Rancorous Thatcher debate continues in parliament and the streets


Thatcher's death has re-opened many old wounds.


Dan Kitwood

LONDON, UK — British former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is proving to be as divisive in death as she was during her long political career.

Lawmakers paid tribute to her in parliament on Wednesday as a string of anti-Thatcher parties on city streets have taken place since she died Monday at age 87.

The House of Commons was called back from its recess for a special session Wednesday afternoon, one several Labour MPs chose to sit out.

Beginning at 2:30 pm London time, the session was expected to last as long as seven and a half hours. When Edward Heath died in 2005, the Telegraph reported, he got just 63 minutes.

In a chamber largely silent of the heckles and “hear-hears” that typically mark Commons debates, members from all parties paid tribute to Thatcher while in several cases diplomatically acknowledging deep disagreements with her policies.

“She was right to recognize our economy needed to change. In foreign policy she was right to defend the Falklands, and to reach out to new leadership in the Soviet Union,” said Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party.

“It would be dishonest and not in keeping with the principles Margaret Thatcher stood for, even on this day, not to be open with this house about the strong opinions and the deep divisions there were and are over what she did,” he continued. “In mining areas like the one I represent, communities felt angry and abandoned. … She made the wrong judgment about Nelson Mandela and about sanctions in South Africa.”

“Debates about her and what she represented will continue for many years to come,” Miliband said. This is a mark of her significance as a political leader – someone with deep convictions, willing to act on them.”

“I like to think she’d perhaps be pleased she still provokes trepidation and uncertainty among leaders of other parties even when she’s not here herself, eyeballing us across the house,” said Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. “The best tribute to her is not to consign her to a simplified heroine or villain, but to remember her with all the nuance, unresolved complexity and paradox she possessed.”

Prime Minister David Cameron called Baroness Thatcher an "extraordinary leader and an extraordinary woman" who broke through the "glass ceiling" to make Britain great again. “They say ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man.’ Well, in 1979 came the hour and came the lady,’” he added. “She made the political weather, she made history, and – let this be her epitaph — she made our country great again.”

The jeers began during the remarks of MP David Winnick, a Labour politician who has represented his Midlands constituency since 1979, the year Thatcher took office. He spoke of the sense of despair many of those unemployed during the Thatcher era felt, eliciting a rebuke from the Tory David Morris, who stood up to announce that he had lost his job in the 1980s and went on to start his own business, an achievement he attributed to the Lady's policies. Winnick said it proved his point.

Later, in an increasingly heated speech, Labour MP Glenda Jackson decried "the desperately, desperately wrong direction that Thatcherism took this country in," amid heckles and one shout of "I can't take it!" from the hall. Jackson called her "a woman, but not on my terms."

More from GlobalPost: For Margaret Thatcher, few tears shed in South Africa

On Monday night, people held street parties celebrating her death in Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds and Liverpool.

In London, revelers opened champagne in Trafalgar Square, the site of the infamous poll tax riots protesting Thatcher’s unpopular proposal in 1989, and chanted “Maggie Maggie Maggie, dead dead dead” in Brixton, one of London’s poorest neighborhoods.

Two people were arrested in Brixton after the gathering turned disorderly, with revelers smashing glass and hurling objects at police. But before the violence broke out, the scene in Windrush Square was a festive one, said Tim Dickens, a reporter for the Brixton Blog news site. He saw 150 people of all ages dancing, popping champagne corks, drinking beer and leading jovial chants of “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead.”

“The sentiment when I was there was a celebratory one, and to be honest it was quite good natured,” Dickens said.

When Dickens asked a 20-year-old reveler named Dan what brought him out to celebrate the passing of a politician who left office before he was born, Dan replied, “I know she was before my time but she ruined our country. My grandad has passed away himself, but he said he couldn’t wait to dance on her grave when she was dead, so today I’m doing that for him.”

Many in the celebrating neighborhoods complained to local media that they felt the parties were tasteless, regardless of their personal feelings on Thatcher. MP Nigel Dodds, a Northern Ireland MP, decried before Commons the “ghoulish celebrations.”

Government officials are concerned that Thatcher's funeral next Wednesday April 17 will be met by demonstrations along the route of her funeral procession from Westminster to St. Paul's Cathedral.