Mandela v Thatcher: the mourning wars

Leftists celebrated the death of Thatcher, yet right-wingers were respectful following Mandela's death. Why the difference?

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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Remember when Margaret Thatcher died in April? ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead!’ they rejoiced on the streets and on social media, the recalcitrant losers of the old left uniting with today’s self-styled radicals, for whom Thatcher was a semi-mythical creature from the past who had wronged their ancestors. The Iron Lady was a mean old bitch, they cried, her creed of individualism being responsible for today’s troubled times.

A few months later, the hero of the left dies. Where was the comparable vitriol from the right, as was expected, about ‘Nelson Mandela the terrorist’? Sure, there was the odd, fringe UKIP fruitcake (isn’t there always?), but for the most part there was warmth and praise. Some, like former UK prime minister John Major, even said that the Conservatives were wrong on South Africa in the 1980s. Even the right-wing press has been quiet on Mandela’s real legacy and South Africa‘s future. Curiously, only the Guardian – in articles by Simon Jenkins and Slavoj Žižek – has really questioned the saintly status accorded to Madiba (though not nearly as well as spiked has done, of course).

Indeed, the only tangible vitriol to emerge has come from old lefties themselves, complaining on social media when David Cameron paid homage. How dare the Tories try to appropriate a foreign leader to make themselves appear virtuous? We bagsied him first!

Politics isn’t meant to be this way. Right-wing people are meant to be horrid and selfish and left-wingers caring and nice. Yet, episodes such as this seem to suggest, once again, the opposite. It’s one of the paradoxes today that the liberal-left is often far nastier, more vitriolic, censorious and egotistical than the ‘selfish’ Tories they profess to loath.

There has always been an egotistical element in progressive politics. As I wrote 10 years ago in my book, Conspicuous Compassion, Why Sometimes It’s Cruel To Be Kind, public displays of virtue are often motivated by vainglory. Remember Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s DJs, Smashie and Nicey, who did a lot of work for charity – ‘but didn’t want to talk about it’?

Remember Live Aid, when the First World came together to sing in front of images of emaciated African children? Consider the act of giving money to a beggar to soothe your conscience and feed his habit. Recall the guest on The Day Today raising money for a jam festival. (‘The only reason you’ve done it is to make yourself look important!’)

It’s a natural impulse to be, and to be seen as, compassionate. Few want to be seen supporting greedy capitalism or speaking approvingly of the dull middle-class or the establishment – especially when you are young, when these things are symbols of parental authority, and when you are looking for sexual partners (show me a young man who declares himself a feminist and I’ll show you someone trying to get laid). Politics is often a mating game by proxy. This is why there has always been a strong correlation between egotism, radical politicking, power worshipping and high libido: think Ken Livingstone, George Galloway, Russell Brand. This is why I also think the voting age should be raised, not lowered. But that’s for another day.

Our current technological revolution, however, has made matters more acute. Consider Twitter. ‘I *Heart* the NHS’ became the new AIDS ribbon and ‘RT if you care a lot’ is the new super-large-poppy-worn-in-October. And remember how we thought Twitter was going to encourage more free speech, rather than become like the BBC Question Time audience? Twitter has instead become a public arena for parroting platitudes; free-thinkers are humiliated by correct-thinking celebrities, shouted down or arrested – literally.

Twitter appeals to a new breed of self-styled radical who grandiosely exhorts their followers to smash nasty capitalism, ban Page 3, ban offensive pop videos, ‘check privileges’, shame the ‘trolls’, march upon the offices of the nasty Daily Mail and, of course, jeer at someone’s funeral. They hate selfish capitalism so much that they ask their followers to buy their books and concert tickets. They hate selfishness individualism and, for the right price, they will tell you why.

This is what happens when you think the personal should be the political. Objectively speaking, of course, political opinion doesn’t correlate with personality. There are many left-wingers who want to change the world for the better – and go about it with quiet actions not loud words – and there are many conservatives who care only about money and themselves.

At the same time there remains a type of immature lefty who thinks conservatives are either bad, mad, stupid or don‘t really mean it. This is the kind of phoney-lefty who hasn’t grown up, the type whose main concern is Me and my Followers.

There are people who still think calling the Conservatives the ‘nasty party’ constitutes political argument. Such infantile language has no place in grown-up debate. Have we learnt nothing from the Blair years? Remember how Britain was seduced by his therapeutic rhetoric of ‘caring’ and ‘reaching out‘? So many, especially the middle classes, were taken in. (Not everyone of course. The magazine LM, the forerunner to spiked, recognised Tony Blair as a ‘Reconstructed Wanker’, even before his ‘Diana moment’).

Future generations aren’t going to remember Tony Blair as a ‘pretty straight kinda guy’, but as a warmonger who bankrupted this country. That was fairly ‘nasty’ of him, wasn’t it? And no doubt, when Blair departs this world, judgement will be immediate and harsh. But you know what? I hope we will have grown up a little by then.

Patrick West is a columnist for spiked. He is the author of several books including Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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