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.

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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