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Tatsuro Tanji

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Margaret Thatcher’s Death and Freedom of Speech

Tatsuro Tanji
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: British novels

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Margaret Thatcher’s Death

On April 8, 2013, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke at the five-star Ritz hotel in Piccadilly, London. Thatcher was born the daughter of a grocer. After studying chemistry at Oxford University, she found a job working at a private corporation. After she married, however, she started studying law, qualified as a barrister, and went into politics. As leader of the Conservative Party, Thatcher won the election in 1979, becoming Britain’s first female prime minister. The set of policies she implemented as prime minister until her retirement in 1990 is called Thatcherism. Both praise and criticism of these policies, which were based on principles like privatization and free competition, have been reported in equal measure by various media in Japan. I am a literary scholar, so I will not discuss Thatcherism here from a political or economic point of view. What interests me is freedom of speech in Britain, which has been thrown into relief once again by Thatcher’s death, and the conditions that make this freedom of speech possible.

Praise and Criticism of Thatcher

On April 10, Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party gave a speech praising Thatcher in the House of Commons. Afterward, Glenda Jackson, an actress who won the Academy Award for Best Actress twice and now a Labour Party Member of Parliament, launched a scathing attack on Thatcher, criticizing her for turning vices like greed, selfishness, and disregard of the weak into virtues. The dignity with which Jackson stated her personal opinion amid the jeering of Conservative Party members seemed to reflect the great tradition of free speech in Britain. What is crucial is that Jackson’s criticism was never directed at Thatcher’s private life; it was only directed at her life as a public figure. In fact, this way of thinking, which draws a clear division between people’s private and public lives, is closely related to the novels I study.

Privacy and Novels

The literary scholar Ian Watt pointed out the relationship between the emergence of the novel as a genre and people’s acquisition of their own private rooms in 18th century Britain. As a sense of privacy increased and the private lives of others became less visible, novels depicting the private lives of individuals as fiction became a popular literary genre. For example, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, one of the bestselling novels in 18th century Britain, is a work composed of letters written by Pamela, a maid seduced by the owner of the mansion, to her parents. It is not difficult to imagine the secret pleasure readers would have felt as they peered into the private life of a young woman. Complicating the situation is the fact that Pamela was a work of fiction written as if it were based on letters left behind by an actual person. In other words, readers were under the impression that they were voyeurs into the private life of an actual person and became engrossed in the novel. This illustrates how the establishment of privacy produced a strong desire to learn about people’s private lives.

The Private Sphere and the Public Sphere

In Britain as well as other Western countries, a person’s behavior as a private individual (excluding criminal behavior) does not affect his or her qualifications as a public figure as much as it does in Japan. The president of one country remained in office after it was discovered that he had an illegitimate child, and the president of another country was not forced to resign when his extra-marital affair was exposed. People throughout the world have a keen interest in the private lives of well-known figures, and there is no shortage of sensational media that feed this interest. But the separation of information about the private lives of individuals from their public lives in Western countries means that freedom of speech is not likely to be suppressed in the name of privacy without careful consideration. (According to Richard Sennett, however, the situation in the West is changing.) In Japan, the division between the private sphere and the public sphere is ambiguous, increasing the risk that the right to privacy could encroach unchecked on freedom of speech. The large number of people in Japan who think the rejection of someone’s opinion is a rejection of his or her humanity is probably due to this ambiguity in the division between the private and public spheres. (This is why students are reluctant to express their opinions in class.)

Personal Suffering and Responsibility for One’s Actions

The division between the private sphere and the public sphere also means that people’s individual humanity does not excuse their public activities and statements. The film in which Thatcher is played by Meryl Streep portrays Thatcher’s personal suffering and emphasizes her humanity. The message of the film is that Thatcher was a person who suffered hardships just like any other human being. In Slavoj Žižek’s view, however, no matter how much Thatcher or any other historical figure suffered while carrying out their actions, it does not absolve her or him of the consequences of those actions. Glenda Jackson’s criticism of Thatcher was sound criticism in that it was directed solely at Thatcher’s policies. At the same time, we must not forget that such criticism of the public personas of politicians presupposes a division between the private sphere and the public sphere. This division enables constructive expression of opinion, as opposed to mere personal attacks—a fact that cannot be emphasized enough.

Tatsuro Tanji
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: British novels
Professor Tanji is from Kanagawa prefecture and was born in 1964. He graduated from the Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Letters, University of Tokyo in 1986. He completed an M.A. in English Language and Literature at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo in 1989. In 1992, he completed doctoral coursework in English and English Literature at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo and left the program before receiving a Ph.D. He was hired on as a full-time lecturer at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Yokohama City University in 1992 and became an Assistant Professor on the same faculty in 1993. He has taught as an Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University since April 1999, and as a Professor on the same faculty since 2002. His research is focused mainly on 20th century British novels, but he is also knowledgeable about British films and music. His recent publications include British Novels after World War II: From Beckett to Winterson [Dainiji Sekai Taisen go no Igirisu Shōsetu: Beketto kara Uintāson made] (co-authored; Chuo University Press).