witch Is Dead’ affect our political classes into acting any differently against the austerity agenda? Most of those people celebrating her death argue that this is rightful justice; we are showing our anger at Thatcherism and the way she destroyed our country. Do you not think, however, that if you spent your energy on campaigning, protesting, or generally getting involved with politics that this will affect more change than buying a song for 79 pence from iTunes?

There is only one way to justify happiness in the face of death: that, in your opinion, someone deserves to die; and that, without her death, justice is not achieved. It is a justification that makes logical sense, but one that is abhorrent and illegitimate. Because to say that you believe Margaret Thatcher deserved to die, you are saying that some people, in this case someone who made decisions after winning democratic elections, deserves death. [1]

This is repugnant and shows that some people have little moral integrity. I find that repugnant because there is a difference between someone’s politics and someone as a person. Every individual, in my mind, is of equal, intrinsic moral worth; I wish to live in a tolerant society where we can disagree about politics without hating the worth of a person, without a senseless tribalism. This is the foundation upon which democracy rests and to reject this is to reject democratic principles.

People have responded to the above by arguing that the Daily Mail and other papers have celebrated the death of left-wing leaders. That the Daily Mail gloats at death. That the Daily Mail is morally repugnant. But we already knew this, did we not? Since when can we justify our moral acts simply by the virtue of others’ actions. Once again, the argument does not make sense to me. It is, in fact, disheartening to learn that members on the left of politics – who, by and large, believe in dignity, equality and social justice – are making the case against dignity in death and against equal moral self-worth. It is disheartening to learn that people celebrating the death of an elderly woman are basing their justifications on actions from the Daily Mail.

None of this is to say that you cannot debate the legacy of Thatcher and Thatcherism. It is not to say that her actions as prime minister were destructive, wrong and divisive. Because they were. It is right that we discredit the needless privatisation of certain industries, it is right that we denounce her actions that exacerbated a divide between north and south, and, something personal to me, it is right that we resoundingly condemn Section 28. The legacy of Thatcher on British politics from 1979 onwards – to this very day – deserves to be debated and discussed. Some of her acts deserve to be shunned; others deserve to be praised. None of this is to argue against Margaret Thatcher as a person. It is to condemn Thatcherism as a political philosophy.

Thatcher defined her age. But it is questionable that she gets such a high profile funeral. It is questionable, in particular, that the royal family will attend. A bastion of so-called neutrality, the British monarch has only attended the funeral of one other prime minister: Winston Churchill. It is also questionable that parliament was recalled. It surprised the Speaker of the Commons, and arguably caused unnecessary expenses. But to have a party at the death of an elderly woman – that is beyond question abhorrent.

mg

[1] Inadvertently, you are also arguing for the death penalty.

I kissed a Tory, and I liked it

Since 2008, LGBT Labour have proudly sported their Never Kissed a Tory (Never Will) t-shirts, especially at Pride events throughout the country. I’m sure LGBT Labour meant no considerable harm when they thought that segregation between who you can or should and can’t or shouldn’t kiss was written across their t-shirts. Oh, the irony. Perhaps the intention was only to poke fun at the Tories – but is such an act of immaturity really necessary? Pride marches throughout the UK have sprung up to celebrate diversity, sexual freedom and solidarity to all those who identify as LGBT. Being a member of the Labour party and gay, I can only say I’m hugely disappointed by LGBT Labour. They are, unfortunately, only one of many examples of organisations and individuals that seek to perpetuate tribalism and adversarial politics. I understand entirely that political parties need to carve out their unique identity, and that they seek to differentiate themselves by drawing out their differences. However, the tribalism that is so pervasive in British politics is hugely damaging and does a significant disservice to politics. Tribalism is damaging to politics in three main ways, which I want to briefly spell out.

