On the Melbourne University ‘Celebration’

Much has been made of the motion passed by the University of Melbourne Student Union to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher and screen the film, ‘Which Side Are You On?’

The assertion that to celebrate the passing of a nation’s leader is disgusting is a matter for debate, and there is something intuitively wrong in making the sweeping statement that we cannot speak ill of the dead. Such a statement ties up rhetoric in emotive and genteel notions of “fair play”, and obscures the facts of the matter. Depending on your personal story or your political views, arguments can be made for or against Thatcher’s legacy.

It has also been suggested that those who criticise or celebrate the passing of Thatcher would feel differently if she were a relative of theirs. No doubt, many would feel differently if Thatcher was their mother, but the point is she is not. Having familial relations, a condition that we all share, is a fallacious retort. An extension of that logic suggests that everyone with a family (all of us) possesses a moral infallibility that renders them immune from criticism.

As an extreme example, I have yet to meet anyone who is willing to stand up for the memory of the great dictators of the 20th Century, such as Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. Let’s take this as a starting point, because the fact that we are comfortable critiquing their legacy immediately refutes the argument that we ought not speak ill of the dead, by providing a counterexample to the maxim.

The act of objective critique is nothing that people ought to be ashamed of, and it should be noted that depending on one’s politics or values, the metrics for objective evaluation of an individual will differ.

For example, some might judge Thatcher on her economic credentials, her ideological footprint, her social values or her foreign policy. There will inevitably be different weightings on these evaluations, resulting in a diversity of opinion on the matter.

When people seek to celebrate the death of Thatcher, they are expressing their critique of her legacy. There is no doubt that for good or bad, she had a significant impact not just on Britain, but also on much of the Western world.

While a challenge to this critique is welcome and desirable, conflating it with rampant moralism serves only to obscure the truth and silence opinion. It is not relevant that she was a mother, and it is not relevant that she is now dead. Her legacy prior to death stood on its own, and it should continue to do so regardless of her mortal circumstances.

On the point of UMSU celebrating her death, to do so is a matter for the organisation itself. Whether or not this conflicts with the terms of the SSAF funding agreement is another matter entirely. Ultimately, they are elected representatives who can face censure for their actions by their constituency. This is the way in which their actions should be evaluated, not veiled in the cloak of nebulous moralism.