London to ‘stop all the clocks’ to mark Thatcher’s passing

Big Ben’s chimes to be silenced for funeral

A Union flag flies at half mast over the Houses of Parliament, and next to the Big Ben clock tower, after the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

A Union flag flies at half mast over the Houses of Parliament, and next to the Big Ben clock tower, after the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters


In the first World War, the chimes of Big Ben were silenced for two years lest they give guidance in the dark to Zeppelin airships intent on bombing London.

Besides the Zeppelin danger, the bells, which peal every 15 minutes, have been quietened only once before for a former leader – the 1965 state funeral for Winston Churchill.

On Wednesday, however, the chimes will stay silent for the duration of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral service in St Paul’s Cathedral, on the decision of the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

Mr Bercow’s decision has echoes, of a sort, with WH Auden’s Funeral Blues – the poem better known as “Stop all the Clocks”, and best known for its use in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In the poem, Auden urged: “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone/ Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone/ Silence the pianos and with muffled drum/ Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.”

Speaking to MPs yesterday, Mr Bercow said the gesture would show “a profound dignity” and display a “deep respect” for the former prime minister.

‘Attempted canonisation’

However, even the Bercow household is divided. His wife

Sally has refused to join him at Wednesday’s service, saying she would not take part in “the attempted canonisation” of Mrs Thatcher.

The speaker’s decision adds to the belief that Mrs Thatcher’s funeral – to be attended by 800 military who practised before dawn yesterday – is a state occasion in all but name. The increasingly hagiographic overtones have unsettled many in Labour but they cannot complain too loudly since it was Gordon Brown who settled the details with the former prime minister in 2008.

Back then, Mr Brown, who admired her in many respects, believed he had no choice but to be generous, lest Labour in office be accused of being disrespectful to a woman who was an icon for many.

Mr Brown went further than many believe the Conservatives themselves would have conceded to Mrs Thatcher had they been in power – not because they would not consider her worthy but because of a fear that voters would not stomach it.

Conservatives fumed yesterday about the intervention by Dr Tim Ellis, the Church of England Bishop of Grantham – Thatcher’s home town – who said people were “asking for trouble” by giving her a full ceremonial departure.

Final bill

The final bill for the funeral is not known, but there is speculation that it could rise to £10m – though prime minister David Cameron has said that figures will be published later. For most people, talk of protests – some are threatening to turn their backs on the cortege as it makes its way through London’s streets – is unseemly, regardless of their views on Mrs Thatcher.

So far, talk of street demonstrations to celebrate her death has been just that. On Saturday, 2,000 gathered in Trafalgar Square but just 16 arrests were made.

A ComRes/ITV News at Ten poll found that nearly two-thirds objected to protests, a quarter supports them, and 54 per cent said they had no intention of watching the ceremony that will be carried live on all TV channels.

Meanwhile, MPs will today have to debate a motion cancelling Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions after left-wing Respect MP George Galloway refused to allow them be put off. Asked by one TV presenter yesterday if there was anyone to whom he would show “respect”, Mr Galloway complained that “a hideous outpouring of right-wing eulogies and rants doused in crocodile tears” has marked much of the last week.