When will Thatcher's death die?
Since the former British Prime Minister died in 2013, her passing and legacy has become an internet meme with surprising longevity.
Image via @spookperson
At the time of writing, the website IsThatcherDeadYet.co.uk has been live for almost ten years. Its original "NOT YET" has long been replaced with an affirmative "YES". Nonetheless, it remains active, just in case you need reminding.
A dedicated website appears quaint now, but when former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 the internet served as the coordinator for real-world festivities. Impromptu street parties were organised over social media, attracting hundreds at a time and thanks to a Facebook campaign, "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz film famously peaked at number two in the charts -- earning itself the Wikipedia subheading of “usage as a meme in politics”.
At the time the meme may have seemed like a flash in the pan joke. Few in 2013 could have predicted its longevity and the impact to come. In the seven years since, the death of Margaret Thatcher has resurfaced intermittently in online discourse as a perennial trump card in the arsenal of online British leftists, a morale booster for trying times, or an example of the internet's particular style of gallows humour.
As it turns out, being a dead old woman who wrecked a nation makes you very versatile meme fodder. Thatcher posthumously partakes in the Dolly Parton challenge -- as a pile of ashes. Her conclusive lack of pulse gets a shout out on TikTok. When the Conservatives commemorated the anniversary of her leadership on social media last month, their tweet was almost instantly ratioed to fuck. Many took the chance to find variations on what or who could be superimposed onto her grave, preferably dancing.
But given that she went to her grave in 2013, why is this particular joke one that endures? Some argue that this particular strain of content exists and thrives as a reaction to the bleak, post-Brexit, tenth consecutive year of Tory Britain; a bitter protest against a country that seems to love nothing more than tasting the boot. Meme contributor Ciaran summarises its well-established attitude: "She’s vermin who destroyed the lives of millions. She deserves all the disrespect she gets”.
The country's most recent Conservative election win has only boosted the joke's popularity (not coincidentally, its scale has been compared to the 1987 election where Thatcher first triumphed). When Twitter account Maggie’s Still Dead ended a two-year hiatus, on New Year’s Eve, to remind us that “Margaret Thatcher spent just 22.7% of this decade breathing”, it felt like an act of healing, albeit a particularly brutal one, after a depressing month in British politics.
“Users create political memes as a coping mechanism”, says Dr. Anastasia Denisova, a lecturer at the University of Westminster and author of Internet Memes of Society. She believes this is particularly potent when it comes to Thatcher discourse. “[Margaret Thatcher] symbolises something bigger than herself," Anastasia says. "An era, a political approach, and the tension that arose in response to that."
It's Thatcher's legacy which plays an especially important role in the popularity of these memes, particularly as many of those who create, share or like memes about the politician's death were born after her premiership ended. Amelia, a young Labour activist who has created Thatcher death memes before, says she thinks people her age feel its generational impact from their parents. “For a lot of us, disliking Thatcher is the logical conclusion," she says. "Two generations of hurt can be traced back. That’s not easy to forgive. You can dispute whatever claims they make regarding current, living left-wingers; you can’t dispute the fact Margaret Thatcher is dead and buried."
Dr Denisova agrees. "As [young people] hold a definitive strong view about her, they find it more legitimate to use her image as a symbol of political vices."
While young people may not have experienced life under Thatcher first hand, we're all too aware of its after-effects, despite what mainstream narratives about the 'ignorant youth' would have people believe. Look no further than to Harry Styles’s 2013 tribute to the politician which launched a fair few thinkpiece mentions, to see that. However, the assumption of ignorance has persisted, with some factual accuracy. In a 2019 YouGov survey 40% of 18-24 year olds selected "don’t know" when asked whether Thatcher had had a positive or negative impact on the UK. Later generations have also subsumed and grown to worship much of the individualist "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology the ex-PM championed -- even though they are more likely to be at its mercy. It makes sense to look for answers, and for disaffected 90s and 00s babies, Thatcher is ground zero: embodying a cultural shift in which they did not partake but is nonetheless their reality.
The ongoing phenomenon, however, is cross-generational too, and it's fuelled by older influencers who do have personal memories of the Thatcher era. Comedian and internet icon Limmy has been a persistent contributor to the anti-Thatcher content factory and has played a significant role in its maintenance -- drawing “a man shagging Thatcher’s grave” long before the dancing hotdog got a look in.
Against a backdrop of ludicrous jokes and drawings like Limmy's, Thatcher's death has become an abstract concept, a crude representation of political and societal hope that is frequently crushed. For the young UK left, it acts as an "OK Boomer"-style response to the absurdities of living in the reactionary culture she influenced.
There is also a determination behind the irreverence, anticipating that Thatcher’s literal end may finally lead to the death of her philosophy. This desire has been at the forefront of the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn’s rise, and its post-election crisis has made it an even more prominent issue. Left-wing Labour MP Zarah Sultana’s now-famous maiden speech to the Commons prioritised her aspirations towards ending 40 years of Thatcherism. Even moderates are taking notice, as with leadership candidate Lisa Nandy’s criticism of New Labour keeping “the consensus that Thatcher built”.
As the mainstream left concede to the nation’s distaste for neoliberalism, the opposition seems to be recognising it too. It has been speculated that Boris Johnson may reverse some of the Tories’ more rampant Thatcherite tendencies, having been grudgingly voted back in by many of the northern constituencies that they devastated. His upcoming budget is expected to massively boost public spending -- coming not long after the announcement that Northern Rail will be renationalised, following years of poor service and complaints.
All of this puts every provocative shitposter in an awkward position. In some ways, it proves their point. The very government that they despise is at face value attempting to validate if not them, then older voters for whom Thatcher is a dirty word. After all, as Ciaran says, “She will always be on the wrong side of history.”
The meme-ification of Thatcher’s death, then, is a gleeful negation of her legacy, one which although ludicrous and drawing accusations of bad taste, is arguably part of the movement leading to real life political change. But on a more simple level, it's just an accessible form of protest in a decade that so far has conceded to Toryism. Its morbid reminder brings a welcome certainty the left is not currently afforded. No one has put the final nail in the coffin of conservatism so far, because it hasn’t appeared yet. Until then, death is perhaps the only certainty in our uncertain political times.