Bill Jamieson: Where now for Thatcher’s Britain?

A member of the public weeps as the coffin of Baroness Thatcher passes. Picture: Getty
A member of the public weeps as the coffin of Baroness Thatcher passes. Picture: Getty
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AS one era ends, Bill Jamieson ponders what the future might hold and how the country might look three decades on

In an ending is a new beginning. But where will that new beginning take us? In fairness, it can be said that nothing in the life of Margaret Thatcher became her like the leaving it. For the funeral of a grocer’s daughter central London was brought to a standstill, Big Ben was silenced and the bells of St Paul’s were muffled. Crowds four- deep lined the route, applauding quietly as the coffin, draped in a Union Flag, solemnly passed by.

It may not have been a state funeral, but from the attendance of the Queen and Prince Philip, to the great and the powerful from around the world gathered in St Paul’s Cathedral, it was without doubt an occasion of state.

Here was a funeral to which many politicians aspire but which only the most outstanding ever come near to earning. For all the conflicting emotions she aroused, the most striking feature of the funeral yesterday was its nobility, a demonstration yet again of an ability to stage such events with stunning precision, brilliant choreography and potent emotional force. All this, and the restrained applause of thousands, rippling, returning and renewing along the route. These were the images beamed round the world.

Here was a reminder of the political quietude of the English, a country undemonstrative but firm in its preference for individual liberty and those who defend it. It was an elegiac reminder, too, of an England that is passing, or which has already passed, into history.

So ends the story of a political life, one like no other in modern times. And so ends (for now) nine extraordinary days of assessment and appraisal, tribute and critique, celebration and caustic condemnation. She did not so much leave a mark in our history as a dent.

It was left to the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, to deliver a difficult but perfectly pitched sermon, not a eulogy but a recollection of her as an individual and her personal attributes. In a striking passage, he paid tribute to her Methodism and to the contribution of Methodism to our national life. Indeed, the service, especially in the choice of hymns, was resonantly Methodist, breaking through the High Church formalism of St Paul’s.

So where does it all go from here? The emotional charge of funerals is that they mark an ending; they are occasions for reflection and remembrance. But life does not long stop for dwelling upon them, even those most powerfully staged. Chartres, towards the end of his sermon, quoted the lines of TS Eliot from the Four Quartets printed in the service sheet: “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to mark an end is to mark a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

And where will that new starting take us? It can already be said to be well underway. It is 34 years since a disillusioned and apprehensive country voted Mrs Thatcher into office, and 23 years since she left Downing Street. The Britain that attended the funeral is passing, if it has not already passed, to a new era. And were we to imagine what this country might be like 34 years from now we would be no less stunned by the change in our fortunes as we were by the changes that unfolded in the 34 years prior to 1979, a period reaching back to the ration-card year of 1945. Fast-forward to Britain 34 years ahead in 2047 and the memory of Mrs Thatcher will have long faded, her premiership and her funeral likely to be no more than a faded clip of archive film as if from that end-of-war year.

The biggest single change, of course, will be a continuation: an accelerating relative decline on the world stage as the shift of global wealth and power gathers pace from West to East, to China and Asia/Pacific. This change will dictate and determine our relations with the rest of the world that will leave even our current diminished military power like a lingering, elegiac legacy from the age of Empire. We will continue to excel at retaining the splendid trappings and ceremony of a world power. But that power will have evaporated.

Indeed, whether we have much by way of an independent military capability on the world stage is questionable. The influence we will enjoy will spring from other sources: academic, scientific and cultural, in the main.

As for the UK itself, the survival of the constitution in its current form in 2047 is open to question. Even if Scotland chooses not to opt for independence next year, the movement towards localisation and devolution is potent, will strengthen and will not be confined to Scotland.

The Britain of 2047 is more likely to have a federal constitution, the “second” chamber giving way to geographic representation and likely to take precedence over the Commons “first” as the nations and regions of the UK become more distinctive and more locally empowered.

Our education system will see a profound and long overdue change, the process of education being one that will run continuously through adult life in response to changes in the global economy. Our economy will be far more knowledge-driven and our performance particularly dependent on innovation and adaptation.

But the greatest change will be in our provision of health, welfare and social security. Whether triggered by a convulsive financial failure of the British state as we know it, or by a more gradual process of change, by 2047 the responsibilities now discharged by government will have reverted to a complex, sophisticated network of organisations akin to mutual societies, co-operatives and “not-for-profit” institutions to which individuals will make contribution. In the house of tomorrow’s welfare provision, there will be many mansions.

Ironically, it is in this – a development reminiscent of the Methodist social reforms of the 19th century – where the lingering echoes of “Thatcherism” will be found, though there was little progress down this route during her premiership. Indeed, while the economic reforms and privatisations of the Thatcher era are likely to survive the longer-term judgment of history, some of the cultural aftermath will most definitely not.

We are likely to look back on the “loadsamoney” culture and boardroom pay excesses of the recent past as a cringe-making aberration, akin to the Roaring 20s when we danced our way to the precipice. Our political concerns in the new beginning will be at once different and all-too familiar: wrestling to create a welfare system we can afford out of the ruins of the old, and struggling to retain the loyalty of a people when the UK as we know it will have passed into history. Thus in this ending we can find our new beginning.