Thatcher’s funeral a very English affair

Supporters out-number former PM’s detractors on London’s streets

Military personnel carry the coffin of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher into St Paul's Cathedral, for her funeral service, in London yesterday. Photograph: Reuters /Dominic Lipinski

Military personnel carry the coffin of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher into St Paul's Cathedral, for her funeral service, in London yesterday. Photograph: Reuters /Dominic Lipinski

Thu, Apr 18, 2013, 06:00

Once they were the swift and the strong, believing that they would change the world under Margaret Thatcher. However, age has wearied the men who served her, sometimes unwillingly, during her 11 years in No 10 Downing Street.

Lord Howe, who did more than almost anyone to end her reign, looked frail as he took his place among the 2,300-strong congregation; Lord Lawson looked a shadow of the corpulent titan who ruled the Treasury until he crashed to earth.

Pulling power
Nevertheless, a few still have pulling power. Leaving St Paul’s moments after Thatcher’s remains had been taken away for cremation, former Cabinet minister Lord Tebbit was applauded continuously by hundreds of those who had come to show their respects.

Now greying and thin, Norman Tebbit crossed the road, his morning suit trousers riding high above his ankles, to shake hands with spectators behind the railings on St Paul’s Church Yard.

Two hours earlier, the first of the congregation had begun to arrive at St Paul’s for the ceremonial funeral – one agreed to by Labour’s Gordon Brown during his time as prime minister.

Soon, the pews filled, partly on foot of the instruction issued to Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs that they were expected to turn up, though Labour’s presence was meagre – numbering just eight from the Shadow Cabinet and two MPs, including Frank Field.

Dozens milled about under the cathedral’s dome as they waited for the cortege to leave the Houses of Parliament for St Clement Danes Church on the Strand, where it was transferred onto a gun-carriage.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband were deep in conversation; Brown, who was accompanied by his wife Sarah, held an extended exchange with Miliband’s wife Justine but few others.

His predecessor Tony Blair arrived briskly, shaking hands with former US vice-president Dick Cheney; former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney.

Sitting a few rows behind Blair, Ken Clarke, regarded as one “of the wettest of the wet” by Thatcher, offered no concession to suggestions that politicians should wear morning suits, sitting with shoulders slumped back, legs forward in an ill-fitting grey suit, crumpled green tie and his usual Hush Puppies shoes.

Each chapter of the service had been selected by Thatcher, including the reading from John: “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

One who believed in tradition, Thatcher had ordered the King James Bible’s original text, rather than the disliked modern translation used today in the Anglican Church, where “saith” reads as “says”, and “ye” as “you”.

Draped in the Union flag, her remains, carried by nervous soldiers, sailors and airmen, was brought up the cathedral’s aisle as the clock struck 11, before being placed upon the bier directly under the dome.

“We come to this cathedral today to remember before God Margaret Hilda Thatcher, to give thanks for her life and work and to commend her into God’s hands,” intoned Very Rev David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s.

Equally traditional
Mrs Thatcher was equally traditional in her choice of hymns, including He Who Would Valiant Be , with words from John Bunyan, with its lines, “I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim”.

Her remains had been preceded by Thatcher’s grandchildren, Amanda and Michael, who carried on purple cushions two of the honours, the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit, received by her in life, before laying them upon the altar.

For many, the 19-year-old Amanda – daughter of Mark and his first wife, Diane – was a revelation, whose clear, strong Texan accent filled the cathedral as she read from Ephesians “that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil”.

Following her, prime minister David Cameron read from the Gospel of St. John : “How can we know the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

By then, the wardrobe selection made by his wife, Samantha had faced early reviews, where some applauded her for wearing a gold silk blouse with a florid pussy bow, of a type once worn so often by Mrs Thatcher.

For some, it was an unmistakable tribute. For others, however, it “seemed more ‘tribute act’ than ‘funeral’, with a soupcon of eighties air hostess thrown in”, as one reviewer put it cattily.

Prefacing his address, the Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, emphasised the difference that exists between “the Mrs Thatcher who became a symbolic figure – even an ‘ism’” with the remains of “the Margaret Hilda Thatcher” that lay before the congregation.

In the seats below, chancellor George Osborne, who barely knew her in life, sat with tears rolling down his cheeks, though even friends wondered whether the tears marked sorrow for Thatcher or reflected a more private grief.

In his speech, Chartres had been faced with a difficult, perhaps impossible, task, with many in the Church of England uncomfortable, if not distinctly unhappy, at the awarding of a State funeral in all but name to a figure who divides public opinion 23 years after she left office.

There is a place for debating the legacy of politicians, he said: “But here today is not the time, nor the place.”

They had gathered, he went on, for a funeral, “not a memorial service with the customary eulogies”.

However, Chartres quickly eulogised her, praising her kindness to staff, her courage, along with her humour – she had once interrupted a dinner-table lecture on the merits of economist Frederick von Hayek to tell him not to touch the duck pate because “it’s very fattening”.

Contested passage
In a contested passage, Chartres said her remark that “there was no such thing as society” had “been misunderstood”. Thatcher, he said, had believed in inter-dependence, not individualism, and that free markets need truth, “mutual sympathy and the capacity to co-operate”.

In the end, the protests that many had feared would desecrate a funeral did not materialise, bar a few hundred who turned their backs upon her as she passed Ludgate Circus, but Chartres’ definition of “the real Thatcher” will be questioned, including even by some who sat to mourn her passing.