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The Responses to the Death of Margaret Thatcher: Balancing Freedom of Speech with the Need for Common Decency

The Responses to the Death of Margaret Thatcher: Balancing Freedom of Speech with the Need for Common Decency

The maxim that one should ‘not speak ill of the dead’ is well-known. So too is the famous quote from Voltaire: ‘I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. The death of Margaret Thatcher and the frenzy of commentary that it attracted raise the interesting question of where the balance should lie between respect for the dead and freedom of speech. Although political debate is something which should be cultivated and encouraged, some of the responses to the former Prime Minister’s death have caused outrage and controversy, and indeed, many of the tweets and celebrations go beyond legitimate political discourse and seem to be an affront to basic decency and respect. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights contains the right to freedom of expression, which includes the ‘freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’. However, this right is qualified by Article 10(2) which states that the right can be subject to restriction or penalties, if they are prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society. For example, if a restriction is necessary for the sake of preventing crime or disorder, or protecting the reputation or rights of others.

Although political debate is something which should be cultivated and encouraged, some of the responses to the former Prime Minister’s death have caused outrage and controversy…

Following news of Baroness Thatcher’s death there were impromptu street parties and celebrations in many parts of the UK. One such street party in Bristol ended in injuries for revellers and police alike. Meanwhile, at a party in Glasgow, which was attended by over 300 people, there were chants of ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, dead, dead, dead’ to the tune of champagne bottles popping. It seems that some individuals may have used the jubilations as an excuse for criminal and anti-social behaviour, such as in Brixton where two women were arrested on suspicion of burglary and a Barnado’s charity shop window was smashed. Some of those ‘celebrating’ at the events around the country were too young to even remember the Thatcher years, as Barry Neild reports in a blog for The Guardian.
Many prominent and political figures have denounced the parties. One such figure was MP Chuka Umunna, who, commenting on the celebrations in Brixton, has been quoted as saying:

Holding a party to celebrate the death of any person is totally wrong and in extreme bad taste — to do so in respect of Baroness Thatcher on the day of her death is utterly disgraceful.

In a similar vein, Jim Allister, the Traditional Unionist Voice leader, called the celebrations in Northern Ireland ‘ghoulish’. If one was to invoke a human right’s perspective, they may argue that distasteful behaviour is still acceptable behaviour under Article 10. Conversely, it could be said that the celebrations are an activity which could legitimately be restricted under the qualifiers in Article 10(2).

The battle between those criticising Thatcher and those denouncing the perceived repugnancy of the criticisms through social media forums was perhaps even more marked than the debate over the celebrations. Comments criticising the former Prime Minister ranged from the slightly distasteful but reasonably light-hearted, such as comedian Robert Florence who tweeted, ‘Now everyone can do a great Maggie Thatcher impersonation just by lying still on the floor’, to the comparatively vulgar, like Ireland cricketer John Mooney who said he hoped her death had been ‘slow and painful’. The cricketer later apologised for his comments and added that he had ‘learned a very valuable lesson’.

It seems that some individuals may have used the jubilations as an excuse for criminal and anti-social behaviour, such as in Brixton where two women were arrested on suspicion of burglary…

However, there are those who have fiercely defended their right to criticise Baroness Thatcher. MP George Galloway, who tweeted ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’ in reference to the anti-Thatcher song by Elvis Costello, and later posted ‘May she burn in the hellfires’, is one such individual. Despite denunciations of his remarks from private and public figures alike, Mr Galloway has used the most colourful terms to defend his position:

I hated Margaret Thatcher so do not ask me to pretend I’m not glad she has gone, unlike the drivelling lickspittles and sycophants whose crocodile tears are fusing their iPads and laptops.

Many people have shared Galloway’s sentiments, and argued that old-fashioned etiquette should not interfere with the right to comment freely and critically. MP Kris Hopkins is one of many who opposed the remarks. In response to Galloway’s comments, he said:

In a civilised society we owe a statesperson dignity, much more dignity than George can muster. It says more about the little person he is compared to the great leader Margaret Thatcher was.

And yet it is arguable that the very status of Baroness Thatcher, as a public political figure, means that she and her legacy should be subjected to open debate. Indeed, in an article for The Guardian entitled ‘Margaret Thatcher and misapplied death etiquette’, Glenn Gleenwald wrote:

That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power… the protocols are fundamentally different when it comes to public discourse about the person’s life and political acts.

Despite denunciations of his remarks from private and public figures alike, Mr Galloway has used the most colourful terms to defend his position…

Gleenwald mocked Steve Hynd for putting together a list of ‘naughty boys and girls’ who have ‘dared to express criticisms of the dearly departed Prime Minister’. Some of the comments compiled by Hynd are rather obscene. However, the right to make such remarks has been defended by many commentators. One reader said, ‘I abhor the implied threats to freedom of speech that Hynd, who is making a list (and presumably checking it twice), represents with this article’. 
Most people would agree that criticism and political debate are healthy and positive elements of living in a democratic society. However, what has been so deplorable about the criticisms of Thatcher following her death is the vulgarity of some of the comments. The issue here is less about restricting freedom of speech or expression, and more about basic and simple respect and decency. The unnecessary cruelty of many of the comments serve only to cheapen the political debate. In a civilised and democratic society we are all granted with the freedom to say and express our views, but likewise, in a civilised society it seems reasonable to expect people to show courtesy and respect. A light-hearted if somewhat obnoxious tweet from a comedian rarely raises eyebrows in today’s society. But the extremity of the comments from both public and private figures on social media forums which are accessible by all – be they young and impressionable people, or friends or relatives of the late Prime Minister – make this an issue which cannot simply be deflected with the shield of freedom of speech.

In an article in December 2012, Joshua Danton Boyd made the important point that, ‘wholly idolising or demonising a person is wrong’. Certainly a person should not be adorned with undue praise upon their death simply out of a misplaced sense of etiquette or respect. Indeed, the old maxim that one should ‘not speak ill of the dead’ is somewhat outdated in a society where social media and accessibility of information mean that no major event can go without coverage and debate, and where social etiquette is seen as less important than fundamental rights and freedoms. However, the issue surrounding the vulgar chanting and condemnation of Margaret Thatcher is less about freedom of speech and expression than it is about basic, fundamental decency. Voltaire’s famous quote is as relevant and important today as ever, but common courtesy dictates that we ought to have some respect and tact in our behaviour and remarks, particularly when they relate to someone who has so recently passed away.

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