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Entries in politics (3)


Why the chart success of 'Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead' is so significant

There's something rather sneaky going on in Britain at the moment: an attempt to cod the population into believing that its most controversial, divisive prime minister ever was a unifying figure that everybody supported (or should have supported) and whose policies “saved the nation.” An array of tactics are being employed to convince us that Thatcher was essentially a Churchill Mark II: the state-funeral-on-the-sly; the recall of parliament; a torrent of newspaper headlines pronouncing her Britain's greatest ever PM; vast numbers of Thatcherite talking heads queuing up to commend her legacy to pliant TV news anchors; and, of course, a royal presence at her funeral. It’s nearly as bad as when we had to endure months of catching buses sporting huge pictures of Maggie’s hairdo photoshopped onto Meryl Streep’s head.

However slickly presented, however, the messages about Thatcher being put about by her cheerleaders are at odds with reality. She was not unifying; I doubt that more vitriol has been directed at any other post-war British prime minister (even Bush-loving, Iraq-bombing Blair), dead or alive. She was not universally popular: she won her elections with a smaller share of the vote than all previous post-war Tory prime ministers, and at every general election she contested, around 60% of the country was consistently voting for other, mainly left-liberal, parties (her electoral success had much to do with a split left and the UK's questionable voting system). As for her policies – both the ones she implemented in office and the ones she influenced afterwards – you will find many who will line up to question the merits of privatising such basic utilities as water, transport and energy, and plenty of economists see her 1986 'big bang' financial market deregulation (and the subsequent adoption of Thatchernomics by New Labour) as laying the foundations for the financial crisis that is doing all our heads, wallets and spare bedrooms in today.

Despite all this, it is unlikely that from listening to politicians, watching TV or reading your preferred daily rag you will get any real sense of the fact that in truth, a huge tranche (majority?) of the UK population disapproved of what Maggie did to her country, and that she was not just disliked but hated by millions. You also won’t find many journalists lingering that long on her support for murdering despots like Pinochet; or her backing of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Yet in our supposed age of austerity, no expense is being spared by an otherwise penny-pinching state to ensure that this woman goes down in history as a secular, unifying saint; and no effort is being spared by the, ahem, impartial media we enjoy in the UK in ramming this sainthood down our throats.

Against this backdrop of enforced-Thatcher-respecting, the rise of Judy Garland's Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead up the charts may seem trite or tasteless, but it is actually very significant. Yes, it is rather rude – and, perhaps, a touch sexist – to compare the UK’s first ever female prime minister to a witch. Yes, it disrespects the dead (and, many would argue, witches). But however crude this musical protest might appear, as the track has approached the top of the charts, it has become a pointed countermelody to an overplayed tune which insists that Margaret Thatcher was the saviour of the nation. It sticks two fingers up, in a nicely British (and, appropriately, collective) way, to the notion that Thatcher was a unifying figure and a force for good.

The many British people who view Thatcher in a negative light do not have £10m handy to organise elaborate ceremonial events designed to make a political point. They can't recall parliament at public expense to reminisce on their experience of Maggie. They don’t control the airwaves. They don’t happen to run newspapers. They can’t rely on a royal showing up at an anti-Thatcher party (not even a Z-list one, like Princess Michael of Kent). But delightfully, they’ve still managed to find a way to forcefully question the Thatcher myth being sold to them. With its lyrics referencing lullaby leagues, lollipop guilds and munchkins, the chart success of Ding Dong! may feel like a somewhat childish, minor victory, but ­it’s actually hugely important, because it forces a largely Thatcher-supporting media to report on a widespread and deeply-felt unhappiness with Thatcherism; and crucially, the success of the song can’t simply be dismissed as being the work of just a few troublesome crusties from North London (despite my own best efforts in cajoling my friends to buy my music, there just aren’t enough of these types to propel you into the charts). 

(You can purchase 'Ding Dong! the Witch Is Dead' on iTunes here. I think it was 59p when I originally bought it, but I suspect that iTunes jacked the price up to 79p after noticing all this Thatcher-related hoo-ha. Ah, free market economics. Maggie would have been proud.)

