Margaret Thatcher vs Mary Lily Walker

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The Iron LadyOnly a few days after posting my last blog, in which I contrasted the societal visions of George Osborne and Mary Lily Walker, the death of Margaret Thatcher was announced.  Given that Osborne’s policies follow directly in the path of Thatcher’s view of community, it seemed only natural that I should follow up the theme introduced in last week’s blog.  So I thought I would explore what we can learn from a Tale of Two Deaths.

But it isn’t the death of Mary Lily Walker I want to contrast with Margaret Thatcher’s…

…because I’m not supposed to be writing this blog just this moment.  I’m supposed to be on a train on my way to Inverness, where I am due to work with Highland Council over the next couple of days, meeting with staff engaged in early years initiatives.  But I’m not on the train.  Instead, I’m sitting in the Station Hotel at Perth, filling in time during a delay of two hours, the cause of which is “a person having been struck on the line”.  Someone in this country was today suffering such pain that suicide became more appealing that the coming spring.

This situation has struck me forcefully because only this morning I finished composing materials on Attachment Theory, and this was exactly the kind of event I had imagined in one of my paragraphs:

“It isn’t just individuals who can’t manage their own stress who go on to suffer.  We all suffer when other people can’t manage their lives.  We pay to keep them in prison or for mental health services while they are off work with depression or to fund legal aid services for cases of domestic abuse or to repair the tracks damaged by a derailment in which someone has thrown himself in front of an oncoming train or….”

What can we learn from the death of this stranger, to whom I now feel somehow connected?  We learn that from suffering can come compassion.  We are interested in other people’s life stories because we resonate to those stories in some way, because we recognize in another person’s pain the pain that we too have suffered.

Attachment Theory is basically a story about the power of compassion.  Securely attached children are those whose parents were able to acknowledge their child’s moments of fear and suffering and respond to them compassionately.  Compassion is so powerful for human beings that it affects our very physiology.  One of the motivating factors behind the Early Years Collaborative, led by Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, which we will be discussing tomorrow in Inverness, is that insecurely attached children have worse health outcomes than do those who experienced consistent compassion in their early years.  Lack of compassion and companionship makes you ill.  In some cases, it makes you want to kill yourself.

The intense debate that has taken place this week about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher essentially hangs on the point of compassion.  In all the newspaper coverage this week, it was the comments of Ian Jack, in last Tuesday’s Guardian  that were most significant for me:

“Having no social or political connection with the class most affected, Thatcher gave a very good impression of not caring….She personified the change from meaning to meaninglessness in so many settlements and lives, and for this reason she is hard to forgive.”

Her biographer, Hugo Young, had come to the same conclusion already in 2003:

 “The first legacy of Thatcher is that she changed the temper of Britain and the British…Thatcherism fathered a mood of tolerated harshness….Brits became more unpleasant to be with.  This regrettable transformation was blessed by a leader who probably did not know it was happening because she didn’t care if it happened or not.”

Margaret Thatcher was able to destroy so many communities because she was not moved by the suffering of the people who lived within them.  Somehow their suffering did not touch her internally, despite the many stories that have also emerged of her personal kindness to friends and colleagues.  Her kindness did not cross group boundaries.  If Margaret Thatcher made Britain great, it was because she only considered a portion of its population to be ‘truly’ British.  The other portion were, of course, “the enemy within”.  Just as for George Osborne, ‘benefit scroungers’ are undeserving Brits and are thus unworthy of our compassion.  Were we to offer them our compassion, then that would obligate us to learn more about their suffering, about the story of their life lived in poverty.  It is often easier to blame than it is to listen to suffering.

Perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s fabled lack of a sense of humour played some role in her insensitivity to suffering?  In his own piece on her death this week, Simon Hoggart quoted Clive James saying that, “If you lack a sense of humour, you have no sense of proportion.”  Hoggart concluded that Thatcher had neither.  Apparently even her famous line “The lady’s not for turning’ “had to be explained carefully to her, and was retained in the speech only under sufferance.

