“I’m coming to London,” my friend Will told me via Facebook messenger. He lives in Wales and generally only makes the three-hour bus journey to the U.K. capital for big events. When I asked what the occasion was for this trip, he said, “There’ll be parties in the streets to celebrate Thatcher’s death.”
At first I thought he was speaking hyperbolically, but that’s just because, as an American, I find the idea of mass celebrations of the death of a former head of state practically inconceivable. I tried to research reaction to the death of Ronald Reagan, Thatcher’s “political soulmate,” but couldn’t find much outside of formal and respectful obits. He died in 2004, when I was 12 and far more focused on the Seth-Summer-Anna love triangle on The OC than on whether or not people were cheering for the ex-President’s death. I even searched for reports of parties marking Nixon’s demise in 1994, but Google couldn’t deliver.
Still, Will said the British reaction would be very different from the American one and provided evidence in the form of a YouTube video of a stadium of thousands of Liverpool football supporters chanting, “We’re all having a party when Maggie Thatcher dies.” He also directed me to www.isthatcherdeadyet.co.uk, which, after years of simply featuring the word “No” in a huge bold font, now says “Yes” and provides links to Facebook groups with thousands of members intent on celebrating the end of the Iron Lady. There was even a Spotify playlist featuring songs with titles like “The Day that Thatcher Dies” and “Margaret Thatcher, We Still Hate You.”
I tend to think that death should always be treated respectfully, no matter how hated the recently deceased is. I was ashamed on behalf of my whole city when New Yorkers took to the streets after Osama bin Laden was killed, and though I’m a true blue liberal who thinks that Ms. Thatcher was one of the worst things to happen to the U.K. in recent history, I thought this was all terribly gauche. Thatcher and Reagan were “political soulmates,” but American leftists weren’t partying when Reagan died. I think the reason for these differing reactions lies in the ways the two nations deal with class.
Though the U.K. and U.S. have much in common, class is an entirely different animal over here. The difference is even reflected in the names of the traditionally dominant political parties: the center-left Labour Party and center-right Conservative party. “Labour” isn’t named after a political ideology; it’s named after a social group—the working class. Class is explicitly politicized in Britain.
It’s not just politics: class awareness seems to play a larger role in day-to-day life here than it does stateside. In the U.K., everyone seems acutely aware of his or her position in the class hierarchy—and they want to know where you fit in. I’m an American, so they can’t tell my class from my accent. Instead, I’ve had multiple people come right out and ask me.
I guess I’ll have to describe my own place in the totem pole. Culturally, my life has been thoroughly aligned with New York City’s upper middle class. I grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the neighborhood selected in 2010 as NYC’s “most livable” by New York Magazine. It scored highly in all the measures studied by NY Mag except for “affordability” and “diversity”: Park Slope is very pricey and very white. I traveled often during my childhood and had tutors, music teachers, and dance lessons.
But my parents are divorced, and my mother’s household income placed us in the very low end of the U.S. middle class. We’re pretty much poor. She afforded my upper-class childhood by raising me in a studio apartment. She cut back on a lot of small things she felt we could do without—microwave, toaster, extensive wardrobes, and even a TV. So while I’ve had many experiences associated with one class, I’m actually of another.
In the U.S., this isn’t much of a problem. I’m pretty sure that people see me as my race first and class second. Since such a high percentage of U.S. blacks are poor, they make the logical leap and assume that I’m poor, which, of course, is both right and wrong. This happens even at Wesleyan, bastion of all that is ultra-liberal and politically correct. During freshman orientation, a well-meaning girl asked me what gunshots really sound like.
That’s generally been the form of my class-based conversations back home—trying to dissuade people of the idea that I’ve had the sociocultural experiences associated with poverty in general, and black poverty specifically. That’s why I was shocked to discover that in the U.K., the conversation has turned on its head, and I find myself trying to convince people that I’m poor.
It’s happened three times so far this term. I’ve been talking to a guy in a bar, making the usual small talk. Sometime after they learn the name of my current university (the well-known and highly ranked King’s College London), and that I’m studying music, they say something along the lines of “You must be posh,” or “You sound like you come from a privileged background.” The tone is always lightly accusatory, and I find myself scrambling to erect a defense that, though true, doesn’t seem to convince them.
Though it’s bracing to have my class cred called into question, I think the British attitude is far healthier. I like the fact that so many Brits seem to think that wealth isn’t something to be lauded. I like that, for some reason, they’re less likely to assume I’m poor because I’m black, even though race and income are correlated here, too. And I like the fact that they’re going to party on Margaret Thatcher’s grave. They’re not just celebrating her death. They’re celebrating the fact that they’re class realists, and they well remember how royally she fucked them over.
Despite the persistent myth of the American Dream, the U.S. has the least social mobility of any Western nation. Though the U.K. ranks second from the bottom, a poor child here is still more likely to reach the middle class than one born in the States. Poor and middle-class Americans often vote based on social issues, not economic ones. As Steinbeck said, the American poor “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
That’s why Thatcher and Reagan, who enacted such similar policies in their respective nations—both significantly reducing the social safety net, both curbing unions, both presiding over massive deindustrialization—seem to have such different legacies. A recent poll found that Reagan is the most popular candidate for a spot on Mount Rushmore, handily beating FDR and JFK. And as for Margaret Thatcher? Well, it seems like a lot of people are breaking out the champagne this week.