Thatcher’s legacy provokes divisions during House of Commons tributes

Thatcherism ’a heinous crime’, says one Labour MP

Frequently, if not always, tributes to dead politicians long-departed from office are a dreary routine for the later generations, where plaudits are delivered before people drift away for tea.

Yesterday, in the Commons, was not one of those days: the debate on Margaret Thatcher included devotion and division, simmering resentments, loyalty, even an expression of love from an MP who knew her only after she had left office, but who did much to brighten her last years.

Belfast-born Conservative MP Conor Burns visited Mrs Thatcher in her Chester Square home in London every Sunday evening, where the two – if she was well enough – would read through the Sunday newspapers and he would bring the political gossip of the week.

“I feel a deep sense of personal loss for someone I loved and cared for her very deeply,” said the Bournemouth MP with tears in his eyes, who described his idol as “my great protectress”.


Disagreed viscerally
In his opening, David Cameron sought to set a tone: accepting that many had disagreed viscerally with Mrs Thatcher, but acknowledging the efforts made by Labour's Ed Miliband and others in that party to mark her death respectfully.

"Your generosity of spirit does you great credit and speaks more eloquently than any one person can of the strength and spirit of British statesmanship and British democracy," declared Mr Cameron.

The afternoon had started out well. Mr Miliband had sought diplomacy from his Labour backbenchers, concerned that some people would be turned off by a ghoulish welcome for her demise.

“Whatever one’s view of her, Margaret Thatcher was a unique and towering figure. I disagree with much of what she did, but I respect what her death means to the many, many people who admired her,” Mr Miliband said.

However, passions ran deep. Labour MP David Winnick spoke of the late prime minister's "indifference and brutal contempt" towards those who had ended up on 1980s dole queues.

Former actress and Labour MP Glenda Jackson agreed, saying that Thatcherism had been "a heinous spirit" which had caused great economic damage, while Michael Meacher said many of today's ills – banking deregulation, local authority shortages – were her legacy.

If Conservatives were angered by the contributions of a few Labour MPs, they were angered by that made by the Liberal Democrats leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

Saying that he “thought long and hard about what to say”, he continued: “The mere mention of her name [in his Sheffield constituency] even now elicits strong reactions”. But, he said, one can “shun the tenets of Thatcherism and yet respect Margaret Thatcher”.

Conservative rumblings
The rumblings from the Conservative MPs began within moments of Mrs Clegg's comments, and they had stopped listening by the time he spoke of how she had "inspired or confronted, led or attacked" with "uncluttered clarity".

The Tory benches were overflowing for the tributes – the 15th time the Commons had been recalled during recess in 32 years. However, Labour’s benches were not so full.

Some, such as the Yorkshire-based MP John Healey, boycotted the event, saying that Mrs Thatcher's legacy was "too bitter to warrant this claim to national mourning" and he believed that Mr Cameron was leveraging Mrs Thatcher's political reputation for future use.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is a Project Editor with The Irish Times.