“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope”, said Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Yet her passing on April 8th 2013 brought about something that should be cause for despair: tasteless “deathday” parties and celebrations.
British people, I have come to observe, love to jump on a bandwagon. Perhaps it is something to do with “crowd psychology”, the idea that people will act in a more extreme way when encouraging one another. Usually, the psychology of the crowd differs significantly from the psychology of the individuals within it. Perhaps that’s why someone thought it acceptable to wave a dead pig’s head around, whilst a huge crowd of people chanted “ding dong, the witch is dead”. Two weeks ago, most people could not care less about the 1989 Poll Tax Riots, nor the 1982 Falklands War. In fact, the majority of people I’ve seen kicking up a fuss about Thatcher’s death probably were not alive during her leadership
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Thatcherite. She refused to put sanctions against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, ordered the sinking of the Belgrano whilst it sailed away from British ships, refused to listen to her fellow ministers and introduced ill-fated Poll Tax and privatized a huge portion of British industry, which was beneficial in the short term but helped destroy our industry. I feel as many did doing her years as Prime Minister. I agree with the Independent’s notion that she as an “unappealing embodiment of unfeeling middle-class self-righteousness.” No, I am certainly not Thatcher’s biggest fan.
However, I do see it as totally unnecessary and utterly barbaric to revel in her death. As Jonathan Charteris-Black puts it, Thatcher was “the first British politician to appreciate the need for the manufacture and projection of a political image.” Her projection of an “Iron Lady” makes it easier for her critics to dehumanize her. Thatcher was not a dictator. She was elected in 1979, 1983 and 1987. The British public had three chances to shun Thatcherism, but I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time. And whilst she was not the most sympathetic or compassionate leader the UK has ever seen, I have to admire her for her sheer willpower and conviction. Whether for better or for worse, my life would certainly be different had Thatcher never been in power.
This week, “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” reached number 2 in the UK music charts, due to an internet campaign.
Such acts of group hostility, particularly when voiced online through social media or internet campaigns such as this demonstrate a dangerous kind of crowd phycology. Studies by psychologists examine the concept of “herding”, suggesting that humans act under instinctive mechanism when group interaction is involved.
Michael Gross on sciencedirect.com explains that, ““emotional contagion does not require understanding another’s emotion and is largely involuntary.” It is not yet clear how this contagious effect works, and whether it relies on cultural or on innate processes.
If the contagion goes beyond the emotional state and large numbers of people display synchronized behaviours, researchers also speak of the broader phenomenon of social contagion. This concept is used in the analysis of phenomena including mass hysteria, hooliganism, and indeed riots.” This can help explain why so many people helped the campaign to get Ding Dong the Witch is Dead into the charts.
A scene from the 2011 London riots – a scene we will see repeated on Wednesday?
The real question is – what will happen at Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday? Campaigns on Facebook show that protesters are planning to turn their backs on the Baroness’s coffin on the route of her coffin. It is highly doubtful that things will stay that tame – there are likely to be clashes with riot police, items thrown and widespread protest songs. Because if there’s one thing British people love to do, it’s incite hatred for no rational reason. Just look at groups like the EDL, UKIP and the BNP, and pointless displays of hooliganism like the 2011 riots. We like to throw things, shout and generally make fools of ourselves for completely futile reasons. Can we change what Thatcher did? No. She’s not going to apologise, she’s dead. My advice to anyone planning to protest at Thatcher’s funeral is to find something better to do with your Wednesday afternoon. If you still think Thatcher’s all bad, remember that she helped invent Mr Whippy ice cream.
Michael Gross (September 2011), Why Do People Riot?, Science Direct, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982211010177
Andy McSmith (April 2013), Margaret Thatcher obituary: the most diverse political leader of modern times, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/margaret-thatcher-obituary-the-most-divisive-political-leader-of-modern-times-8564559.html