Sat, Apr 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The battle for Thatcher’s legacy

The politicized debate about how to remember former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is a contest over Britain’s present and future

By Jonathan Freedland  /  The Guardian, LONDON

If you thought the British government and Buckingham Palace were safely out of the hands of “the left,” you’d be wrong. Those institutions, insisted Heffer, have been cowed by fear of “the left” into denying Thatcher her due.

This attack on the government from the right has obscured the more remarkable truth. Which is that Buckingham Palace has indeed broken with recent precedent in granting Thatcher the treatment it gave none of her postwar predecessors. She will get full military honors, on a par with the Queen Mother. In eloquent confirmation of the fact that the institutions of the state are to be deployed in the service of a party political figure, the UK’s Ministry of Defence’s codename for the army’s ceremonial work next week is Operation True Blue. Queen Elizabeth II herself — who stayed away from the funerals of Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Heath, Callaghan and her reputed favorite, Wilson — will be among the mourners.

The only reason it will not be called a state funeral is that an event of that status requires a vote of parliament, in order to disburse public money. Palace and government have clearly decided that such a debate of MPs — with the likely voicing of dissent — is best avoided, the better to maintain the illusion that the funeral itself will project: that Thatcher’s cherished place in collective memory is now a matter of consensus. As the Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt puts it, by their decision “the palace is sanctioning her beatification.”

All of this recalls the send-off granted to Thatcher’s beloved ally across the water, Ronald Reagan. Before his funeral in 2004 he was still an object of controversy, his small state, free-market crusade an ongoing matter of furious debate. However, by the end of six days of solemn devotions and ceremony, a kind of sorcery had been performed. Reagan was no longer the Republican president who had enraged his domestic opponents but a national icon, fit to be mentioned alongside Roosevelt and Kennedy, if not Washington and Lincoln. Not content that the national airport in the capital was renamed Reagan, his followers set about renaming roads and public buildings after him, an effort which continues to this day.

“He was hailed as a secular saint,” says Jonathan Martin, a reporter for Politico. After his death the focus became not his ideological program but “his optimism, smile and the way he exuded a mom-and-apple-pie American spirit,” Martin says. The end result was to reforge Reagan into “an apolitical marble man,” a national monument rather than political flesh and blood.

Nearly a decade later, something similar seems to be at work now with Reagan’s former dance partner. Just as the Reagan eulogies omitted his sacking of 11,000 air traffic controllers and fostering of a greed-is-good culture, so today’s partisan obituarists for Thatcher have pushed to the edges the devastated mining pit villages or the hollowing out of the country’s industrial base, focusing instead on the easier, feelgood achievements — restoring national confidence, putting the great back into Great Britain and the like. If Thatcher is remembered that way, then why shouldn’t she be seen as an unambiguous national treasure?

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