Public History, Private Dignity: Margaret Thatcher and her legacy

Today we are featuring a guest post by Niall McGlynn, a fellow history student at Trinity College.  He writes for Burton Bastwick and Prynne, which is another collaborative blog full of interesting historical related posts.  We highly encourage you to go take a look:  Enjoy!


Today is probably a fitting day to write about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and the reaction surrounding her passing, given that her funeral is currently taking place in London.  In many ways Baroness Thatcher is an ideal subject for writing about public history.  In death as in life, she was a figure who inspired debate and discussion about both her time in office and what it meant to those who came after her.  It is the reaction surrounding her death however, which I wish to focus on, as I believe that it is regrettably this aspect of her legacy which carries the most important lesson for public historians and commentators.

The passing of a major figure in any field, but particularly in politics, is always a time for reflection and debate about their legacy and what the contributed either positively or negatively to their country. Debate is one thing, crass insults and outright celebration of the persons death is another. No matter who the person is or what they did in life, celebrating their death is a uniquely unpleasant thing to do. Attempting to then justify this celebration as some kind of justified reaction to alleged crimes committed by the person is to add insult to injury.

The relation of all this to public history is that the commentary on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is public history. It is a discussion of historical events taking place in the public domain. As such, what is written now will have a direct impact on how the history of Mrs. Thatcher’s time in office and out of it is perceived by the wider public and how it is communicated to future generations. Do we really want to characterise our discussion and analysis of “the Thatcher years” with “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”?

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days about how future generations will look back at the debates over gay marriage, and what they will think of opposition to marriage equality. How will they look at celebrating the death of an old lady using a song from a children’s movie? Public figures, no matter what role they are in or actions they take, remain human beings, and possess the same dignity as all other human beings. No one’s death should be celebrated in this way. Margaret Thatcher was a living, breathing person. She was someone’s Mother and Grandmother. She was a Sister, a Wife, a beloved family member. She should not have “spontaneous parties” being organised to celebrate her passing.

Public history is in many ways the guardianship of history. It is the quest to preserve and record our past, and pass it on to the next generation. Do we really as historians of any type, want to pass on hate and vitriol being poured on and old woman who has passed away? What we write, what we say, what we choose to put on the “public record” is what we are choosing to pass on to posterity. In many ways it represents our societies historical legacy. As all historians are public historians to a certain extent, should we not be trying to pass on a legacy we can be proud of, not one filled with hate and spite for an elderly stateswoman?

As historians, public or otherwise we are bound to pass on all we can to the future. But we can add our own contributions. We should strive to pass on a rational and dignified discussion of Margaret Thatcher, who she was, what she did and why it matters, good or bad. Objection to someones policies and actions in office is to be welcomed and gladly added to the discourse. Hate, spite and celebrations of someones death are not. When we come to write the history of Margaret Thatcher and her legacy, we must remember that despite the “public” part of public history, we are dealing with a private human being, who is to be accorded all the respect we give any other human being.

“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.”  – Margaret Thatcher, May 4, 1979

Categories: Guest Post | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Public History, Private Dignity: Margaret Thatcher and her legacy

  1. Agree agree agree. That Ding Dong the witch approach promotes a single view of history, we should strive to see both sides of the story. It’s like the image most Irish people have of Cromwell, despite the fact that he did great things for his own country.

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