This is post is kindasorta both a Tricky Dicky and a Psychic Landscape entry. It doesn’t quite fit into either series, but should – hopefully – be read in the context of them.
When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, so many people downloaded the song ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ from iTunes that the BBC were seemingly forced into the position of having to play it on Radio 1, in line with their usual practice of giving airtime to songs that are currently in the charts. (In the end they copped out and played a clip – of a song that’s under a minute long anyway – with an explanation. I didn’t hear it but I’d stake internal organs on it involving use of the word ‘divisive’.) This awkward situation for the BBC, very much not of their choosing, created what is called a ‘row’, or a ‘controversy’, or a ‘scandal’. This is when the right-wing media, rather than report the facts with headlines like ‘Thousands Celebrate Baroness Thatcher’s Death by Downloading…’, instead publish stories with headlines like ‘Outrage as BBC plans to Celebrate Baroness Thatcher’s Death by Playing…’. The ‘outrage’ the paper is supposedly reporting is always illustrated with a few hysterical quotes from people the paper contacted to supply them with hysterical quotes. For instance, the Telegraph contacted Cecil Parkinson, one of Thatcher’s erstwhile cabinet minions and staunchest loyalists. Lord Parkinson proved a disappointingly philosophical commentator however, telling them – bizarrely – that Thatcher wouldn’t have cared because she’d have been too busy watching Songs of Praise.
For those of you who don’t know, Songs of Praise is the longest running television show in history. It has been aired more-or-less weekly on Sunday afternoons on BBC1 since 1961, and features recordings of Sunday church services – from a different church each week – complete with lots of hymn singing, helpfully subtitled so the viewer can join in at home. The show is notorious for depicting anomalously large congregations which fail to accurately reflect the reality of Christian worship attendance figures in the United Kingdom. As such, it is also one of the most subversive television shows in history, albeit unwittingly, being a weekly demonstration of both the psychologically deranging effects of the spectacle, and an infallible index of some of the quintessential sins of the British middle classes: pride, vanity, hypocrisy, etc.
Lord Parkinson’s idea in saying what he supposedly did was, presumably, to emphasize both Mrs Thatcher’s admirable contempt for the opinions of the people of Britain, but also her Christian piety. He didn’t bother to explain why watching a particular television programme would mean Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t find time to care about an unconnected issue. As I recall, Mrs Thatcher was quite an efficient multi-tasker. Also, based on the occasional instance of seeing Songs of Praise in my youth, I’d say that the show was singularly conducive to making the viewer think about other things… and in my day it was presented by ex-Goon Harry Seacombe, so there always seemed a muted possibility that the cloying air of respectable tweeness might at any moment be discarded in favour of an atavistic reversion to random gibbering and screeching.
Nor did Parkinson say how it would be possible for Thatcher to care about the public reaction to her own death… unless he was implying that she might actually haul her festering carcass back out of her taxpayer-funded grave to glower at Sunday television with her deliquescing eyeballs, the infernal stenches of brimstone and putrefaction pouring from her maggot-filled mouth even as she yowled along to ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, necrotically disdainful of the silly consolatory games we play in the ruins of our once social-democratic society, and serene in the knowledge that at least our expressions of joy at her demise were putting money into the pockets of Apple and Warner Bros.
The irony is that by asserting Thatcher’s posthumous unconcern about public attitudes towards her death, Parkinson was inadvertently suggesting that she might in some way be possessed of a supernatural nature, and that the epithet ‘witch’ might therefore fit her even more aptly than those using it as a mere insult ever intended. It speaks to the ambivalence she inspired even in her diehard loyalists: even as they worshipped her, they constructed her in dark ways, and those ways ran along the lines of gender. There was something thrilling to them about the fact that their most ruthless values could be reflected back at them in a feminine mirror. The thrill stems from their perception of a contradiction, a transgression. The fact that the contradiction is entirely in their own minds doesn’t lessen its power – indeed, the purely psychic nature of the contradiction only strengthens it. The perverse joy taken by torydom in elitism, and authoritarian callousness, was stimulated by the manifestation or reification of these traits in a feminized object. This is the secret inner reason for the libidinous way in which so much of the admiration for Thatcher was inflected, such as Alan Clarke’s fetishizaton of her ankles, and even Christopher Hitchens’ delight when the Iron Lady labelled him a ‘naughty boy’.
