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04.12.13

Margaret Thatcher, Divisive Even in Death

With a militaristic Falklands theme and controversial political tone, the Iron Lady’s funeral is causing contention before it even occurs. Peter Jukes reports.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be a ceremony to salute Britain’s first female prime minister, a woman who won three successive election victories and bestrode the world stage. In death, as in life, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher is causing divisions—or so the cliché goes. But on this occasion you can’t blame her.

Since her death was announced on Monday, there have been sporadic street parties to celebrate, a special session of Parliament to commemorate her, calls for a statue to be erected in Trafalgar Square, and a concerted effort to push Judy Garland’s version of “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” to the top of the record charts. All this was predictable, given the way Thatcher was revered by some of the public and detested by others. But the official response is more baffling.

After a decade-long illness, and several premature rumors of her demise, Baroness Thatcher’s death at the age of 87 was not unanticipated.

A committee called Iron Bridge was formed back in 2006 to prepare for it, involving the security services, Buckingham Palace, the Church of England, parliamentary authorities, and representatives of Thatcher’s estate. The Iron Lady herself had explicitly ruled out the state funeral normally reserved for monarchs because it would require an act of Parliament. Being politically astute, even in her dotage, Baroness Thatcher was aware what contention that could create.

However, when the Conservatives formed a coalition in 2010, the planning committee was renamed Operation True Blue, reportedly to give it a more “conservative feel” (blue is the color of the Conservative Party in Britain) but also raising questions as to whether this overt politicization is suitable for a state occasion. A spokesman for Number Ten, however, claims the True Blue codename has been in use since Labour was in power.

When Thatcher died on Monday, during a parliamentary recess, several parts of the plan went awry. To the shock of both his chief whip and the speaker’s office, Cameron recalled Parliament over their holidays to pay tribute—even though peers and M.P.s were due to return on Monday. With each of the hundreds of returning members able to claim $5,000 for coming in five days early, it was an unseemly haste for a solemn affair.

But then there’s the funeral itself next Wednesday. Though it’s not technically a state funeral, in every other way it’s a state funeral by stealth. It will cost a minimum of $15 million in extra security because of threatened protests and 2,000 VIP guests. Though she won’t lie in state, Thatcher will be carried on the traditional route from the Strand to St. Paul’s. And the queen is officiating, which, as the conservative columnist Peter Oborne points out in the Daily Telegraph, breaks a (very British) separation between the head of state and the head of the executive. Which former prime ministers’ funerals will future monarchs have to attend next? The decision risks setting a precedent and making the queen look partisan.

The other divisive element is the tone of the event. While former prime minister William Gladstone’s funeral eschewed any kind of militaristic pomp, Thatcher’s has a “Falklands” theme with hundreds of members of the armed forces who served in the battle of the South Atlantic guarding the cortege and lining the route. On Friday morning there were reports that even Buckingham Palace was concerned about the militarization of the occasion.

Though it’s not technically a state funeral, in every other way it’s a state funeral by stealth.

These imperial tones are much more reminiscent of Sir Winston Churchill’s state funeral in 1965 than the two ceremonial funerals—for Princess Diana and the Queen Mother—that have occurred in the half century since. The military comparisons with Churchill, Britain’s great wartime leader, don’t really stand up. Whatever Thatcher’s merits in reshaping the British economy or her role with Ronald Reagan in the endgame of the Cold War, the recapture of a tiny group of sparsely populated islands from an Argentinean military junta in 1982 is hardly on a par with the Battle of Britain, D-Day, or the liberation of Europe from fascism.

Why has David Cameron, who took over the Conservative Party seven years ago promising to detoxify its “nasty” Thatcherite image, succumbed to this strange and controversial canonization of Maggie? It’s unlikely to bring him relief at the polls, which still display divided opinions about his predecessor. The latest Yougov poll shows the Tories dropping 6 points since the announcement of Thatcher’s death.

Alastair Campbell, who, as Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor and press supremo understands the optics of these occasions better than most, speculates that this may be mainly for internal Tory consumption. As Campbell writes in his blog, Cameron was on the run from the press since the Leveson inquiry, and hemorrhaging support from the right, so probably calculated that burnishing the Thatcher handbag could be a unifying moment for his party, even if it has “politicised the death in a way that was not necessary and risks becoming horribly divisive.”

Campbell should know how to handle funerals. He was key in formulating Tony Blair’s response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and coined the term “the people’s princess.” While Diana’s funeral was an important moment in unbuttoning the Brits, the vast spontaneous floral tributes—which made most of West London smell of flowers for days—weren’t ordered by committee: the event was a popular outpouring of emotion over the sudden death of a young mother and apolitical icon.

By comparison, the Thatcher funeral feels like a manipulation from above. And if Earl Spenser’s stunning speech in Westminster Abbey secretly spoke of the dysfunction of the royal family, then Cameron’s acts so far speak to the internecine feuds among his political peers. After all, it was the Conservative Party, not Labour nor the electorate, who deposed Thatcher from power in 1990 in an internal coup. As the commentator Stefan Stern points out, making a comparison with the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, the guilty ghost still haunts them: “Death has not, will not remove Mrs T from the playing field.” And for Cameron and the Tories, Thatcher’s demise has made her more powerful than they could possibly imagine.