World

Britain bids farewell to the Iron Lady

By Rebecca Davis 18 April 2013

The pomp-laden, taxpayer-funded funeral of one of the most divisive political figures in modern history might well have been a day of high drama. In the end, though, the laying to rest of Margaret Thatcher was the most quintessentially British of affairs. The protesters were polite. Thatcher’s supporters were polite. The Bishop of London’s funeral address was polite. The TV coverage was polite. The Iron Lady never shied away from confrontation in life, but in death – for one day at least – there was very little of it. By REBECCA DAVIS.

If you were to make one of those word clouds – that measure the frequency with which particular terms have been used to discuss a subject – about the conversation since Margaret Thatcher’s death, there are a few words and phrases which would probably feature larger than the others. Falklands, unions, poll tax, milk, and so on. But arguably the most frequently used single word would be “divisive”, which seems to have become the standard adjective yoked to Thatcher’s life by those who wish to acknowledge that a lot of people really hated her, without being seen to speak ill of the dead.

Given that her life could be summarised in this fashion, there was reason to believe her funeral might be characterised in the same way: divisive. Arch-Thatcher supporter the Daily Mail has been plugging away at a campaign to give Thatcher a state funeral almost literally from the moment the woman took her last breath. The fact that a state funeral would have been in conflict with Thatcher’s explicitly-stated wishes on the matter bothered the Mail not one whit, since the editorial board would probably run a campaign to have their own mothers burnt at the stake if they thought it would piss off the hated “Left”.

Photo: The coffin of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, draped in the Union Flag, is carried on a gun carriage drawn by the King’s Troop Royal Artillery during her funeral procession in London April 17, 2013. REUTERS/David Crump/Pool

On the other side, there were rumblings of Thatcher haters turning out in droves to protest her funeral, after a week which has seen the media scramble to cover parties held to celebrate the former Conservative PM’s death. There can be no doubt now, even among the most devoted Thatcher acolytes, that antipathy towards the Iron Lady is very real and deeply-felt in parts of England, and Scotland in particular.

You will understand a lot more about Britain when you understand that across the country, perfectly normal families – families in Norwich and Newcastle and the Rhondda Valley, who eat cornflakes in the morning and go, in their unfussy British way, to church – have had money and booze put aside for decades for a party on the occasion of the death of one frail, old lady,” wrote Laurie Penny for the New Statesman. Penny is, of course, one of the Daily Mail’s hated lefties. Across the UK and elsewhere, it has seemed that both individuals and media outlets have used Thatcher’s death as a way of re-stating their political identities in increasingly extreme ways.

Oh, you hated Thatcher? Well I loathed her. She was worse than Hitler.” “Oh, you quite liked bits of Thatcherite policy? Let me tell you, if it wasn’t for Thatcher we’d be Zimbabwe right now.”

Photo: Protesters march in a demonstration against former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on the day of her funeral, in the former coal mining village of Goldthorpe, northern England April 17, 2013.  REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

That many of these discussions have been happening between people too young to know of Thatcher as anyone other than a figure from a history textbook has given the whole conversation an additional edge of absurdity. It appears that, like football team season tickets, loving or loathing Maggie has often been passed down as a kind of tribal loyalty in the blood. Some of the most fanatical Thatcher fans have revealed themselves to be American: on the day of Thatcher’s death, the BBC repeatedly broadcast a vox pop from a tearful American woman outside 10 Downing Street who quaveringly declared that “Thatcher was the perfect human being”.

There have, in short, been few grey areas. It was telling that the BBC received more than 200 complaints that its Thatcher coverage was biased in favour of Thatcher, and more than 200 complaints that its Thatcher coverage was biased against Thatcher. This speaks of a case of people consuming media with their hearts rather than their heads, blinded and deafened by old scars and affiliations. It also suggests that the BBC was probably getting it pretty much right, in terms of objectivity.

Labour urged respect and restraint in responses to Thatcher’s death, and the opposition party has, for the most part, followed its own advice. When the House of Commons held a special sitting to air tributes to Thatcher, most Labour MPs followed the maternal dictum that “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”, and simply stayed away. The outlier here was Academy-award-winning-actress-turned-politician Glenda Jackson, who rocked up to give a blistering six-minute evisceration of Thatcher’s life and times, all the while being howled at by Conservative MPs.

Photo: Mark (3rd R) and Carol (L) Thatcher, son and daughter of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, leave the funeral service of their mother at St Paul’s Cathedral in London April 17, 2013.  Also pictured are Carol’s partner Marco Grass (2nd L) and Mark’s wife Sarah and children Michael (2nd R) and Amanda (R). REUTERS/Toby Melville

But while the right-wing press may have accused the left of exploiting Thatcher’s death for political mileage, the Tories have been doing a great job of that on their own. On the morning of Thatcher’s funeral, a time when you might have thought it behooved the country’s prime minister to calm tensions rather than stoke them, David Cameron appeared on BBC to pronounce: “In a way, we are all Thatcherites now” – a statement which essentially amounts to poking lefties with a sharpened stick. (Cameron’s point was far less inflammatory than it sounded devoid of context: about the lasting impact of Thatcher’s legacy.)

Thatcher’s death, in short, rapidly and predictably became a lightning rod in the UK’s wider cultural and political battles – and indeed, elsewhere too. As such, there was reasonable evidence to suggest that the day of her funeral would be a tense one, with reports of London’s riot police on high alert to clamp down on potential trouble.

On the day, however, the anticipated protests were very small-fry stuff. After much searching, the Guardian found two students wearing home-made T-shirts saying “This funeral is a political symbol”. Not exactly eye-wateringly disrespectful stuff. Elsewhere, a few hundred protesters yelled “What a waste of money” – a reference to the estimated funeral price tag of £10 million – and the repurposed football chant of “Maggie Maggie Maggie, dead dead dead”. To really stick it to the Iron Lady, they turned their backs on the hearse bearing her coffin. One of the more violent incidents involved a bunch of daffodils thrown at a police horse. Sky reporters found a man who’d newly had tattooed on his leg the words “She Was Not For Turning”, with a picture of a skull and crossbones. Despite the ghoulish choice of symbols, however, it emerged that he was actually a passionate Thatcher devotee.

Photo: Former, and current, British prime ministers and their wives attend the funeral of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in St Paul’s Cathedral in London April 17, 2013. (FRONT ROW L-R) Sarah Brown, Gordon Brown, Cherrie Blair, Tony Blair, Norma Major, John Major, Samantha Cameron and the current Prime Minister David Cameron. REUTERS/Paul Edwards/Pool

In the end Thatcher supporters were louder and more numerous, lining the route that the funeral procession would take, and stacked 10 deep around St Paul’s Cathedral. Naturally, some would have been there to gawk at the dignitaries attending the funeral. FW de Klerk swapped pleasantries with Henry Kissinger. Mangosuthu Buthelezi wore his trademark sunglasses throughout the service, and was misidentified by one UK comedian on Twitter as “Ray Charles”. Past and present members of Conservative and Labour cabinets were there, and if anyone didn’t feel like talking politics, there was Jeremy Clarkson there to chat cars.

It’s common to say “it’s what she would’ve wanted” after a funeral, as a way of appeasing our consciences that we’ve done right by the dead. In this case, it was literally exactly what she wanted, since Thatcher picked out every element of the service prior to her death. And, if you could ignore the presence of world leaders, august surroundings and live TV coverage, the actual service was simple, un-showy, and terribly English. I Vow To Thee My Country, the Lord’s Prayer, some well-chosen Bible readings.