Britain bids farewell to Thatcher's funeral, debates her controversial legacy

Even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's funeral was the subject of hot debate. The conservative powerhouse was loved and reviled by Britons.

David Crump/Pool/Reuters
The coffin of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, draped in the Union Flag, is carried on a gun carriage drawn by the King's Troop Royal Artillery during her funeral procession in London today.

With the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher today, Britain concludes more than a week of commemoration for the controversial leader, who died April 8.

Thousands gathered in central London to witness the solemn procession of Mrs. Thatcher’s casket to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where 2,300 mourners packed into the historic church to pay tribute to the country’s first female prime minister. Among them were Queen Elizabeth II and a slate of conservative heavyweights, including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the last white president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk

A “storm of conflicting opinions centers on the Mrs. Thatcher who became a symbolic figure – even an ‘ism,’” said London Bishop Richard Chartres in an address at the ceremony. “Today the remains of the real Margaret Hilda Thatcher are here at her funeral service. Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.”

If Thatcher’s decline and death were ordinary, however, her life was anything but. And though the contents of her legacy have been the subject of raucous debate over the last week, few dispute a central fact: her impact on Britain was colossal.

“Here we are – more than 20 years after she was in office, a third of a century after she became prime minister – and talking about her role in our lives,” Oxford historian Robert Saunders told the Monitor last week.

As that piece noted,

The country she left behind when forced from office in 1990 was very different from the one she inherited when her Conservative party won power on the back of the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979.

Rejecting the political consensus politics of postwar Britain, she ushered in a more combative era based on tighter monetarist policies, privatization of inefficient nationalized industries, individual shareholding, and a curbing of the power of trade unions, which had dominated politics. 

Indeed, if conservatives have historically been known for guarding the boundaries of the status quo, Thatcher blazed a new trail: the conservative-as-insurgent, with a wide vision for societal transformation. 

And the debate over what, exactly, that vision has meant for the modern world extends far beyond Britain proper. 

In Europe, for instance, Thatcher is often remembered for her hearty rejection of the European Commission’s desire to transform the European Parliament into the continent’s primary democratic institution. As she declared unequivocally in 1990, “No, no, no!”

But in many ways, experts noted to the Monitor, the current European Union falls in lockstep with Thatcher’s own vision – one in which the nation-state remained the primary base of both political power and identity.

Her legacy for Britain’s female politicians is equally mixed.

In 11 years as prime minister between 1979 and 1990, she failed to promote any women members of Parliament to her cabinet – the government's senior ministers – rejecting positive discrimination and complaining about a lack of talent in the female ranks….

However, while Mrs. Thatcher was reluctant to promote women when in the hot seat, she was not shy about promoting advantages of female leadership when she was seeking election. In 1975, when battling for the Tory leadership she famously said, "I've got a woman's ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it."

That tenacity earned her the begrudging respect of at least some feminists, but it won her few friends in Argentina, where she ordered war to protect the British-administered Falkland Islands in 1982, and Northern Ireland, which she insisted was “as British as Finchley,” referring to her home district in London.

Even Thatcher’s funeral itself was a flashpoint in the controversy over Thatcher’s status, with critics noting its $15 million cost, borne by the public, and her supporters pushing for an even grander ceremony.

The debate mirrored Thatcher herself: controversial, forceful, and in the end, she mostly got her way.  

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