It’s 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently of an unbroken Conservative leadership well into the next century. My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next one legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore.
Goodnight England. Goodnight Home Service and V for Victory.
Hello the Voice of Fate and V FOR VENDETTA.
-Alan Moore, introduction to the first DC issue of V For Vendetta, reprinted as the introduction to collected versions since.
As you likely know, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has passed away, and there are dueling narratives about which Maggie she was: the Empire’s Saviour or an Enemy of the People. I have been talking on Twitter with my friend Chris LaBossiere about this legacy, and whether it is primarily for good or ill. Chris, being the model of the compassionate conservative, falls on the side of the former, while I, being a democratic socialist, fall on the latter. The one thing we can agree on is that the issue is very, very complicated.
Neither of us are Britons, so we come at it from a much different perspective than UK citizens. Chris emphasizes her economic successes as a result of halving the top tax rate, and how this boosted the economy and resulted in over 1 million Britons purchasing their estates, though he concedes that this came with the requisite increase in unemployment. ”She wasn’t perfect, to say the least. But I think on the International and Economic front, she was perfect for the time,” he tweeted.
I emphasize the worse. I reject Prime Minister Thatcher’s moral absolutism, which turned the Opposition and any dissent into Capital-V-Villainy. To me, she embodies conservatism’s worst traits: anti-immigration. Legislative homophobia and prejudice. Her tax changes helped kickstart the economy, but it came with record unemployment on the backs of the poor. A government that does not value its most vulnerable is not one I can support. Her government proposed cutting 20,000 coal miner jobs and her response was to sarcastically say, “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” to people whom she would make homeless.
She compared miners concerned that she was trying to eliminate their jobs to the Argentinian soldiers that attacked the Falklands and killed British citizens. With relation to Northern Ireland and centuries of partisan violence that combined religion and economics, she stubbornly and naively declared that “Crime is crime; it is not political.” She created social unrest that resulted in riots, then refused to ever acknowledge even the most basic tenets of cause and effect. Moral absolutism at its finest: if you are against us, you are wrong and you are a criminal.
Curiously, the one place where she did not have room for her own moral absolutism was South Africa under Apartheid. While formally anti-Apartheid, she also opposed the sanctions and trade embargos of the Apartheid regime, preferring to be President Botha’s “candid friend” that would tell him he was wrong but give him exactly zero reasons to admit it, because, well, she wanted his money. Apartheid ended despite Margaret Thatcher, not because of her. I think this needs to be held on the opposite scale to her (alleged) contributions to the fall of the Soviet Union. If she disagreed with you, you were a Villain… unless she could make a buck. She died cruelly, the victim of our meanest disease, but she also did so in a luxurious hotel, a stay paid for by the tax dollars she always claimed to resent, on a pension her rhetoric opposed. A final, cruel irony.
Ms. Thatcher’s legacy is a mixed one. With her as Prime Minister, the United Kingdom regained much of its lost prestige and its economy was boosted. However, unemployment soared and it created a wealth of social problems whose shadows an entire generation has not yet managed to dispel. She was a bigot, and if you called her one, she would make you a criminal. She was without empathy for the vulnerable, and we must ask ourselves if the benefit was worth the cost. Chris believes the answer is yes, and I respectfully disagree. What a nation does unto the least of its citizens, it does unto itself.
I chose the above quote from Alan Moore for a very specific reason. V For Vendetta, Moore and David Lloyd’s masterwork commentary on the Britain of the 1980s, contains a subtlety and a nuance that I often think is missing from the dialogue about it. In the wake of the film adaptation, the Guy Fawkes mask of its protagonist, V, has become an emblem for the Anonymous movement, which I believe misses the entire point of the book. V For Vendetta asks one central question, is terrorism justified if it is for a noble cause, and refuses to answer the question. Even if the thinly-veiled Thatcherite analogue is the villain of the book, that does not make V the hero. V takes on the identity of Britain’s most famous terrorist, and then proceeds to do worse. He wins, but did he do good? He hurt a lot of people, ones who weren’t just his opponents. He reveled in fire and blood.
Moore and Lloyd force you to look at that man, that impassive mask, and make up your own mind. It is the finest rebuke of Ms. Thatcher’s moral absolutism that I can imagine; hard questions with no answer. As Prime Minister, she famously said that “There is no such thing” as society, that:
There are individual men and women… and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.
Adam Susan and Derek Almond are individual men, people who look to themselves first. Arguably, so is V, a man so victimized by his government that he became a terrible thing in order to oppose them. His personal is political, no matter what Margaret Thatcher said. Everything about V For Vendetta opposes Thatcherism, down to its refusal to tell her opponents they were justified in all of their actions.
I like the sheer humanism of Alan Moore’s sentiment in his introduction. There’s no cussing, no lewdness, no shrieks of “Tyranny!” and “Revolution!” Instead, he keeps it simple and plaintive:
“It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore.”
Well spoken in 1988, and well spoken today. I will not dance on Ms. Thatcher’s grave. Despite the fact that I disagree virtually everything she ever said or did, that does not lessen the pain she suffered, or that of her family and loved ones. Those who remember her fondly will weep for her, and I would not tell them how to feel. She may not have always been a big fan of compassion, but I hope she would have welcomed it when given.