The first instinct of a great many people, upon learning of Thatcher’s death, was to publically announce their joy. This was, of course, for most people, actually more a belated personal catharsis than actual delight at an old woman’s passing. It was more to do with their own memories of living through the gruelling Thatcher years, and the resentment of their mutated continuation into the present (Thatcherism being zombiistically persistent even if Thatcher herself was not), than any actual sadistic glee at the suffering of others. I get that… as preceding paragraphs must have made all too clear.
The point here is that the epithet chosen, by democratic (if not unanimous) herd instinct, was ‘witch’. It was to hand, and was picked up. (There were others of course, but ‘witch’ was the one that the BBC had to have an internal debate about whether to air on their main radio station.) This caused many people more than a few qualms at the time, understandably enough. I’m not going to fingerwag. I don’t want to downplay the anger and pain of the many who could, perhaps, have used more PC language. But I personally don’t think you do much good by using sexist, gendered language to describe the female running dogs of capitalism. It seems to miss the point somewhat.
The specific witch being referred to in the song, and thus the one to which Thatcher is implicitly compared, is of course the Wicked Witch of the East. Ironic. Aside from the fact that this is the wrong compass point for Thatcher, the WWotE famously wears ruby slippers, and red was not Maggie’s colour. These trivial incongruities aside, the witches in Oz are the witches of children’s fiction, in the same tradition (broadly) as the witches in The Worst Witch, Hocus Pocus, and Harry Potter (but who wants to talk about that?), etc. (Personally, I think Baum beats the hell out of most other examples, but you know what I mean.) Unlike the more dangerous and powerful creatures from which they draw their job title and notional nature, Baum’s witches are relatively innocuous figures, especially when filtered through Hollywood. The Baumian good witches are just that: straightforwardly good, in a way that the ‘white’ witches of folklore simply weren’t. Truly, the wicked witches of Oz are spiteful, vengeful, and even tyrannical. (Mainly because they’re obsessed with men, if you ignore Baum and listen to Raimi.) As such, they undoubtedly share some of the ideological genealogy of all witches, like (obviously) fears about the danger posed to society by unruly women; women somehow permitted to express emotions other than patience and constance and faith, and other virtues after which the Puritans liked to name their female children; semi-slaves whose inevitable feelings of resentment are not either psychologically, ideologically, or physically repressed. Even so, the Baumian wicked witches are a long way from the baby-devouring monstrosities of the Early Modern imagination.
The point of calling Margaret Thatcher a witch, however, was to emphasize, albeit jokingly, her evil, her malice, the harm she did to people. And she undoubtedly did do dreadful harm to millions. Millions still live with the legacy of the misery and desolation she wantonly and callously inflicted. We’ve all just been watching the Tories, at their conference, openly flirting with ideas which themselves openly flirt with fascism in a way that goes beyond hyperbole. (I’m not going down the rabbit hole of wondering if this has anything to do with the fact that the Tories are once again being led by a woman – that’s not only a rabbit hole, it’s one with a dead end at the bottom, upon which I would simply hit my head. It’s a coincidence, nothing more.) The fact that the Labour Party has had to go through a year of bitter turmoil and infighting to retain what is, by any sane measure, little more than a moderate social-democratic policy platform, is itself a legacy of Thatcher. Indeed, it is the legacy of which she herself claimed to be most proud.
Trouble is, even by a realistic measure of how much misery and suffering and death she caused,
- none of this makes Thatcher unusual among world leaders, except in terms of her historic success, and
- she still didn’t eat babies. (She might’ve knowingly let some of her colleagues do other things to them… we don’t know yet.)
She was castigated and stigmatised as the ‘milk snatcher’ when, in 1971, as Education Secretary in the Heath government, she oversaw education cuts which included taking away the free school milk that British school kids had been obliged to quaff every schoolday for their own good. (Incidentally, I remember school milk, despite being born five years after the milk was snatched… I suppose because I was schooled under the GLC?) The root problem was education cuts in the service of tax pledges during a recession. But the narrative became about an evil woman depriving children of milk. Doesn’t take much parsing, really, does it? Not that I’m sympathising with her, you understand. But even so, the reality is that she didn’t steal away the milk from personal malice, still less because she was a cackling crone intent upon perverting sacred motherhood.
