They arrived early on an overcast London morning to bid Margaret Hilda Thatcher farewell in a choreographed ceremonial funeral that has proved as controversial as the Iron Lady’s years in office as Britain’s first—and as yet, only—female prime minister. As befitting a funeral that Lady Thatcher herself helped plan, the ceremony went off with crisp British military precision, and on time.
She would have been proud, and would have enjoyed the rousing British hymns by Henry Purcell and Vaughan Williams and the patriotic anthem “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” whose Victorian lyrics closed the funeral service.
Seven hundred servicemen all linked by their regiments and units to the 1982 Falklands War, one of her signature accomplishments, guided and protected the gun carriage bearing her coffin the final 1200 yards from the church at St. Clement Danes in the Aldwych up Fleet Street, the onetime home of a raucous British press that loved and loathed her, to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The funeral procession marched a half step at 70 paces a minute to arrive at the west door of the Cathedral exactly at 11 a.m., improving on a dress rehearsal on Monday when they were three minutes late.
Those final yards—her coffin had been kept overnight in the chapel beneath the House of Commons where a female priest kept vigil—saw crowds eight to 10 deep line the route, many held Union Jack flags and alternated between keeping a respectful silence or applauding politely as the cortege passed. Some threw flowers on the road as the carriage ascended Ludgate Hill, where famously in the 19th century the funeral cortege of the grand Duke of Wellington struggled with the climb.
Some of those who turned out to pay their respects had camped out overnight, including 79-year-old Canadian Margaret Kittle, who said she had traveled from Canada for the funeral as soon as she heard of Thatcher’s death. “It was a cold night. The damp goes through you," she said. "But I always said I would come to the U.K. for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral because I respect her. I think she did a lot for the world.”
Londoner John Loughrey said, “She saved Britain. We had all sorts of problems and Mrs. Thatcher put it all back together again. We needed the Iron Lady."
On top of Lady Thatcher’s coffin there was a huge wreath of white roses and a card from her children, Carol and Mark, bearing the tribute: “Beloved Mother. Always in our Hearts.”
It was the grandest funeral for a British prime minister since great wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill’s in 1965 and as with that one the chimes of Big Ben and the Great Clock of the Palace of Westminster were silenced for the duration of the rites. Only the muffled peal of the bells of St. Clement Danes and St. Paul’s, both churches by architect Sir Christopher Wren, could be heard as the cortege made its way to St. Paul’s.
“We are all in her shade,” lamented Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London. “She had a powerful message and people responded to it.” What that message was has been debated vociferously in the days since she died of a stroke on April 8.
Her official death certificate recorded her occupation as “stateswoman (retired)”. But protesters at the funeral and political foes on the left disputed her legacy, arguing that the economic doldrums Britain finds itself in now had its roots in Thatcherism and her deregulation of the country’s financial-services sector. Her supporters dismiss the contention, pointing out she left office 23 years ago and wouldn’t have tolerated the credit explosion and risk-taking of the banks that triggered the country’s financial crash.
“It is wrong to claim that her reforms were the root cause of the present financial crisis,” says the editor of City AM newspaper, Allister Heath. “Most of her changes still make sense today, and are incorrectly blamed for problems that have nothing to do with her.”
The unexamined life is not worth living, according to Socrates. By that standard Baroness Thatcher’s life was certainly worth living. Allies and enemies have engaged in intense argument over her legacy, in the newspaper columns and on radio and television. At times the debate has been less than edifying: former actress and Labor politician Glenda Jackson accused her of wreaking “the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country,” later adding: “A woman? Not on my terms.” Jackson was jeered and booed by Tory politicians for her remarks in the House of Commons.
The snarling Scottish terrier, George Galloway, the leader of the most misnamed party in modern British history, Respect, has hardly been off-air denouncing the decision to spend £10 million ($15 million) on the “canonization of this wicked woman, this woman who laid waste to industrial Britain, to the north, to Scotland, to south Wales.”
But threatened protests by anarchist and left-wing groups didn’t disrupt the funeral and only a rare jeer could be heard along Fleet Street. And near Downing Street, a small group of protesters demonstrated against the “glorifying” of the funeral and cuts to the welfare state. Anthropology student Dave Winslow and three others at Ludgate Circus near St. Paul's held up a placard reading “rest of us in poverty.” He said they planned to turn their backs on the funeral cortege as it passed them.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Prime Minister David Cameron said it would have been seen as extraordinary not to commemorate her life and he dismissed the expense. “It is a fitting tribute to a great prime minister respected around the world, and I think other countries in the world would think Britain had got it completely wrong if we didn't mark this in a proper way. Of course people have the right to disagree and take a different view. But when you're mourning the passing of an 87-year-old woman who was the first woman prime minister, who served for longer in the job than anyone for 150 years I think it's appropriate to show respect.”
Despite his words praising Thatcher, commentators here have noted that today's Conservative leadership has used this week to forestall any Thatcherite revival within the Tory party by muting their support of some of her policies.
Attended by the queen, the funeral saw a who’s who of British politics and dignitaries from around the world. In total, two current heads of state, 11 serving prime ministers and 17 serving foreign ministers attended. It was the first time the British monarch had attended the funeral service of a former prime minister since Churchill’s state ceremony.
Before the Boston bombing, the British tabloid press slammed the Obama White House for deciding not to send a serving member of the current American administration. That criticism was immediately muted after Monday’s terrorist attack in Boston. Several members of former U.S. administrations did attend, including former vice president Dick Cheney and former secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Former British Labor prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who gave approval for the funeral arrangements back in 2008, also attended the ceremony at St. Paul’s.
As the coffin was carried down the nave of St. Paul’s by eight military pallbearers, the cathedral choir sang: “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.”
The Right Rev. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London and one of the few prelates of the Church of England who got on well with Thatcher, began his address somberly: “After the storm of a life lived in the heat of political controversy, there is a great calm. The storm of conflicting opinions centers on the Mrs. Thatcher who became a symbolic figure, even an ‘ism.’ Today the remains of the real Margaret Hilda Thatcher are here at her funeral service. Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.”
But he prompted a collective chuckle when noting: “She was always reaching out and trying to help in typically uncoded terms. I was once sitting next to her at some City function. In the midst of describing how Hayek’s Road to Serfdom had influenced her thinking, she suddenly grasped my wrist and said very emphatically, ‘Don’t touch the duck paté, Bishop—it’s very fattening.’”
For all of the controversy some on the left sought to stir up, though, many of Thatcher’s erstwhile political foes were ready to praise her on the day of her funeral, including former U.K. Liberal Democrat Party leader Paddy Ashdown, who noted: “It was a wrecked country when she came into office and she left it a country respected throughout the world.”
Looking around at the crowds, Boris Johnson remarked: “Even for her fans and supporters like me, I don't think we expected to see quite so many people turn up to show their affection and their respect. It is a quite astonishing crowd.”