In news terms, there are two varieties of clear-all-the-decks death: those that come out of a blue sky, the most memorable in my lifetime being those of John Lennon and Princess Diana (9/11 was a whole different kettle of mortality and the death of Osama bin Laden was as much a footnote to an unpublished Baudrillard essay as a real demise), and those where all the preparations have been made and all the hacks need to do is to cut the second date into the gravestone and check that none of those making pre-recorded tributes have themselves died in the intervening months or years. These would include the Queen Mother, Jade Goody and, yesterday, Margaret Thatcher.
It’s not only the coverage and tributes that had been well rehearsed for Thatcher’s farewell, of course. Those of us who weren’t, in her phrase, “one of us” (were we “one of them”, like derided homosexuals in a 1970s sitcom?) have been thrashing over our feelings about her for more than 30 years. Her defenestration by her colleagues in 1990 provided a dress rehearsal and as her health declined in the past few years there’s been much debate on the left about how to respond to her death. I’ve always believed that since she thrived on the animosity of her opponents, whether they were Tory wets or hardline trades unionists, Irish terrorists or Argentine sabre-rattlers, any overt celebration over her passing would only serve to feed her legacy. I appreciate the sincerity of those who met to tramp the dirt down in Brixton and Glasgow but I wouldn’t have joined them even if I’d been in the vicinity. In the event, I felt pretty neutral over the bare fact that an 87-year-old woman had suffered a fatal stroke; what did seize me was a feeling of nostalgia, coloured by the fact that her time as prime minister coincided with almost the entirety of my secondary and higher education. I wasn’t mourning her, I was mourning my own past, my own youth. Well, she turned British society onto the virtues of selfishness, so it was only appropriate that her death should make me think about myself.
There was one odd aspect to her death, though, that only trickled out from between the eulogies and the grief-stricken Cher fans. Apparently, she had moved into a suite at the Ritz in December and that’s where she died. Apart from offering a weird sort of equivalence with Diana, whose last night among the living was spent at the Paris Ritz, it does suggest that her spin doctors had taken a day off. She was never a soundbite politician in the mould of Blair or Cameron, but advisors such as Tim Bell (who made the announcement of her death) had instructed her in the art of image management. To be spending her sad final months in such opulent, five-star surroundings, the property of the publicity-shy, tax-averse Barclay twins – who also own the fervently Thatcherite Telegraph newspapers – while so many of her compatriots are struggling to stay afloat, rather reinforces the notion that hers was a government by and for the rich; that she was, in Denis Healey’s phrase, “La Pasionara of middle-class privilege”. I don’t, incidentally, buy the notion that hers was a tale of a meritocratic rise through the ranks of society. Her background was that of the provincial petit-bourgeoisie, undoubtedly low-rent by the standards of the Tory grandees of the 1950s but probably a notch up from that enjoyed by her predecessor as party leader, Edward Heath; and her smartest business move was to marry a millionaire. Death comes to us all, sure; but the specific location of her death reminds us that, whatever her grisly catamites may bleat, we’re not in this together, not even close.