First, tribalism prevents the inclusion of a variety of groups. One tribe, by definition, will exclude another. There is a danger that this is going too far. The red camp will choose policy (a), so by definition the blue camp must choose policy (z). The public must decide which policy to take and a compromise between different sets of policies is unthinkable. It explains why coalition government has had such a hard time in the UK; why a compromise has become a synonym for weakness; and a U-turn a deadly sin. This is why the Liberal Democrats have been ravaged by public opinion and David Cameron is seen as spineless. Look towards the continent, and such compromise is not only accepted, but commended because it means that policies are more thought through. I am not saying that every party must always compromise with other parties; nor that we should seek to compromise. But there is a strong danger that total, uncompromising political parties are committing suicide. Their inflexibility explains why they are in such strong decline. A more open political party is able to attract a more diverse set of opinions, possibly a greater range of members and allows the party to carefully craft more policies that will stand the test of time. This is because more people are able to debate the issues and can form their opinions through inter-subjective reasoning. This is a strong principle that goes back to John Stuart Mill – we can move beyond pushing ‘dead dogma’ towards proposing ‘living truths’. [2] This will also enhance the legitimacy of political parties. [3]

Second, tribalism turns politics into a Punch and Judy show. Politics is nothing more than a spectacle for the public, which is a major discredit to politics in general. The polarisation of adversarial politics can lead to the alienation of political parties, political issues, and politicians more generally. For example, why is it not possible to be Conservative and a feminist, as Louise Mensch believes? I agree in the sense that feminism can transcend political party boundaries. I watched with interest a Newsnight debate between Mensch and Laurie Penny to discuss feminism, and disappointed that Penny couldn’t accept that there are different perspectives within feminism. Indeed, when Mensch wanted to attack the BBC on its male:female ratio, Penny barely agreed with her – she just couldn’t face it. [4] The point is that tribalism prevents reform in a range of areas because political parties are not willing to cross their camps.

Third, and finally, tribalism – at its most ferocious – is full of hatred. At our Students’ Union alone, debate between different politicos is so intense at times that you’d think a fight would break out at any moment. Insults are hurled across the different political groups, which have left a range of people hurt – physically and emotionally. One horrific example is the website Is Margaret Thatcher Dead Yet? I find something like that quite sad, because I don’t think politicians – of almost whatever ideology – are evil. [5] I would never celebrate the death of a politician, nor would I want to see a politician dead (having said that, I do agree with the makers of the website that Thatcher’s funeral should not be a state funeral). Unfortunately, in so many areas of politics, hatred is pervasive. Is there really a need for David Cameron to call Ed Balls ‘a muttering idiot’? No – that kind of language is entirely uncalled for. Even more despicable is George Osborne’s homophobic slur against Chris Bryant. Why do it? It does a disservice to politics, although sadly a culture that shows no sign of letting go.

The ultimate consequence of all this is that it alienates the public from getting involved with politics. Without doubt, politics should be about passionate debate. It should instil the hearts and minds of people, to fight for what they believe in. Politics is about contestation, persuasion, rhetoric, truth-telling. Of course there is a danger that calling for an end to tribalism could, in that sense, depoliticise Westminster (more on that next week). That, by far, is not the aim. The aim, rather, is to restore the credibility of politics by making it a more nobler practice. That calls for fewer jibes, more inclusion and greater awareness of different points of view. It calls for debate and contestation; it does not call for brawls and a winner-takes-all-mentality.

So, to go full circle – I hope that LGBT Labour stop wearing the Never Kissed a Tory t-shirts. Because I kissed a Tory, and I liked it. And I will continue to like it for a range of soppy reasons I don’t think I need to go into.

mg

[1] For example, see R. Behr’s account of coalition politics in his article in the New Statesman (04 June 2012), entitled ‘While Ed Miliband learns tennis, Cameron has been double-faulting’, p.13.

[2] J. S. Mill (2006 [1859]) On Liberty, London: Penguin Classics, p.42 – although the whole of Chapter II is excellent, let alone the book.

[3] On inter-subjective reasoning, see J. Habermas (1992) Between Facts and Norms, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[4] Just as a disclaimer, I have respect for Mensch in that interview only. On countless other occasions she toes the party line to such an excruciating extent that it makes my blood boil – from defending Jeremy Hunt to her appearances on Have I Got News For You.

[5] Exceptions, of course, exist. *cough* BNP *cough* Nick Griffin.