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The Leveson thing

So, the Leveson report has finally arrived. As far as I can make out, the noble Lord is proposing that newspapers sign up voluntarily to some sort of regulatory system that is technically overseen, albeit at arm's length, by the government. Doesn't sound madly frightening to me (and seems very similar to what has been going on for decades without issue in my home country, Ireland, via the Press Council of Ireland) but cue cries of outrage from the press barons and their lacky Trevor Kavanagh - it's the end of free speech as we know it, yada yada.

I'm not sure however that the lack of an effective regulator of media content is really why the British press is so awful. I think said awfulness has more to do with the issue of media ownership - too much of it is concentrated in too few hands (mainly those belonging to a certain Mr Murdoch), meaning that certain media groups have become so large and influential that they are in a position where they are, in real terms, above the law. As Jeremy Hunt's dalliances with News Corp's Frederic 'Papa' Michel highlighted rather too well, such groups can effectively dictate government policy (or certainly dissuade governments from taking actions or policy positions that are not to their liking); and when a media group like News Corp feels confident enough to interfere so extensively in government, it's no wonder it isn't that bothered about interfering in the lives - or with the voicemails - of ordinary people too (even dead schoolgirls).

My tuppenceworth - not that Lord Leveson is likely to ask for it - is that if politicians are serious about tackling abuse of power by the media (questionable), they should look at how and in whose hands that power is concentrated, rather than trying to tame a media beast with a state regulator (not that I have massive qualms about the latter, providing it's set up correctly). My feeling is that if there was greater plurality of ownership in the UK media, there would be less abuse of power, and potentially more free speech going on, due to editors of multiple newspapers, magazines and TV shows not all having to toe one proprietor's line. A few right-wing tycoons owning most of the media is as much of (if not more of) a threat to free speech as light-touch government regulation designed to protect individuals from inappropriate press intrusion.

But maybe this whole discussion about the press behaving badly is a distraction from what's really going on: printed newspapers, however naughty or nice they've been, are currently in their death throes. They are going online, and as we all know, a national government trying to regulate what goes on online is going to face one hell of a headache. Even if newspaper sites could be regulated to some extent, it would be incredibly difficult to lay down the law to the blogosphere and social media.

One thing is fairly certain however: in this new digital age, owners of heavily-visited sites will be in serious positions of power, and - just like their offline counterpart, ye olde newspaper proprietors - many will be happy to abuse it; again I feel that rather than all this being a question of regulation of content, it boils down to a question of regulation of ownership: how much of the internet's big news / entertainment sites should a government allow one individual or company to own? You'd need an even longer inquiry to begin to get to the bottom of that one...

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The politics of snow

Being a simple Irish country boy*, I never fail to be amazed at how people overreact to things here in the UK.

It snowed. And people didn't go to work. And kids threw snowballs at people, including me -the cheeky scallywags (thankfully no rocks, otherwise I would have upgraded 'scallywag' to an expletive). And all of a sudden we've got a political row going on. About snow. The Daily Telegraph is moaning about schools being shut, and whinging that the UK's lack of preparedness for adverse weather is costing the economy billions. And so on. Even the Guardian's making a big deal about it.

Interestingly, in this era of triangulation, the politics of snow divide along traditional left / right lines. The Right are all complaining that years of state nannying (not that I've seen much nannying post-Thatcher) has left us without the grit (pardon the pun) to get up and go to work/school. The Left attribute the inefficiencies in clearing roads to privatisation and the sub-contracting of road-salting. Question Time was a hoot tonight because of the impassioned feelings and debate about snow (incidentally, Will Young's out-of-depthness added to the hilarity, particularly when he tried to answer questions about Carol Thatcher and gollywogs. Mind you, he's a brave man for going on that show).

I like to take a political stance on almost everything - to the point of annoying everybody - but in this instance my response is: it snowed. It was a bit of a laugh. We all built a snowman. Kids - shock! horror! - got a day off school. This kind of thing doesn't happen very often (I think the last snowfall like this in Britain was nearly 20 years ago), and it was good fun. Once again, the UK press has totally overreacted and tried to whip up anger over nothing.

There are lots of things that we could be worried about right now, but not snow. Frankly the weather was a welcome distraction from all those gloomy reports about the economy.

Here's my take on it anyway: British snow for British snowmen.

* technically I'm not from the country, I'm from Dublin - and I'm not entirely Irish either. My father comes from the south of England.

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