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.