Margaret Thatcher, the UMSU, etc.

Margaret Thatcher was apparently worried about the prospect of a divisive debate in Parliament over her funeral arrangements. That hasn't happened, but her fear was far from misplaced.

In Melbourne, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Student Council passed a motion listing and condemning some of Thatcher's actions and declaring that it "celebrates" her death. A brief and reasonable roundup is here. The key details are that with 12 of 16 Councillors present, the motion was tabled and debated. It was suggested that the motion be amended to condemn the actions but remove the "celebrate" line; the tabler declared that no amendment would be acceptable, and so the motion was passed 5 to 3 with 4 abstentions.

I have some thoughts in rough ascending order of generality.

1. Why on earth did four people abstain? Apparently there will be minutes released after the next meeting. But I can't help but feel that the abstentions must include people who were turned away from the motion by the fact that they didn't want to support a declaration celebrating someone's death. If that's true then they should have voted against. I'm even tempted to argue that if you don't have any strong opinion, that should convince you to vote against a motion expressing such a radically strong view, not to abstain.

2. Why isn't there someone to save the Council from themselves on things like this? If I had been the UMSU President (who is a non-voting chair of the meeting) at this meeting I would have been desperately trying to stop the union embroiling itself in this. That means prolonging debate, checking whether there's a quorum, raising constitutional queries - can we pass a motion with 31% support? is Council empowered to issue statements on these kinds of issues? - and doing anything possible to kick the can for a few weeks when it'll fall by the wayside and save everyone in UMSU from this silly fracas.

3. Surely there is a procedure for amendment not subject to a straight veto by the tabler of the motion. Of course they don't want to amend it, they like it just how it is! I'm not aware of any democratic process that does this. When amendments are rejected in Parliament it's because the majority doesn't want them. The closest I can think of is the vote bloquée which French governments can insist on, but again that power exists in virtue of the government representing a majority and so having some right to reject amendments. This was just one guy. That's dumb. If the "celebrate" line is amended away, this controversy is gone. (Although see below.)

4. Student politics is terrible. Seriously terrible. Putting people with really strong ideological convictions in positions which those convictions have little bearing on is a recipe for stupid nonsense like this. These unions perform roles that are essentially administrative and participatory. What does a libertarian programme for those roles look like? A socialist one? Instead those values manifest themselves in idiotic grandstanding, exacerbated by the way the system is constructed. UMSU Student Council's minutes reveal that at previous meetings the Council has passed motions condemning Israel, and then condemning its own condemnation of Israel, and then... This is all really dumb.

5. The outrage over comments like these is entirely justified. You don't have to like Margaret Thatcher to think that celebrating someone's death is just an affront to human dignity. People have a basic moral worth, that statements like this erode and ignore. And that's quite aside from the specific case that many of these types of comments - "the witch is dead!" - are pretty sexist. This is essentially hate speech. That kind of speech is worthless and damaging.

6. It's very firmly my opinion that criticism of Margaret Thatcher is important, not just in general but right now. The hagiography is real. A Facebook status:
To anyone who has expressed joy at the fact that Margaret Thatcher is dead, you should be ashamed. Most of you are the same people who would be up in arms if anybody celebrated the death of the murderous dictator Hugo Chavez, who was by any measure worse than Thatcher. It is never right to celebrate somebody's death, but to celebrate the death of a demented 87-year-old woman- who hasn't been in power since 1990- particularly gutless.
RIP Iron Lady. You dragged Britain- which had gone from being the greatest empire the world had ever seen to a depressed socialist state- kicking and screaming into the 20th century. You had the one thing your detractors have never had: balls.
Now that is, in general, a bit of an annoying thing to say. I'm not going to parse it. But when tributes to Thatcher are allowed, and take this form - not just respecting her passing, but actively celebrating and advocating her political decisions - then there has to be a counterpoint. Of course it shouldn't be triumphant or celebratory or offensive. It seems wrong, though, to allow a political figure who was divisive throughout her tenure and afterwards to become historicised as a consensus figure, because nothing was said to the contrary out of misguided respect. Others have said this much better and in more detail; Glenn Greenwald is probably the most cited.

7. I have a worry about all of this. It is, admittedly, one which doesn't bear directly on this case as it's unfolding. But try to imagine a hypothetical world in which the Student Council passed the motion in a slightly amended form (the original is in the Farrago summary I linked at the beginning):
“That Students’ Council recognise the horrific legacy of Margaret Thatcher and her neoliberal policies that destroyed the lives of millions, her violent crushing of the miners’ strike, her oppression of the Irish and murder of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers, her unconditioned support for right-wing dictators like Pinochet and Suharto and her support for apartheid in South Africa, among many other things. Students’ Council also commits to organising a screening of the Ken Loach film ‘Which side are you on?’ to promote debate and understanding of this legacy.”
Now there are probably still things wrong with passing that motion. I've changed the wording as little as possible, so it might be a bit too aggressive in places. And maybe, as one person I've spoken to suggested, you'd criticise this on the grounds that it's not really part of a debate about Thatcher's legacy and that the Student Council is just a dumb, self-indulgent body that shouldn't issue statements on issues like this.

But on the whole, the worst parts of the actual motion are gone. I find it hard to believe, though, that in this hypothetical world there isn't massive criticism and opposition to the passage of that motion. Even if in this case we can all agree that the UMSU is stupid and should go away, f you think that criticism and discussion of the Thatcher legacy is important - and I do! - then that thought should worry you.

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