After a life in politics, now comes the politics of death. Underneath the protestations of decorum, the insistence that now is not the time for such things, that our thoughts should only be of condolence and tribute, something intensely political is underway: a society wrestling over the memory of its most towering recent figure. And make no mistake, this debate over how to remember former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher — whether on the streets, on Twitter or at next Wednesday’s funeral — is not about the past. It is a contest over Britain’s present and future.
Politics infuses every aspect of it. In the absence of a visible family — her son and daughter reportedly returned to the country on Tuesday — and with the role of deathbed confidant at central London’s Ritz hotel, where Thatcher died, taken by her former foreign policy adviser Charles Powell, this has felt like a public occasion from the start. The politics has hardly seemed an intrusion. Indeed, Lord Powell said on Tuesday that “the Lady” would have been rather disappointed if there had not been demonstrations celebrating her death. Only too willing to oblige, the organizers of street parties and “happenings” in Brixton, southwest London, or Glasgow vented their long-held urge to dance on the former prime minister’s grave. Like-minded activists are now campaigning to make a chart hit of Judy Garland’s Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead.
However, the more serious, if subtler, effort is happening on the other side. The wider Tory (Conservative Party) tribe seems determined to use the nine-day limbo between her passing and her funeral to define Thatcher in death in a way that would have seemed impossible, if not outright absurd, in life: as above and beyond politics, as a national rather than partisan figure, as an incontestable and uncontested part of the UK’s collective inheritance.
The Tory papers have led the charge, both the London-based the Mail and the Telegraph devoting their front pages to the same, semi-regal portrait: backlit, bestowing on the golden visage of the onetime leader a kind of halo. Page after page lavished praise on this latter-day Gloriana, accompanied by images of her as if in battle, riding in that tank, urging us to “rejoice!” and dancing with her fellow Cold War warrior, former US president Ronald Reagan.
On the front of the Mail, the words: “The woman who saved Britain.” Inside, a declaration that she belongs in the pantheon of Britain’s greatest ever leaders, alongside Pitt the Younger, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George and Churchill. Search for a picture of, say, the miners’ strike, and you search in vain.
The London-based Mail is not content to leave its intentions implicit. It has mounted a campaign for a full state funeral for Thatcher, granting her parity with Churchill. Such an occasion would ensure Thatcher’s transformation is complete, magically recasting the woman who once divided the nation into a consensual figure from an undisputed past — no more controversial than Pitt or Churchill.
The Mail’s in-house firebreather, journalist Simon Heffer, has not been placated by the British government’s reassurance that the ceremony will be “all but” a state funeral. “‘All but’: those two words harbour the resentment of the left at her unquestioned triumph as a leader, visionary and statesman,” Heffer wrote. “The left will not forgive her for proving them wrong.”