Thursday, 11 April 2013

Why Thatcher deserves a proper funeral

Two reasoned objections to the forthcoming quasi-imperial pageantry of the Thatcher funeral in today's press, coming from different places politically but reaching very similar conclusions.

In the Guardian, Martin Kettle calls the funeral's planners "foolish" and "naive" in not seeing that the Thatcher funeral "plainly risks being an avoidable public wound that disrespects the dead and that this country, in the wider sense, does not need."  She deserves a publicly funded funeral but he worries about "the symbolism of an imperial, military funeral for a civilian politician in a 21st century democracy."  He thinks it a good principle that "public funerals for politicians should be civic, restrained and unifying, rather than military, bombastic and controversial."  He suggests a precedent in the 1898 funeral of Gladstone, who lay in state but whose obsequies were a purely civilian affair: his simple coffin "was carried across the road to Westminster Abbey on a plain funeral car, with civilian bearers for a service."

Kettle blames the present Conservative-dominated government for putting on next week's potentially divisive show, but it was actually under Gordon Brown that the arrangements for Thatcher's send-off were drawn up.  She was, according to Charles Powell, offered both a lying-in-state and an RAF fly-past, but objected to the former (which might well have degenerated into a fiasco as protesters attempted to smuggle eggs and tomatoes into Westminster Hall) and thought the latter an unnecessary expense.  That's a shame.  A salute from a Vulcan bomber and a Harrier, assuming there are any still flying, would have been entirely fitting with her triumph in the Falklands.

Indeed, Kettle is surely wrong to see her, like Gladstone, as a purely civilian figure.  The Falklands war lasted only a few weeks in 1982, but it remains the defining image of her premiership.  She may not have the direct military experience of Churchill, the last prime minister buried with comparable honours in 1965, or indeed of Mountbatten, who was given a full ceremonial military funeral in 1979 after he was blown up by the IRA.  But she was in every other sense a war leader, revelling in her relationship with the military and in her own image as an Iron Lady.  And she was greatly beloved by the armed forces.

Churchill's funeral involved far more troops than will be at Thatcher's

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne objected to the plan to give Maggie a state funeral (and technical quibbles aside, this will be a state funeral) back in 2011, "even though I accept that she was a very great woman, one of the six or seven most important and admirable prime ministers to occupy Downing Street in the almost 300 years since the office was invented."  Greatness is not enough, he maintained: "State ceremonies can be very damaging unless (as with the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton) the whole nation can come together."  It would be an insult to former miners and others who failed to share in the benefits of Thatcherism to parade her body through the streets to St Paul's.

Strong arguments, repeated today.  The official nature of the funeral, and the Queen's personal attendance, "will create very serious problems," he writes.  It "marks a betrayal of one of the most essential principles of the British state: the division between the executive and ceremonial functions."  It even calls into question the Queen's political impartiality, he thinks, and there's a risk that it will "turn into a triumphalist Tory occasion that inflicts permanent damage on the monarchy and also our system of government."

What will happen next Wednesday is, undoubtedly, very unusual.  This country, historically, does not go in for grand public funerals for politicians. Gladstone got a pared-down state funeral, as did William Pitt the Younger and the ludicrous Lord Palmerston, but there were no state honours of any kind for Disraeli, Lloyd George or Clement Attlee, all Thatcher's peers in the pantheon of historically great prime ministers.  Aside from royalty, only Nelson, Wellington, Churchill and Mountbatten (who was a sort-of royal) have had the full treatment, a select group that will now include Margaret Thatcher.  She will probably be the last, though that was also said about Churchill.

Looked at in purely domestic terms, then, Thatcher's funeral looks anomalous, provocative and divisive, as well as a security nightmare.  Unlike in 1965 or 1997, the country will not come to a standstill and crowds are unlikely to line the route of the funeral procession ten deep.  There will be protesters.  I particularly dread the prospect of pre-emptive arrests, as happened before 2011's Royal Wedding when people were rounded up by police for dressing as zombies.  Nevertheless, Wednesday's pageantry will be no more than her due, and it will be an occasion rich in history.  As most people acknowledge (including Ed Miliband, in his remarkably touching and well-delivered speech in the Commons yesterday), Margaret Thatcher was for many years a dominating presence not just in British politics but on the international stage.  This is simple fact.  Her achievements, both personal and political, were astonishing; not to mark the passing of such an extraordinary figure with extraordinary ceremonies would be unimaginative, myopic and cheap.

It would also lead to head-scratching abroad.  World leaders and former world leaders will naturally wish to pay their respects one of the outstanding political figures of the second half of the twentieth century.  Reagan, Mitterand and Pope John Paul II - her deceased contemporaries  -  all had lavish funerals as befitted their international status.  Does she not deserve to rank alongside them?  To deny her a grand funeral for reasons of precedent or etiquette would be undemocratic as well as mean-spirited.  It's a shame that neither Attlee nor Lloyd George got a state funeral (most likely because they opted for a private burial instead), but these omissions are not Margaret Thatcher's fault, and they cannot be retrospectively corrected. 

When Princess Diana was killed in 1997, it was initially suggested that she be given a modest private funeral.  As the divorced wife of the Prince of Wales, she was no longer even Her Royal Highness: to grant her a state or royal funeral would be as anomalous, pedants pointed out, as to fly a union jack at half mast from the Buckingham Palace flagpole (a gesture that public opinion demanded and eventually got).  Such unimaginative arguments were soon swept aside not just by the vast upswell of public mourning but also because courtiers and ministers came to grasp the global significance of the event.  The world expected Diana to receive a proper send off and it would have undermined Britain's reputation had she not been given one.  Unlike in 1997, the country is not united in grief; nevertheless, the death of Margaret Thatcher is an event of historic moment that must be publicly marked.

That Thatcher will be the first non-royal woman to be given such honours ought to be a source of feminist pride: not only did she smash the glass ceiling in British politics and in the Conservative party, she will also now smash the glass coffin.  About time too.  One of Oborne's complaints is that honouring Thatcher is a "betrayal of one of the most essential principles of the British state: the division between the executive and ceremonial functions".   But what this really means is that only monarchs and other royal personages are worthy of being celebrated with state pomp: that no mere commoner, however distinguished or outstanding, can hope to aspire to a state funeral.  Is that a good message to send out in what Kettle calls a 21st century democracy?  It seems rather feudal to me. 

Perhaps the answer to the inevitable divisiveness of Margaret Thatcher's state funeral is to have more of them.  It's admittedly hard to see who else currently alive would qualify on the grounds of historic and international status.  Greatness seems to be in fairly short supply at the present time.  Tony Blair, an almost equally dominant and divisive figure when he was in power, sadly pales by comparison, but who knows where his reputation will stand in thirty years' time?  But then the Republic of Ireland gives state funerals to the likes of Charles Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald. 

There are good grounds, too, for recognising contributions from outside politics.  India gave a state funeral to Mother Teresa while last year Mexico held such an event for the novelist Carlos Fuentes.  Brazil honoured Ayrton Senna in this way and will probably do the same for Pele.  I think it would be entirely appropriate for Britain to hold a state funeral for Bobby Charlton or Paul McCartney.

We live in a country that prides itself, rightly or wrongly, on the quality of our public pageantry, and on an ability (shown at last year's Olympics) to put on a good show for the world.  As the funerals of Churchill, Diana and the Queen Mother all showed, the UK knows how to orchestrate the pageantry of death before a global audience.  The funeral of Margaret Thatcher will also be a grand spectacle, watched by the entire world.  And that is something that she would surely have relished - not for any reasons of personal egotism, but for its expression of national pride and dignity.