It could have been Elvis Costello’s Tramp The Dirt Down, written when Margaret Thatcher’s premiership still had two years to run. Or it could have been a number of other songs which imagine scenes of very un-British jubilation greeting the news of her expiry. With his euphoric 2010 postscript to his 1983 hit The Story Of The Blues, Pete Wylie must have fancied his chances with The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies. Over a bracing racket that sits square between Wild Thing and Get Off My Cloud, Wylie sings that the only reason he’ll go to her funeral is “to make sure she’s dead.” As Twitter hosted a battle between different factions to establish the national mood, Wylie tweeted that he wanted her to die “all over again.” For all of that, wasn’t it wise to exercise some taste and restraint? Surely the greater the zeal expressed in the reactions of Thatcher’s detractors, the greater the danger of ceding moral high ground to the present virulent superstrain of neocons who see 1979 as their year zero.
In the end though, it wasn’t up to me, any more than it was up to Louise Mensch, Gerald Howarth, John Redwood or the other hardline Thatcherites who descended upon newsrooms to try and help shape posterity’s view of her. What became clear at this stage was that, whatever song was decreed by common consensus to reflect the emotional mood, it probably wouldn’t be a Candle In The Wind. It was all a bit more complicated than that. Every time anyone expressed anything other than sad-eyed sobriety at her passing, they were urged to “show a bit of respect.” But in South Wales and Tyneside, in communities all but flattened by the closure of mines, steelworks and shipyards they were celebrating before the sun even went down. Who would have dared to show up at those places and tell them to “show a bit of respect”?
At this early stage, it seemed that other songs that were surely in with a chance of becoming the unanimously decreed Thatcher requiem. Perhaps The Blow Monkeys’ Celebrate (The Day After You), initially written to mark the 1987 election defeat that never happened; or maybe Morrissey’s Margaret On The Guillotine. But the former was, if anything, too tasteful, whilst the latter – a listless dirge sung by one tyrant about another – is simply not up to the job. There’s a great playlist to be made out of all the songs that described how Margaret Thatcher’s government made much of Britain feel at the time: UB40’s Madam Medusa; The Beat’s Stand Down Margaret and The Specials’ Ghost Town – all written in the first two years of her first term – illustrate the lightning speed at which the Conservatives left a generation feeling utterly adrift. In 1984, The Icicle Works’ weary excoriation Up Here In The North Of England voiced suspicions since confirmed by the 2011 release of government documents which included a letter from Geoffrey Howe effectively dismissing Liverpool as a lost cause, advocating a “managed decline” of the city.
The problem faced by present day Conservatives is that most of that disenfranchised generation – many of whom were too young to vote – is still out there, while much of the demograph that kept the Tories in power for four terms has long joined Margaret Thatcher in death. In 2011, most of the British electorate voted against the Conservatives. Peruse the newspaper leader columns on any given day and that’s an easy thing to forget. But in a month which has already seen both The Daily Mail and George Osborne use the Mick Philpott verdict to declare class war, it suddenly feels like the Conservatives are speaking only for the minority who voted them to power. And that’s the problem with the “show a bit of respect” lobby. Many people have found their resentment not ameliorated by her passing, but inadvertently reignited as rolling news bulletins have invited them to remember what she had presided over: not just the decimation of aforementioned communities, but smaller, no less telling details: her description of the ANC as a “typical terrorist organisation”; her friendship with General Pinochet and her apparent belief that he “brought democracy to Chile”; the tears that she only ever seemed to shed for her missing son or – when betrayed by her own party – herself.
All of which, then, helps explain why one tune is trouncing the competition in the race to find a song that represents the national mood in the wake of her death. Margaret Thatcher was only 14 when Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead made its first appearance in The Wizard Of Oz – and at 51 seconds long, a 99p download hardly represents great value for money – but neither fact has impeded its showing (at the time of writing) at number one in the Amazon downloads chart and number two in the iTunes chart. In fact, some were lining it up for just such an occasion over two decades previously. On the evening of her departure from Number 10, Frank Skinner presided over a singalong of the Wizard Of Oz number at a Birmingham show. A few months later, at a Hammersmith, Elvis Costello augmented his own bilious Maggie memorial in favour of the same song. In The Day That Thatcher Died, Hefner’s rousing 2000 memoir of teenage politicisation in the 80s, Darren Hayman sang, “We will laugh the day that Thatcher dies/Even though we know it’s not right/We will dance and sing all night.” The last minute of the song gives way to the sound of children in a playground singing – yes, that’s right – Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead.
From the right, there continues a sense of shocked bewilderment that a country whose collective psyche has the notion of fair play hardwired into it has jettisoned the usual protocol when greeted with the death of a national icon. In Between The Wars – a song as synonymous with Thatcherism as any other record during her time in Number 10 – Billy Bragg sang, “sweet moderation, the heart of this nation/Desert us not.” So far though, the inner search for moderation has yet to yield very much at all. And so, come Sunday, the chart rundown will be no less a document of how Britain feels than all the lovingly fashioned colour supplements long since put together in anticipation of this eventuality. It’s this generation’s God Save The Queen moment, with Judy Garland stepping in to take the place of the Sex Pistols. To polarise Britain in life is no mean achievement. To do it in death is more remarkable still. It’s probably what she would have wanted.