I don’t know about you but I actually like funerals. I may be a queer fish for holding that view, but I do believe in paying one’s proper respects to someone that I’ve known or has played a part in my life.
I therefore took the time to watch Margaret Thatcher’s funeral by satellite – I was on holiday in Ireland of all places – and was moved by the contrasting military pageantry and religious simplicity that made it a fitting tribute to a woman who succeeded against all the odds, despite prejudice, discrimination and intimidation. And that was just dealing with the Tory Party.
The obstacles in taking on and taming the unions – possibly her greatest domestic achievement – had already defeated Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle in the 1960s and then Ted Heath and Robert Carr in the 1970s. For that achievement alone, spending £10 million to cover mainly the cost of security for a woman who saved the nation £8500m through European Union rebates was a bargain. Nevertheless a public subscription should have been called for those that wished to contribute to do so, with any excess going towards a proper memorial with public access rather than her statue in the House of Commons that’s too detached from public gaze.
The arrangements had been agreed by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, with Thatcher declining a fly-past and a full state funeral as inappropriate and too costly. It was agreed to call it ceremonial which struck the right balance.
There had been much speculation about the likelihood of trouble as the funeral procession wound its way through Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, the Strand, Fleet Street and on to St Paul’s via Clement St Dane’s. It was not to be, for the majority of those who disliked or even despised her did the decent thing and simply stayed away, while those that wished to show their disrespect could not agree how to handle the moment. Some turned their backs, some shouted abuse, some ended up fighting each other. Thatcher had the last laugh; in death as in life she split her opposition down the middle.
It was a truly British occasion – her coffin draped in the Union flag and lifted at the crucial moments by a bearer party formed of ten servicemen from regiments that served in the Falklands, including the Scots Guards, the Welsh Guards, and the Royal Gurkha Rifles. Some saltire flags were draped over the crash barriers by onlookers and the band of the Scots Guards played as the cortege marched slowly by.
Tens of thousands turned out to watch and, in that odd way where the moment can overtake you, started to clap as the casket passed by, as if a dignified silence was not enough, that their expression of thanks required something more. It doesn’t, but showing one’s emotions is a modern phenomenon, such as throwing flowers – and yes, there were a few of them too. There were some boos but they were drowned out by more applause.
Taking the casket up the steps of St Paul’s seemed as precarious as scaling Mount Tumbledown, the pall bearers inching up gradually and one poor bloke looking like he might give way at any moment.
Then came the service and the choice of hymns and readings, chosen by Thatcher herself some eight years ago, set a modest, humble tone. The Bishop of London, Rt Rev Richard Chartres, gave the main address, stating there would be no political eulogies, this was a religious service, not a memorial.
He kept to his word although this still allowed him to slay that greatest myth of all, that Thatcher thought there was no such thing as society. Self-evidently her religious faith, he explained, demonstrated she had been misunderstood – maliciously, I may add. He also delivered the best joke of the morning, telling how “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 pâté, Bishop – it’s very fattening’.” He had been handbagged, but in a most kindly way.
His story of the letter from a young boy being answered in her own hand saying “However good we try to be, we can never be as kind, gentle and wise as Jesus. There will be times when we do or say something we wish we hadn’t done and we shall be sorry and try not to do it again” caused emotions to stir. Then, following further readings by representatives from other churches, there came the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country – which one eyewitness told me his whole pub at Ludgate Hill stood up and sang along to.
Soon it was over and the tears of the congregation were revealed – even on Chancellor Osborne’s cheeks, a man who too often appears emotionless. As the coffin emerged from St Paul’s the awaiting crowd gave three cheers for Maggie Thatcher and the cortege drove off for a private cremation so her ashes could rest next to those of her beloved Denis in Chelsea Hospital.
A truly memorable occasion like only Britain could stage.