British Prime Minister David Cameron and the leader of the opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, on Wednesday battled to ward off a growing risk that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s death will polarize, and even damage, the nation by both paying generous tribute to her belief in political ideas and her understanding that the British economy of the 1970s needed to change.
In a deft and hazardous speech at the start of an extraordinary seven hours of often gushing praise and affectionate anecdote, Miliband managed to show his respect for her leadership, including over the Falklands, climate change and the Soviet Union, and yet frankly set out his manifold disagreements over policy and values, pointing out that many communities were left feeling angry and abandoned by her premiership.
Cameron, faced by a section on his own backbenches still hankering after her conviction politics, lauded the way she rejected the pessimism that he said was gripping the country in the 1970s.
However, he was carefully bipartisan, not solely blaming the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governments for this defeatism, but instead asserting: “Successive governments had failed to deal with what was beginning to be called the British disease: appalling industrial relations, poor productivity and persistently high inflation.”
Barely 100 out of the 256 Labour MPs attended the day of praise, and some, notably Glenda Jackson, broke with the tone set by Miliband, accusing Thatcherism of wreaking over a decade “the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country, upon my constituency and my constituents.”
Thatcherism transformed into virtues “the vices of greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees,” she said.
“The first prime minister of female gender, OK. But a woman? Not on my terms,” Jackson said.
Her remarks drew Tory protests and demands that the Speaker rule her remarks out of order.
Many Labour MPs remain furious that her death is being turned into a near state military funeral when most other former prime ministers were not afforded such pomp and ceremony.
Labour figures that stayed away from parliament included the former leader Lord Kinnock, the former deputy leader Lord Hattersley and former prime minister Gordon Brown. It was notable that younger Labour MPs with northern constituencies absented themselves.
It also emerged that staging a day of tributes before the funeral and requiring an expensive recall of parliament was Cameron’s idea and involved him in a lengthy wrangle with the Speaker’s Office. Speaker John Bercow felt there was no need to recall parliament, and was taken aback by the request. His office thought the tributes could be paid on Monday in line with precedent for previous deaths of party leaders.
At one point, Cameron had to enlist the support of Miliband to overcome the opposition, and Labour sources said they felt faced with a fait accompli and did not want to risk being seen as failing to show Thatcher due respect.
In a further sign of the tensions over the extent to which a party political death may be recast as a state occasion, diplomats were left enraged and confused after receiving instructions that they must wear mourning clothes for the funeral, even though it is not a state occasion.
The British Foreign Office confirmed the instructions had been issued on Tuesday night, but said they were a mistake, adding that they would be withdrawn.
Miliband drew praise from Tory MPs and right-wing commentators for a speech that navigated the rapids of describing a figure of such notoriety on the left so soon after death.
He praised her by saying: “She was right to understand the sense of aspiration felt by people across the country, and she was right to recognize that our economy needed to change.”
“In foreign policy, she was right to defend the Falklands and bravely reach out to new leadership in the Soviet Union, and something often forgotten is that she was the first political leader in any major country to warn of the dangers of climate change, long before anyone thought of hugging a husky,” he said.
However, he added: “It would be dishonest and not in keeping with the principles that Margaret Thatcher stood for not to be open with the House, even on this day, about the strong opinions and deep divisions there were, and are, over what she did.”