4291Upon reading that, I thought of the launch that my team held for our new films, on 24th January, as part of Global Belly Laugh Day.  Our aim in that event was to spread cheer, to help lift the gloom of a Scottish January, and most importantly, to highlight the importance of laughter to our mental and physical health.  I kept saying that day that one of the indicators we should be using across a variety of assessments is how much laughter is observed…in a family….in a care setting…between a couple…in public spaces.  Laughter isn’t cute, its crucial.  We underrate its value at our peril.

Professor Steve Reicher, of St Andrews University, has said this week that the intense reactions we are observing in response to Thatcher’s death is not about Margaret Thatcher.  It is about ourselves.  It is about who we want to see ourselves as, what kind of country we want Britain to be, what kind of tribe we want to belong to.

It would seem, then, that we have an opportunity to reclaim a space in our national psyche for compassion, for laughter, for laying down joy.   It appears I am not alone in this outrageous idea, for I received a whole raft of replies to last week’s blog, endorsing my appeal to joy:

“We loved the bit you wrote about blame not offering any solution.  And about the importance of JOY as a sound economic base!”

“It saddens and angers me to think that at the beginning of my life, back in the middle 1930s, life was for many very bleak indeed.  But I always had the belief that the collective thinking would become more caring, more soft and with more insight to the problems faced by those less fortunate than themselves.  But here, in my ‘more mature years’ the entire cycle is forming once again and forging on to even more gross extremes.  Even Thatcher was probably more honest about her use of power that the blatant hypocrisy we are seeing from today’s politicians.”

The only photo known to exist of Mary Lily Walker
The only photo known to exist of Mary Lily Walker

Margaret Thatcher’s death, and its look to the past, comes right in the middle of debates we are having now about Britain’s future.  We have been playing the ‘undeserving poor’ game since Mary Lily Walker’s time.  It has not solved our societal challenges.  Indeed, it has made us, according to Hugo Young, an even “harsher nation”.

The Early Years Movement is an energy that can give us new ways to approach compassion and economics and joy.  As I said in another of the paragraphs I composed in this morning’s material:  “Attachment Theory is not just about children. It is about us: it is about what it means to be human, to live, to lose, and to love.

We will be exploring the visionary potential of the Early Years Movement at our conference in June 2013.

We welcome all interested voices who want to join us.  Scotland is going to take a vote on independence next year.  How do we fulfill the Early Years Collaborative’s vision of making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up?  What place joy, what place laughter, what place compassion?

In the meantime, I am thinking about the voice that will no longer be joining us anywhere – the voice of my unknown stranger.  May you now rest in peace.  I shall think of you during Wednesday’s pomp and circumstance.

7 thoughts on “Margaret Thatcher vs Mary Lily Walker

  1. I had a similar experience which was equally thought provoking about another suicide on track further south. So this really well articulated piece struck a chord in an intense manner, with me. Thank you for this.

    1. You are most welcome. It makes me think about how all our lives are so inter-connected. In ways we just don’t know.

  2. Oh Suzanne what a brilliant read this is. I’ve attempted to voice similar sentiments in my Column in the Daily Record this Saturday but I fear not quite so eloquently. God bless your cotton socks.

    1. Libby, I’m pleased you found it helpful. I do think we need to stay alert to discourses of blame in all of our societal initiatives. It just blocks us from effective solutions. I can’t find your piece in the Record on the web. Any chance you can send it to me? Thanks.

  3. I spoke to a group of childminders recently and the importance of compassion and love and their critical meaning to the children they are privileged to look after. It is incredibly liberating to be able to contribute to the debate that is going on in Scotland about how we truly shape and nurture our society to become more compassionate, more loving and less blaming.

    1. Who would know that compassion is so effective and powerful? I am continually surprised!

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