The death of Margaret Thatcher always promised to be a contentious affair and so it has proved. One particularly prickly issue has been whether it is in poor taste, or not, to celebrate the passing of a by now frail, old woman but one who had once been deeply divisive; a politician – determinately framing her politics in Manichean terms of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ – blamed by many for laying waste to certain parts and whole communities in Britain.
This matter of taste has now coalesced around a bizarre race to reach number one in the week of her death between a song seeming to praise Thatcher (‘I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher’ by the humorous punk band The Notsensibles) or another which aims to bury her with malice (‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ performed by the Munchkins (not Judy Garland) in the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz).
Whilst fearless defenders of free speech The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph have thundered that the Munchkins’ tune ought to be banned, others have taken their lead from Lady Thatcher’s official biographer, Charles Moore, and sought to turn the song back upon her detractors. Answering a question about ‘Ding Dong!’ on BBC’s Question Time, Moore sought to make something of a positive political allegory of the song’s place in the film: it comes just after Dorothy’s house, swept up in a cyclone, has landed directly on top of the dreaded Wicked Witch of the East. Moore suggested that the song’s celebration of the crushing of a much hated tyrant from the East ought to be read as analogous to Thatcher’s hand in the fall of Communism:
“”It was Mrs Thatcher who defeated the East and in this tale and in this song Mrs Thatcher is Dorothy”.
Moore might have gone further and suggested that the enslaved Munchkins represented the condition of people under the yoke of socialism either, feckless and unmotivated (‘wake up you sleepy heads’) or union-loving (‘We welcome you to the Lollipop Guild’).
And yet this is to completely ignore that Dorothy’s main mission in the film is to deliver to the Wizard of Oz the broomstick belonging to the Wicked Witch of the West. In order to accomplish this, Dorothy/Thatcher (on Moore’s reading) is then forced – now by design and not mere accident – to see off the Wicked Witch of the West/the forces of freedom ranged against Communism throughout the Cold War.
Indeed, L. Frank Baum, author of the magical fantasy about the world over the rainbow had himself not shied from political comment, whether in the musical version of The Wizard of Oz he wrote in 1901 or swipes at the suffragette movement in his follow-up novel (The Marvellous Land of Oz (1904). Moreover, Charles Moore is not the first to make a political reading of Baum’s work though many of the others who have, have made interpretations far from supportive of Margaret Thatcher’s eponymous ism.
Beginning with Henry M. Littlefield’s 1964 essay, ‘The Wizard of Oz: Parable of Populism’ a number of writers have staked a claim for Oz that goes far beyond Baum’s modest statement that it ‘was written solely to pleasure children of today’. Rather, critics such as Littlefield, Hugh Rockoff and Ranjit Dighe have all read Baum’s tales of Oz as an allegory for the Populist movement that swept the Midwest of America during the 1890s. Rather than standing for monolithic Soviet Communism, Baum’s East is the US home to the bankers and industrialists the Midwestern farmers blamed for their woes. Likewise, in the novel Dorothy (a representation of the naïve and tested common American) wears not ruby but silver slippers, alluding to the ‘free-silver’ movement championed by the Populists that called for an inflated money supply to help the downtrodden farmers. How far would such a measure have got in discussions around the 1981 Budget?
However, maybe we ought to stick with Charles Moore’s reading of Oz in terms of geo-politics, and consider to whom the cowed Munchkins turn (Dorothy apart) for protection from the Wicked Witches from East and West: namely Glinda The Good Witch of the North, and (in the original novel) her sister from the South. In this respect, the Munchkins might be seen as holding out for a far more radical unification and representation of the world; one not defined in terms of opposing political ideologies but solidarity between the rich North and poor South (the divide between these ‘two worlds’ was, of course, famously investigated by the Brandt Commission, one of whose members was Thatcher’s arch-nemesis: Ted Heath).
So can we read Oz as in anyway analogous to Thatcher’s defining period as Prime Minister? If Moore’s version is hard to maintain is it any more fanciful to see the cyclone as a classic metaphor for Thatcherism’s hubris and destruction – one thinks of the very same imagery in Our Friends in the North and Tim Lott’s novel Rumours of a Hurricane. Similarly, if Thatcher is the witch as her detractors would have it (though perhaps she was open to the allusion herself on occasion) think of the manner of her death – she gets ‘wet’ and melts away. As she does, consider her final mutterings: “What a world!?” – for a politician so certain, the manner of her demise always appeared to be unfathomable to her – followed by “A pipsqueak like you!” –Howe perhaps? Certainly anyone who was not ‘One of Us’. And while many could agree she ‘had the brain’ and ‘had the noive’ the debate continues, as this ding dong over ‘Ding Dong’ shows, over whether she ‘had the heart’.