Amidst some of the more obvious placards at the Trafalgar Square protest of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral (such as “Tory Scum” and “Rest in Shame”) I found a photograph of this plaintive placard:
Have a look at the original post here on Buzzfeed. It is number 6, under the title “the ironic rejoinder”.
But what I found interesting was the question of how indeed the placard was written and was meant to be interpreted. I can think of at least three ways.
Number one, that it is a sincere yet naive offering of actual sympathy on behalf of society (I think we can rule that out).
Number two, that it is primarily a quick joke, turning a famous quote against her in the spirit of the other snide comments of the day.
Number three, that it is, with reference to number two, making the implicit analysis that society – contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s hopes – has out-lived her, and that Society has always remained alive and healthy contrary to her efforts to kill it.
If so, then whoever wrote that placard was really not just sophisticated, but on another level from most of the other protesters that day (as far as I can tell from the placards at least). Because in the message “Society Says Farewell” lies hope. There lie levels of positivity and optimism that “Thatcher The Scab” or even “Let’s Bury Thatcherism” could never come close to. Because all those slogans are angry. “Society Says Farewell” is at peace with itself.
And this matters because of the people holding the placards. Are they at peace with themselves or angry? Clearly, most of them are angry. And the problem with anger is that it is personally debilitating – yes – but also it is not a political position. It is not a way to rally a nation, only to make more-angry the other people who are already angry. Anger is protest, not leadership.
And it seems to me that what we need now is leadership, leadership of a whole nation. The kind that would assert that, yes, society (and not just “The Big Society”) is still with us, always has been and Society is in fact more powerful and has more potential than ever.
That kind of message is not how we feel, too often. Watching and feeling the Tory cuts we become angry as well as despondent. We might be tempted to damn Thatcher “for ruining society”. Because in some ways she did, just as Cameron has done and is still doing.
But this blog is about political language, and so we need to say that in this case the language of “bearing witness” is incompatible with the language of “inspirational leadership”. Because it might feel cathartic to rant about how Thatcher ruined society, to make a litany of her (many) misdeeds, and those of her political heirs. We might even be tempted to speak in the absolute past tense when we say how Thatcher ruined society, to get across just how very bad she and what she did really was. But that would be to announce our own defeat already.
In fact the real challenge, much harder than tallying her moral scoresheet, is speaking positively about what to do next. And talking about how Society endures would be some nice positive language to start it off, language that is not compatible with being angry about how ruined society is. Because this is a war, and part of it is psychological. And telling your people “the Nazis are SOOO evil, and so effective, not only are they unstoppably killing millions of innocent prisoners but they have devastated London and left us in the most wretched state, and I fear they will go on to do more: we don’t know what to do, but we know we must decry and denounce their evil power!” is not the way a leader wins a war or speaks to their people.
And it’s not just what we say; it’s not enough to say something positive, some clever witty spinny slogan yet in the background have that mindset of defeat anyway. It’s important what we really think as well. Because even if we decide to say something upbeat, are we thinking – at some or indeed any level – that Thatcher really DID ruin society? Because if we are – and I bet that most of us are in fact – then it takes less than we think for that mindset to be communicated to the audience, even without the words directly referencing it. It’s a form of telepathy – a perfectly foreseeable form of telepathy because it cannot be the case that the mind can work on some specific statement without being influenced to some extent by our deepest beliefs. And what we are communicating to the British public, specifically, in that instance is: “we are defeated”, “we are defeated”, “we are defeated and we don’t know what to do”… “we are defeated”, “we are defeated”. A message of despair.
We have to live positivity, not just in language but in thought. We need cognitive behavioural therapy for our political minds, damaged and afflicted and (?)defeated by Thatcherite policies. When we move beyond criticism and anger and hate, not just in our language but in our thoughts and in our minds, we will be opening up new doors for ourselves. Positivity can lead to more positivity. There are no guarantees. But equally negativity can only lead to more negativity. We need to drop the hate – not because Margaret Thatcher didn’t deserve to be hated, but because hating her should not be taking up most of our energy. Forming new solutions – together – should be giving us new energy.
And then we can truly say that Society is here to stay, and is alive and kicking. It never went away you know.