Speaking Ill Or Well

9 April 2013

Within minutes of the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death yesterday, the internet was full of it.  Speaking ill of the dead, that is. 

And that raised in me a number of questions I hadn’t given much thought to before.  Why can’t we speak ill of the dead?  How long after the person’s death would it be appropriate?  Or after someone has died, must you always speak well of them?

The latter is clearly ridiculous.  If that were the case, historians would go out of business and Hitler would have taken on the persona of a decent human being.  

I’m not talking about the way one would behave with the close family and friends of the deceased.  I’ve struggled sometimes to find something nice to say about someone to their next-of-kin but if you dig deep enough there’s usually something – even if only that they were fond of children and helped old ladies across the road.

But to the public at large or the internet full of strangers? 

When a public figure dies, his/her life is going to be discussed.  Or are we supposed to wait an ‘appropriate’ amount of time before we do that?  In the case of Margaret Thatcher, you could hardly say that people are saying after her death things that they wouldn’t have said to her face, if they’d had the opportunity.

I know that the non-British out there are probably surprised by the amount of vitriol this woman engenders.  I know perfectly decent Americans who admired her greatly.   But to me, and a lot of my fellow-countrywomen (putting on my British hat here), she was the person responsible for creating a “me first” society where the needs and desires of the individual took precedence over the good of society, the person who was partly responsible for my husband moving to Australia as he couldn’t bear the society she was creating, and the person who changed my parents from life-long Conservative voters to Green voters for the last 20 years or so of their lives (which was no mean feat in itself). 

The only good thing I can think of to say is that a generation of British children grew up thinking that women run the country, with a long-standing female Prime Minister and a female monarch.  But has that brought forth a steady stream of women going for the top jobs?  There hasn’t been a female party political leader in Britain since so I don’t think she can be said to have been much of a role-model.

‘Nuf said.

ADDED:  Since writing this post, I’m come across an article in the Guardian on the same subject.  Read here.




  1. Quite so, Sally. The.Graniad justly mentions the dangers of instant hagiography. For myself, at heart I cannot begin to mourn such a figure. It’s just that, personally, I’m reluctant to weigh in with criticism at this close remove. That may be that there is an overriding sadness at a clever woman literally losing her mind.

  2. She certainly hasn’t been a figure to improve the lot of women in the UK – didn’t she complain about strident feminists? (The cheek!)

    We certainly continue to see the results of her ethos, and I’m not happy about that at all. I do have quite a visceral response to her…

  3. I think that the “don’t speak ill” thing does not apply to public figures. Period. (I also do not think it applies to pure statements of fact. In my mind, a flat statement that “my father used excessive physical punishment” is not speaking ill.)

    And I can’t speak for most Americans — but then, I rarely can — but I have and had exactly the same feelings about Thatcher that I did and do about Ronald Reagan, and was equally disgusted at the “honor the hero” reaction when he died. (And weren’t they big ol’ buddies?)

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