How distressing if this solemn event turns into a farcical reminder of the hubris and divisiveness of the Thatcher era
How could they be so foolish? Were the people charged with planning Margaret Thatcher’s funeral so naive that they could not see how delicately the farewell to Britain’s most prominent public figure of the postwar era would have to be handled if it were it not to become what it now plainly risks being – an avoidable public wound that disrespects the dead and that this country, in the wider sense, does not need?
Margaret Thatcher was a huge historical figure, the most important British politician of my adult lifetime. She was the most consequential prime minister of the postwar era, more consequential even than Attlee, who runs her close. She merits, unconditionally, the parliamentary tributes and other verdicts she received yesterday. She also deserves, if it was her wish and that of her family, to have a publicly funded funeral ceremony befitting a woman who won three general elections and achieved much else besides.
I have absolutely no doubt that such an event could have been planned and conducted with proper solemnity and the necessary decorum. But the planning would have required what it has not received, an unsentimental awareness of Thatcher’s unique ability to antagonise and offend, in death as in life. It would also have needed a firm sense of the public desire for consensus and harmony, as well as the public obligation to provide a proper send-off. Above all, it would have imposed an obligation on those arranging it to be imaginative in fashioning what would inescapably be a delicate occasion.
The model for such a funeral exists: the 1898 funeral of WE Gladstone, the four-time Liberal prime minister of the Victorian era, and it would be interesting to know whether the Liberal Democrats at any stage made such a suggestion in relation to Lady Thatcher. They certainly should have done. Gladstone’s was a public funeral paid for by parliament, through a resolution to the monarch. The monarch did not attend, although the Prince of Wales was a pallbearer. The coffin, plain oak, lay in state in Westminster Hall before it was carried across the road to Westminster Abbey on a plain funeral car, with civilian bearers for a service, after which Gladstone was buried in the abbey.
The civic and religious funeral, wrote the Gladstone specialist HCG Matthew, “was in retrospect especially remarkable for its absence of bombast”. Held at the apogee of the British empire (and on the eve of the Boer war), it managed the striking achievement of having no military connotations whatever. There were no soldiers involved at all. The only uniforms in evidence belonged to the heralds, the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor. The music was by Beethoven and Schubert.
The model that has been adopted for Lady Thatcher’s funeral, however, is not Gladstone’s in 1898 but Winston Churchill’s state funeral in 1965, although there are significant differences. For example, Churchill’s coffin, lay in state beforehand, which Thatcher’s will not, apparently because of security concerns. But Churchill’s coffin, unlike Gladstone’s, was then taken to St Paul’s Cathedral on a gun carriage, with a full military escort, to take advantage of the processional opportunities. The Queen, breaking previous convention, also attended. It was, said Roy Jenkins, a Churchill biographer, “the last in the tradition of imperial ceremony”.
Yet now, 50 years on, there is to be another such imperial funeral, this time with Thatcher’s coffin carried through London to St Paul’s with full military participation and with the monarch attending – what else could she do? – as at Churchill’s funeral. Except that Thatcher’s is not officially a state funeral, and Thatcher was not a war leader in the sense that Churchill was, nor yet a former soldier as he was. Most important of all, Thatcher was not a unifying national figure either – quite the contrary. And Britain is not an imperial power, as it still was in 1965.
Officially, Thatcher is being given something called a ceremonial funeral, much to the disgust of the rightwing press. This newly invented category was created for Princess Diana in 1997, and subsequently for the Queen Mother. In practice, it looks as if this is a state funeral in all but name, but with the important difference that parliament is specifically not being asked to authorise next Wednesday’s events in advance. In effect, therefore, Thatcher is getting a government funeral, not a parliamentary or truly public one.
This is an unhealthy precedent and the government is wrong to do it. My concern is less with the security problems, although these may in fact be large and involve a lot of heavy-handed policing that would have been much more effectively minimised by concentrating the whole event into Westminster. My concerns are with the symbolism of an imperial, military funeral for a civilian politician in a 21st century democracy (not least because the cortege goes past South Africa House), and the principle that public funerals for politicians should be civic, restrained and unifying, rather than military, bombastic and controversial.
Quite why the Conservatives think that it is politically sensible to revive all these symbols of the Thatcherian high tide escapes me. It is a decision made on autopilot. It is as though none of the sensibility that made the Tories finally grasp the “nasty party” nettle or elect David Cameron rather than a Thatcherite still exists. Perhaps someone in the Cabinet Office thought that the Thatcher funeral would embarrass Labour. But Ed Miliband‘s sure touch on Monday and yesterday ought to disabuse them of that hope.
The only consolation is that the day will be out of kilter with the times and the national mood – if 28% of the population in yesterday’s much trumpeted Sun poll think Thatcher was the greatest postwar prime minister, it means that 72% think she was not – and the lasting effects of getting the Thatcher funeral wrong may be few. If it turns out to be merely a farcical reminder of the hubris and divisiveness of the 1980s, then the public wound may be shallow and heal quickly. But it is still distressing that what should be a solemn event may end up as a beargarden.
Let’s hope John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have more sensibly modest, Gladstonian instincts for their own departures. Better still, maybe they should look to Attlee’s example. “Quiet funeral for Lord Attlee,” said the Guardian in a short report on page 5 in October 1967. Fewer than 150 people attended a “simple, even austere” private ceremony at the Temple Church, ending with the singing of Jerusalem. Ah, austerity. Those were the days.