Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Why A 'Ceremonial' Funeral For Margaret Thatcher Is A Dangerous Idea

by James Burkinshaw

Winston Churchill's funeral, 1965
The death of Margaret Thatcher has resulted in an impassioned and welcome debate about her legacy. Mr Doyle has made the case for Mrs Thatcher’s importance and Mr Lemieux has confirmed her uncommon charisma. However, there seems to be a move by some newspapers and politicians, in the wake of her death, to shut this debate down.

Central to this effort is the imposition of a state funeral upon a nation that is extremely divided about Mrs Thatcher’s legacy (it is being described as a “ceremonial” funeral ,but the trappings of full military honours, the attendance of the Queen herself at the ceremony, etc, make this a state funeral in all but name). However, Margaret Thatcher was never a head of state; the Queen is the head of state, a unifying figure who symbolises the whole nation, and whose death, therefore, will be marked by a state (i.e national) funeral.

The last thing that can be said about Mrs Thatcher is that she was a unifying figure. She was a proudly partisan and unabashedly divisive politician, whose first question about others was usually “Is he/she one of us?”. There is nothing wrong with this at all. On the contrary, politics is necessarily confrontational and competitive; indeed, if you are going to change things you will unavoidably face opposition and even create enemies in the process. However, a state funeral is the last thing appropriate for such a figure.

Like other former Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher deserves a memorial service, attended by her many supporters and admirers, in a prestigious location such as Westminster Abbey. The only Prime Minister to receive a state funeral last century was Winston Churchill. It was in recognition of his leadership during the Second World War, in which he had become the symbol of national unity in the face of the Nazi threat (more so, indeed, than the king, George VI). Although he was a Conservative, his government was not an exclusively Conservative government but one composed of all of the major parties, including Labour and Liberal ministers. It was his role as leader of this government of national unity, defending the entire country against an existential threat, that was being acknowledged, not Churchill’s often controversial political career before and after the war. 
Defenders of the idea of a state/ceremonial service for Margaret Thatcher are arguing that she is owed it for being such a significant political figure. However, there have been other significant Prime Ministers within the last century. Clement Attlee’s Labour government (1945-1951) was arguably even more radical and far-reaching than that of Margaret Thatcher, but he was not granted a state funeral. Nor was the radically effective Liberal Chancellor and Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. Nor should they have been.

Like Attlee and Lloyd George, Thatcher was the leader of a political party serving a particular ideology. Our democratic system allows all political parties to present their vision for the nation every few years so that the electorate may decide which vision to choose. Throughout the last century, power has shifted regularly and peaceably between Conservative, Labour and (more distantly) Liberal governments, reflecting constantly changing attitudes towards economic priorities, health care, education, defence, housing, the environment, religion, sexuality and countless other issues. To assign a state/ceremonial funeral to Mrs Thatcher is to assign her ideology (one opposed by at least half of the nation) a unique status and to enshrine it as “above and beyond politics . . . as an incontestable and uncontested part of our collective inheritance” as Jonathan Freedland argues. In a democracy, where every political idea should be constantly and publicly contested and defended, this is a dangerous precedent.  

Update: An opinion poll released on Thursday, 11th April shows that only 37.6% of the nation (just over one third) support a ceremonial/state funeral for Margaret Thatcher, reinforcing the sense that this is an event being imposed upon an unwilling nation rather than one reflecting the democratic wishes of the British people.

See also:
Conservative commentator Peter OborneThis is a state funeral --- and that's a mistake
Liberal commentator Jonathan Freedlanda funeral designed to elevate Margaret Thatcher above politics


  1. I hate to come to Thatcher's defense, but you shouldn't forget that she completely shifted our economy to become more competitive and free. I fail to see how we could've recovered - not just from the Winter of Discontent - but also from the fact that Britain was sliding off the world stage.

    Although I'd argue that there were many things that she got wrong, we wouldn't have the developed economy that we've had, had Thatcher not become PM in '79. I think, therefore, that Cameron was right to say that she 'saved' our nation. And therefore she deserves to be recognised with a ceremonial funeral. I personally think Atlee and Wilson deserved one too, for their social reforms, but there isn't a great deal we can do about that..

    1. Thanks for your comment, Will.

      I would simply say that my article doesn't question Margaret Thatcher's significance. It makes a very conservative* argument against any Prime Minister receiving a state funeral (with the exception of Churchill -- see below). I am not arguing that Attlee and Lloyd George (or Wilson, as you suggest) deserved a state funeral, but that, like them, Thatcher is not entitled to one, regardless of how significant Thatcher, Attlee and Lloyd George were (I am not sure I would agree Wilson was).

      Churchill indisutably saved the nation in the sense that he led a government of all major political parties that brought the nation together and directed the war effort that defeated an existential threat. Thatcher faced some tough economic problems that some of her policies ameliorated and others exacerbated. To say she "saved" the nation is highly debatable to say the very least, certainly it was not comparable to the situation faced by the country during the Second World War.

      Finally, a state event should be something that brings the nation together. As opinion polls show, there is a very divided response both to the legacy of the Thatcher years and the appropriateness of a state funeral (rather than a Memorial Service like that provided for other Prime Ministers, including Attlee and Lloyd George). No one ideology (Conservative, Labour or Liberal) should be given that kind of official imprimatur over competing ideologies in a democracy such as ours.

      *The article by the (very) conservative journalist Peter Oborne in 'The Daily Telegraph'(which I have linked to at the end of my piece)takes a similarly Burkean line.

  2. James,
    Very good points – well said; I have to agree with you that on this occasion a publicly funded ceremonial funeral is not a wise idea. In this age of austerity with welfare benefits being cut, public sector pay frozen etc, the political class and genuine defenders of her legacy have missed a trick here I believe. How much better and clever it would have been to have either a privately/family funded event, or even better given her public persona as the thrifty housewife, to lay it to one side altogether and have a suitable, largely private funeral followed as you suggest by a much larger memorial service. What would be of better service to the country currently? Unlike other ‘unnecessary’ recent publically funded extravaganzas think Olympics and Diamond Jubilee, there will be no sense of bringing the nation together here or that 'feel good' factor we witnessed so widely in the summer of 2012. It will simply open up old wounds and politicise what should be a dignified send off. Still I guess few politicians past or present ever had/havemuch sense of humility. And they wonder why the public at large are disenchanted with politics and politicians generally….

    Simon Lemieux

    1. Thanks, Simon. I think your contrast of this occasion (which is causing such division and recrimination between people of differing political beliefs) with the unifying and revivifying Olympics and Diamond Jubilee makes it clear why state funerals for Prime Ministers (who are partisan politicians not "mothers/fathers of the nation") are so ill-advised. Any conservative (with a small or large c), in particular, should surely be wary of mixing up long-standing traditions of state occasions and ephemeral, divisive party politics in this way.

      And, as you say, it makes a mockery of the refrain "we can't afford it" or "we're broke" when it comes to other areas of public finance. I like your idea of an event modelled on Margaret's self-image of thriftiness.

  3. Dear Will

    It appears you have stated that you would '..... hate to come to Thatcher's defense' but earlier you posted 'RIP to the country's greatest leader of men since Churchill. ' Would you not agree that this is a conflicting position.


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