Was Lady Thatcher’s ceremonial funeral a political party statement? Can the Tories freely associate with Thatcher again?
On Wednesday the 10th of April, Downing Street recalled Parliament from Easter recess in order to hold a session of tributes to the former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had passed away the previous Monday morning. Recalling Parliament is a serious action to be taken, usually reserved for the outbreak of a war or a national crisis, such as in the summer of 2011 when Parliament was recalled as rioting broke out across cities in England. Asking Parliament to return early costs the tax payer an untold amount of money, with reports of one MP being flown in from Barbados to pay tributes, and then jetting back to finish off the holiday! The recall of Parliament, which Respect MP George Galloway characteristically condemned as a “state-organised eulogy”, raised the status and profile of Thatcher’s death; the tributes lasted seven and a half hours compared to the forty-five minutes given to Sir Winston Churchill after his death in 1965.
To a certain extent, the lengthy acknowledgment was justified: Thatcher was our first and only female Prime Minister, reclaiming the Falklands after the invasion of the Argentinian junta and serving longer than any PM in 150 years. However, the continued prominence of Thatcher’s death – including her unusually ostentatious funeral – clearly exposes the partisan nature of Downing’s reaction to the passing of this eminent politician.
The state funeral-in-all-but-name was held on Wednesday the 17th of April, meaning that PM Question Time, the weekly session in which David Cameron has to face a grilling from opposition members of Parliament, had to be cancelled. Or did it have to be? In a motion the evening prior to the funeral, a handful of opposition MPs dared to oppose the cancellation of this vital part of our democracy – a motion which lost 13 votes to an overwhelming 245. It seems remarkable that debate should be silenced for a day, despite the fact that arrangements could have been made so that the PMQT did not clash with Lady Thatcher’s funeral. It begins to make sense, however, when one realises that David Cameron gets another week out of the hot-seat, not having faced opposition MPs since the 20th of March due to the recess. It will now be another week before MPs get their change to challenge the government on unpopular policies such as ‘the bedroom tax’ and the changes to benefit payments which came into effect at the start of the month. We have a right to be concerned when debate is stifled in such a way and it is worrying to think that only 13 MPs challenged the cancellation of an enormously potent and necessary weekly debate. Voting against the cancellation was Labour veteran Dennis Skinner, who told the House, “When I heard about the chain of events – it seemed to grow like topseed – first of all there was going to be some sort of ceremonial funeral, and then the next thing you (Mr. Speaker) tell us that the chimes of Big Ben are going to stop and then we hear about the fact that we are going to abandon Prime Minister’s question time, I mean, what’s it all about?”
As the hearse left the crypt chapel of St. Mary Undercroft at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Big Ben was silenced in honour. Still greater an honour was the attendance of the Queen accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, who oversaw the ceremonial military honours held at the funeral. The presence of the Monarch and military honours sparked reports of concern from Buckingham Palace, which worried that military involvement with the funeral might be inappropriate, since it is only the Monarchy and not politicians who are associated with the ceremonial aspect of the military. The Queen has not attended the funeral of an ex-Prime Minister since Churchill’s, and her attendance at Thatcher’s therefore suggests that they were equally important to the nation’s history. Or something to that effect.
We British like our rules and conventions and we don’t like the fuss of changing them for anyone. These breaks from convention and special arrangements are highly symbolic, conveying the highest regard and the deepest respect for the departed PM. The Queen’s attendance is the most significant — in acknowledging the death of a politician in this way she acts subordinately, an honour previously bestowed only upon Sir Winston Churchill.
The Conservatives will be hoping that this highly extravagant commemoration of Thatcher will lead much of the public, especially those too young to have lived under Thatcher, to venerate her like we do Sir Winston. I am sure David Cameron is hoping that while the focus is on Thatcher, voters will be reminded of the tough economic decisions she took for the country, and their – albeit somewhat short-lived – benefit. Perhaps they might even positively associate the traditional Thatcherite approach with the way his government is tackling the national deficit?
The rhetoric of the Coalition government has been about “supporting those who want to work hard and get on”, with the Chancellor delivering a budget in April for a so-called “Aspiration Nation.” The severe public spending cuts and all attempts to reduce the national deficit are styled as “cleaning up Labour’s mess” and fixing a “Broken Britain.” It’s not a stretch of the imagination to link these attitudes with similar rhetoric in the Thatcher years. Almost three decades ago, Thatcher’s economic policy inspired fawning responses among Conservatives: “She saved the country from socialism!” “She supported the aspiring!” “She gave working people a chance to buy their council houses, and gave the unemployed reason to ‘Get on your bike!’”
In the coming weeks the Conservatives might just want to capitalize on the extraordinary state endorsement of Margaret Thatcher and actively draw a line of comparison between the current economic situation and the one facing Thatcher in 1979; basically, an economy in tatters. The Coalition continues to press ahead with austerity measures and will want to emulate the Thatcher’s non-negotiable stance on the plan for the economy, captured perfectly by the famous descriptor “the Lady’s not for turning.”
On the morning of Lady Thatcher’s funeral Cameron told us that “we are all Thatcherites now.” While Margaret Thatcher remains hugely popular among grassroots Conservatives, these are just the sort of people Cameron has lost touch with. The parliamentary recall, the tributes, the muffling of Big Ben, the ceremonial funeral, the cancellation of PMQT, the attendance of Her Majesty the Queen were enormous acts of commemoration, which Cameron was highly involved in planning. The triumphalism of the entire week might have him hoping he has, or will be able, to reconnect with core voters and that the ceremonial funeral has set the official line on Thatcher’s legacy. Cameron hopes that the public will begin to recognise the same boldness in his attempt to cut the deficit that was characteristic of the legendary Margaret Thatcher: defiance in the face of criticism, believing, as she did, that like the necessary dose of Victorian medicine, the treatment may be nasty but the results will prove wholesome.