In death, Thatcher has been reborn into myth

The Conservative Party has never recovered from what it did to Margaret Thatcher and from the legacy of bitterness that resulted.

The British establishment is very good at weddings and funerals. The training begins early in our grand public schools, with their deep archival memory of imperial conquest and loss, their venerable buildings and chapels, their militaristic rituals and traditions and prevailing ethos of muscular Christianity. Margaret Thatcher, of course, was not born into the High Establishment, even though she married a millionaire businessman and sent her only son to Harrow. This was partly what made her so fascinating and such an unlikely leader of the Conservative Party.

I was present this morning inside St Paul’s Cathedral, that magnificent symbol of British resilience and defiance during the Blitz, and found the funeral service at times beautiful in the choice of readings, poetry (T S Eliot, Wordsworth), music (Fauré, Bach) and hymns (“I Vow to thee My Country”), and not at all triumphalist. Thatcher was not a war leader, even if she spent most of her premiership on a war footing, and this was a state funeral in all but name. The concerns about its cost are legitimate.

There’s been nothing in the culture to compare with the past ten days since the death of Diana in 1997. On that occasion the outpouring of grief was driven from the bottom up: the people loved Diana and they demanded that the royal family share publicly in their grief. The response to Margaret Thatcher’s death was a top-down phenomenon. It was as if the Conservative establishment was mourning not only the passing of a politician but something more than that, something tied up with the failures and melancholy of the present – a stagnating economy, a struggling and mediocre coalition government, a divided and unhappy Tory party. In the exaggerated veneration of Thatcher there is an implicit rebuke to David Cameron, who was at ease in St Paul’s today, as you would expect of someone of his background. He’s been well trained for these kinds of long recessionals and ceremonial farewells.

There were of course many familiar faces in attendance, from most of the present cabinet to those who served under Thatcher during her years in power, as well as those who fought on her side in the cold war, such as the former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

Thatcher was a notable philo-Semite – one of her more appealing characteristics – and the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his wife had made the trip to London, as watchful as ever and flanked even inside St Paul’s by belligerent security operatives, as if to suggest they didn’t trust British security.

The sermon by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, bearded friend of Prince Charles, was well modulated and amusing in parts. It aspired to be apolitical: “This, at Lady Thatcher’s personal request, is a funeral service, not a memorial service with the customary eulogies.”

Chartres briefly mentioned “the storm of conflicting opinions” about Thatcher before moving on to remark on her Nonconformist, Methodist upbringing and her “perseverance in struggle [and her] courage to be”. There was a nice quasi-philosophical disquisition on the nature of personal identity that would have interested John Locke. There was also an unintentional allusion, I think, to one of her favourite phrases: “Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.” Would the august bishop have been deemed “one of us”?

Chartres offered his own political (mis)reading of her notorious observation that there was no such thing as society and suggested that she had been misunderstood. And, in a remark that would surely have angered the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, he quoted from her address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “I leave you with that earnest hope that may we all come nearer to that other country whose ‘ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace’.”

Perhaps he had forgotten that this 1988 address in Edinburgh, her so-called Sermon on the Mound, in which she made an impassioned theological defence of her free-market dogmatism, enraged and appalled Scots. Delivered in the year before the poll tax was implemented in Scotland, Thatcher’s “sermon” contributed to the Tories’ definitive defeat north of the border.

Before the funeral service began, as the assembled guests and mourners waited for the Queen and then the coffin to arrive, it was fascinating to observe the interplay between our three main party leaders as well three former prime ministers: Major, Blair and Brown. Ed Miliband was in animated conversation with Nick Clegg before withdrawing into himself, as if his thoughts were full of the presentiment of power. Tony Blair was one seat away from Gordon Brown – they were separated by Cherie Blair – whose arm he reached out to touch as he sat down. Brown did not exactly recoil, but their exchange was very brief, though Brown spoke for longer to Cherie. When David and Samantha Cameron arrived, they exchanged happy kisses with the Blairs but Brown made no attempt to stand or shake the Prime Minister’s hand. He could not bring himself even to look up at Cameron, whom he loathes.

Bishop Chartres ended his address by quoting from Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (1942) from Four Quartets, a section from which was chosen as the preface to the service sheet: “In this Easter season Death is revealed, not as a full stop but as the way into another dimension of life.”

As Eliot, that High Anglican romantic conservative, puts it:

"What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from."

It is paradoxical indeed that in death Margaret Thatcher has been reborn . . . into myth. I was at school when she came to power and had recently graduated when she was ousted from Downing Street. She and her policies defined my adolescence and early adulthood, as they did Cameron’s, Clegg’s, Osborne’s and Miliband’s.

Nowadays Miliband likes to portray himself as a “Thatcheresque”, consensus-breaking insurgent. For Cameron, speaking on the Today programme this morning, “we are all Thatcherites” now – one of his more preposterous claims. What is not in doubt is that the Conservative Party has never recovered from what it did to Margaret Thatcher and from the legacy of bitterness from her departure. The fissures have just got even wider.

Members of the armed services carry the coffin following the ceremonial funeral of Margaret Thatcher at St Paul's Cathedral. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.