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A moment of civility amid the bitterness at Margaret Thatcher's funeral

Thursday, 18 April 2013 - 10:01am IST Updated: Thursday, 18 April 2013 - 10:04am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

It was right that Lady Thatcher's old enemies were there - but final closure may be elusive.

Old Geoffrey Howe, very grey now, was shuffling forward on his stick. Almost a quarter of a century ago, it was his famously bitter Commons speech, calling on "others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long", which precipitated her downfall. Yesterday, though, Lord Howe joined 2,500 other mourners to celebrate his adversary's magnificent life and achievement.

Lord Heseltine has aged far better than Lord Howe. He still has the long stride and upright bearing, while the famous mane of hair which wowed Conservative Party Conference for so many decades remains immaculately in place. But for Margaret Thatcher, Michael Heseltine would almost certainly have become prime minister. With every sinew of his body he opposed a great deal of what she stood for. They were the two commanding generals in the Tory civil war that opened up over Europe in the mid-Eighties, claimed many casualties, and kept the party out of power for 13 years. Yet yesterday Lord Heseltine also joined the congregation to celebrate his adversary's magnificent life and achievement.

There had been speculation that either of her old adversaries might not attend the funeral (and it is true that Lord Heseltine went to the lengths of checking that his invitation had come at the request of the Thatcher family, before accepting).

But it was, of course, completely right and reassuring that they should be there. A deep civility lurks behind the notorious brutality and bitterness of British public discourse. One of the great truths of our public life is that opponents must be honoured and respected. And this was the great issue which hung in the background yesterday. Certainly the deeply moving event brought some kind of closure to the brutal rifts which tore the Conservative Party apart towards the end of the last century. I am less convinced that it brought closure to the national divisions which the Thatcher premiership left in its wake.

It is certainly the case that many of Lady Thatcher's Labour Party opponents were there: Gordon and Sarah Brown, Tony and Cherie Blair, Ed and Justine Miliband. Although it was a pity that Neil Kinnock, who fought and lost one brutal nation-shaping election against her in 1987 was absent - though for understandable and very forgivable reasons. And everyone was good humoured as we queued and political differences were set aside. But there were many Labour supporters in Britain who did not feel they were any way represented at yesterday's great state commemoration of Lady Thatcher's life.

The congregation was obliged to be seated well before the service started and so we watched the progress of Baroness Thatcher's coffin on great television screens in the cathedral. We witnessed the hearse leaving Westminster, where over one extraordinary decade she reshaped British political history. It passed the Foreign Office, whose mandarins she had treated with such lacerating contempt, and drove alongside Downing Street, which she departed in tears in November 1990.

We watched as the coffin was switched to a gun carriage at St Clement Danes, and then moved down Fleet Street, where the British newspaper industry was once congregated. Unlike some of her successors she never sucked up to newspaper editors or political journalists: she knew her mind much too well, and respected the dignity of her great office too much. Our press is now scattered to all parts; but for her courage before the unions, it would scarcely exist at all.

As the cortege made its way towards Paternoster Square, we mourners inside St Paul's noted that the crowds on the side of the road were five deep. Then, as the great west doors of the cathedral were flung open, bringing a bracing blast of cold air, we heard cheers from outside. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh had arrived. They walked very slowly, with immense dignity, down the aisle. Then more cheers. And it was with surprise, and a great deal of pleasure, that we realised the cheers were for Maggie's coffin.

The service itself was simple. In structure, it was identical to any modest Anglican funeral, though with some points of interest. The anthem was from the Brahms Requiem, an interesting choice in the light of her notorious and (to many) poorly judged hostility to the German leadership. Then the Bishop of London gave the sermon.

He faced an enormously difficult and sensitive task. On the one hand, he had to deliver an address appropriate to a great state occasion, one that would present Margaret Thatcher as a great national figure, rather than a purely partisan political one. On the other hand, he had to defend Margaret Thatcher as a Conservative politician. The Bishop deserves sympathy, he had not chosen his predicament, it was thrust upon him by the decision to break with precedent and invite the Queen to a funeral that had much of the panoply of a state event. It was simply impossible to reconcile these two conflicting objectives.

The Bishop ended up making what many will regard as a partisan speech. Having announced that he would steer clear of political dispute, he promptly delivered a very political sermon indeed. He chose to defend the former prime minister against the charge made by the Left that she was a selfish individualist who repudiated the links that bind men and women to their community.

The Bishop unfashionably argued that the roots of Thatcher's political beliefs could be found in the teaching of Jesus in the scriptures about compassion, freedom, honesty and truth. I personally agree with these arguments, and think that no prime minister since Gladstone has acted as directly as Margaret Thatcher on these beliefs, or discussed them in public so naturally or with so little embarrassment.

But the fact remains that many Christians do not accept this and (judging by the letter of the 43 bishops to The Sunday Telegraph three weeks ago in which they warned that children and families would pay the price for the Government's welfare reforms) nor do many church leaders.

Last week, I wrote on these pages of my dismay at the decision to award Lady Thatcher what was, in effect, a state funeral, and protested, in particular, at the presence of the Queen. And I still think it would have been better if Lady Thatcher had been laid to rest at a private funeral.

It has raised so many troubling questions. Now that she has been given a ceremonial send-off, what happens the next time a former prime minister dies? How are we going to decide whether he or she was a great leader and therefore deserving of the kind of grand occasion we saw yesterday? What do we do, for instance, about Tony Blair, who also won three elections? Some believe he was a great figure. Others violently disagree. These decisions are always subjective. In truth, state occasions only work when they can unite the nation.

Neverthless, yesterday was a day to commemorate a very great woman and an elemental force on the British public stage. There was not one person in St Paul's yesterday, or in Britain today, who has not been profoundly shaped by Margaret Thatcher's superlative life. She was a magnificent, indomitable, courageous and splendid woman and I felt profoundly honoured to be present at her final send-off.

 


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