She was not, in short, a witch. At least not if we take ‘witch’ to mean an evil woman who chooses to renounce her supposedly god-given duties as obedient wife and nurturing mother, who instead worships Satan, has sexual congress with demons, keeps supernatural familiars which she suckles from dark marks upon her skin, flies out at night on broomsticks, transmogrifies into hares, curses her neighbours, killing their animals and dooming their crops, putting hexes on people using potions concocted from bits and pieces of bats and snakes, and from the placentas of babies she strangled, etc. She was, like so many of her kind, so many in the political classes of Western industrial democracies, a manager of the capitalist system, committed ideologically to its maintenance, to the victory of the interests of the capitalist classes against those of the working classes. That probably would not have been a description she herself would’ve signed off on, but it’s pretty accurate in real terms, I think. I personally also think she nourished a deep-seated loathing and contempt for ordinary working people, and an almost pathological worship of wealth and the wealthy… but again, this hardly makes her unusual in her class, no more than does her sociopathic callousness. Whether you need such traits to get into the positions she achieved, or whether such positions nurture such attitudes within you, is an open question. Personally, I suspect an evolving and dialectical relationship where, so to speak, the appetite grows with the eating – not dissimilar to addiction.
When we actually get into the nitty-gritty of this, we begin to see what a bad metaphor ‘witch’ is for Margaret Thatcher.
Firstly, it’s a gendered slur, redolent of sexist attitudes. And it doesn’t matter if someone is the vilest imperialist, capitalist, ruling class warrior (all of which she undoubtedly was), the problem with them isn’t that they are all these things while also being a woman. It does no good to oppositional politics to marry it uncritically to misogyny. Moral questions aside, we’re supposed to be campaigning for popular support… do we actually want to alienate more than half the working class?
Secondly, it misrepresents the problem. The problem isn’t that she’s a Bad Person who did Bad Things. She undoubtedly was, by any humane measure, but that’s a description not an explanation. It’s just an ostensibly left-wing version of a tabloid headline screaming ‘MONSTER’ or ‘PURE EVIL’ about some criminal. They may well be both monstrous and evil, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. It’s like treating cancerous growths by shouting insults at them. It’s not, ultimately, going to be as much use as surgery or chemo, and they depend upon explanation and understanding. The problem, in the case of Thatcher, isn’t Thatcher so much as the world that created and empowered Thatcher.
Thirdly, it is to buy into a fetishization of her which, as we’ve seen is actually linked to the psychological attraction she had for many.
Finally, calling Thatcher – or, for that matter, anyone similar to her – a witch could actually be seen as making the grotesque mistake of praising her. Why do I say this? Because I believe we should seek solidarity with the past victims of history, of the ruling system or systems.
Benjamin said that the working class nourishes its hatred of oppression and its spirit of sacrifice on “the picture of enslaved forebears”. The women who were done to death in their thousands – possibly their hundreds of thousands – across Europe and America between the late 15th and late 18th centuries, were our enslaved forebears. Indeed, they were even more enslaved for being women. This was true in the normal run of things, let alone when the contradictions of society manifested as ropes and closed even more tightly around their wrists and ankles and necks.
I won’t here go into why this happened (that’s for another time) but I will say that it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It wasn’t just a craze that happened to whip itself up from nowhere, separate from class, class struggle, and the vaster processes of history. And it helped clear the way for our world. It was part of how our world was born. Witch crazes are not just bad memes that get into people’s heads, no more than is misogyny. Witch crazes are manifestations of history, of the rise of new class relations. This was true in Europe and American during the Early Modern period, just as it is currently true in parts of Africa where neoliberalism and Western economic imperialism ravages the continent in the service of capital. The women who were the basis for our modern idea of the witch – whatever generic, political, or moral permutations we may put on it – deserve our remembrance and our solidarity. They were not really witches, but they were the real witches… if you follow me. To the extent that witches ever existed, those women – and some men too – were them. We should not use the word witch to describe the cold-hearted warriors of a system which is the descendant and beneficiary of that which persecuted, shamed, tormented, humiliated, and killed them. The epoch we now have grew partly from those crimes. We should not take the word that collectively describes some of its most wretched historic victims and use it to describe its modern champions.
Much as I’d like to, I don’t think we can entirely reclaim the word as a badge of honour or a term of solidarity… at least, I can’t, for obvious reasons. Others, with different positionality, can and do, and it’s glorious. But the word is still a gendered insult, at least as it is widely used. Even so, I believe it is a word which now, at least in some sense, belongs to the oppressed.
Thatcher, certainly, was and is not fit to be called a witch.