WHAT WILL happen when Lady Thatcher dies? A macabre question perhaps, but one worth asking. For a generation of trade unionists, it might mean dancing on her grave; for the rest of society it will probably mean quite polarised reactions, ranging from mourning through indifference to jubilation.
As one of the most divisive public figures of the 20th century, her passing will be marked, but how it is marked is causing great debate and will be almost impossible to get right.
Gordon Brown confused the nation when, as Prime Minister, he declared that she should have a state funeral. No other former PM has been given a state funeral since Churchill, and he won a war. State funeral or not though, the way it is marked will be influenced by our behaviour. And our behaviour, when it comes to mourning, has changed.
For most of us mourning is about sorting out our feelings when someone close to us has died and about learning to accept that they are no longer around. It is a mostly a private emotion which is reflective and personal. But recently, these most private of feelings are increasingly publicly displayed. Where the Victorians had elaborate mourning rituals and strict codes of behaviour, many people nowadays seem to seek their solace in littering the streets with cellophane-wrapped flowers or in setting up obituary-style Facebook pages.
And, mourning has developed not just in terms of how we mourn, but also who we mourn. It now seems commonplace to project these most intimate of feelings on to people we don’t know and have never met. Look at the mass, world-wide reaction to the deaths of Princess Diana and Michael Jackson. With the advent of technology, there is also no waiting to see what the protocol is. Within hours of the news of Steve Jobs’s death Twitter, Facebook and the whole of the internet seem alive with comments, tributes and obituaries to the technological guru.
So, what will happen when Thatcher dies? Whoever makes that decision will be naive in the extreme if they think it is a PR opportunity. The Left shouldn’t see it as chance to pour vitriol on her legacy any more than the Right should see it as a chance to celebrate it. With such a divisive figure and the readiness for people to publicly display their feeling en masse and instantaneously, there will be no controlling the reaction to this event. Neither is there the faintest chance of achieving the level of decorum and control that Harold Wilson managed at Churchill’s well-orchestrated funeral.
When the time comes, David Cameron (if he is still in power) will probably wish that he ran the UK a little more like Kim Jong Il ran North Korea. Then he could stage-manage elaborate outpourings of grief, wailing, fainting and real tears, or at least maximise the opportunity to promote his party, but he hasn’t a chance. He has Facebook, Twitter and supermarket flowers to deal with.