Britain bids farewell to the Iron Lady

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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.

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”.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Arguably the most moving part of the service was the slightly shaky-voiced reading given by Amanda Thatcher, daughter of Thatcher’s son Mark. It is known that Thatcher doted on her grandchildren, and had stated her desire for Amanda to give the reading because she had wanted to do so at the funeral of Denis Thatcher and had been overlooked. Amanda Thatcher spent much of her childhood living in Constantia, in Cape Town; but is now a student in the US, and no trace of a South African accent remains.

Because it was a bona fide funeral, as opposed to a memorial, there was no opportunity for personal eulogies beyond the address given by Bishop of London Richard Chartres, who faced a tricky task: to pay tribute to a recently-deceased 87-year-old woman, in front of her family, while acknowledging her rancorous legacy. He managed his balancing act with aplomb. “After the storm of a life lived in the heat of political controversy, there is a great calm,” he began, getting right to the thick of it.

“There is an important place for debating policies and legacy,” Chartres said, “but here and today is neither the time nor the place.” He said he recognised that “it must be very difficult for those members of her family and those closely associated with her to recognise the wife, the mother and the grandmother in the mythological figure,” and paid tribute to her long marriage to Denis Thatcher.

Chartres didn’t entirely keep his nose clean of politics, taking advantage of the podium to correct what he sees as a misunderstanding of one of Thatcher’s most-quoted assertions: “There’s no such thing as society.” What Thatcher meant by society there, he said, was “some impersonal entity to which we are tempted to surrender our independence”. But in the main his address was short, dignified, compassionate, and religious: what she would’ve wanted.

When the guests streamed out of St Paul’s, and the funeral cortege was safely on its way to Thatcher’s cremation, organisers doubtless breathed a deep sigh of relief that it had all gone off so smoothly. But the word “Thatcher” will remain a surefire way to spark a bar-fight in some areas, and her legacy will continue to be picked apart and alternately demonised and valorised. The Daily Mail will no doubt claim that Thatcher’s supporters won the day. In reality, what won the day was British politeness.

Written by: Rebecca Davis

Picture credit: Daily Maverick

  • Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on Daily Maverick.