By the time you read this, Margaret Thatcher’s funeral will either be under way or will already have taken place. Reading through the order of service I was taken vividly back to my days as an Anglican clergyman, for I have in my time conducted many funerals using precisely the words used today to lay Mrs Thatcher to rest. The language of the Book of Common Prayer (from which the service is taken) is the only thing I miss about the Church of England. I have never had one second’s regret about becoming a Catholic: it is a daily joy, which never fades or falters. But I do miss the language (which is not, in English, the Church’s strongest suit). At the moment of death, the BCP is at its most powerful:
… like as a father pitieth his own children : even so is the Lord merciful unto them that fear him.
For he knoweth whereof we are made : he remembereth that we are but dust.
The days of man are but as grass : for he flourisheth as a flower of the field.
For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone : and the place thereof shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the Lord endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear him : and his righteousness upon children’s children…
Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, the important part (forget the soldiers) is just like anyone else’s: in death, we are all equal before God. That is why the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Rev Dr David Ison, who is conducting today’s service, told the Telegraph last night that would-be demonstrators should “ask themselves searching questions” about whether it was “appropriate” to protest at another person’s funeral. He said that, even though they might have disagreed deeply with the policies of Lady Thatcher’s government, a funeral was “about respecting somebody else’s humanity”. He acknowledged, however that the event would be seen as “divisive”.
The question is why? Because she was divisive? The fact is that the divisions in our political life during her term of office were caused as much or more by those who opposed her: she was divisive only because she realised that the political realities she correctly perceived allowed of no compromise. The big question when she became Prime Minister was quite simple, and because of her almost inconceivable today: would the unions allow her to govern? The Callaghan government (and its predecessors) had persistently tried to placate the unions: the result had been disaster. She was determined to free the country from the domination of the union bosses. That she succeeded triumphantly is one of the things for which we all (except for a few extreme left-wingers), if we are honest, must be profoundly grateful: and Labour has not and will not attempt to reverse what she did.
The list of those who have delivered post-mortem attacks on Margaret Thatcher is almost entirely drawn from those to whom, a generation ago, she either denied power, or stripped away such power (sometimes considerable) as they already possessed: chief among the latter was Arthur Scargill, who I note has declined to say anything at all in the wake of his great enemy’s death: the explanation for this is probably that he is well aware that there is probably to this day no public figure in England more unpopular than he is.
A few former miners’ leaders have joined in the attacks, of course; but nobody has paid any attention to them. Everyone knows, not only that the NUM had to be beaten because it was trying to bring down a democratically elected government, but also, that under any government, of right or left, most of the pits would long ago have been closed, and that sadly but inevitably, mining communities would in any case have lost what it was that gave them cohesion and meaning.
A few of those younger politicians who followed in the wake of those she fought and defeated, of course, also attacked her, politicians who were not there at the time, like Diane Abbott, who delivered a measured and mostly reasonably dignified condemnation in the Commons debate last week (shortly before Glenda Jackson’s utterly disgusting performance). But mostly, the condemnations have come from those to whom she not only denied power, but who have shown by their recent behaviour how utterly unfit for power they always were.
Nobody, surely, has shown this more shamefully than Neil Kinnock, who has found an excuse not to be present in St Paul’s today. His attack: “She was a person who couldn’t see, or didn’t want to see the unfairness and disadvantaging consequences of the application of what she thought to be a renewing ideology. Thatcherism was a personality presented through a particular vocabulary and set of attitudes which generally took a pride in insularity” (they don’t think that in Eastern Europe), “being domineering and a short-termism in its approach to management and the conduct of political affairs….”, and on and on and on) brought back vividly to my memory his triumphalist behaviour at a Labour party rally in Sheffield, shortly before the 1992 election, when Labour was comfortably ahead in the polls: he was already celebrating victory, clearly really believing that he was on his way to number 10 Downing street.
Well, Mrs Thatcher was gone by then: but the contrast between them could not have been clearer: it was the contrast between her real political substance and the undignified ranting pigmy who thought himself worthy to stand in her shoes. The nation shuddered at the prospect; and to the astonishment of the chattering classes the electorate decided it preferred Mrs Thatcher’s choice as her successor, the modest and decent John Major (who among other things went on to preside over an economic revival—for which Gordon Brown took the credit—and who kept us out of the Euro). Kinnock, of course, spent the next 10 years lucratively making a career as a leading Eurocrat; had he been Prime Minister, he would have taken us straight into the euro, and by now we would be bankrupt rather than merely struggling.
But enough of all that. Margaret Thatcher’s actions in this life are completed, for good or for ill. And what we think of her now is as nothing, compared with the vast realities of life and death her funeral service evokes for her, as it has for so many over the centuries, realities which we also, every one of us, must one day face ourselves:
“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live…. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased.…
“Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, shut not up thy merciful eyes to our prayers: but spare us Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from thee.”
There is only one thing missing in the service: nowhere, except by implication, is there any direct prayer for the soul of the departed. That is a work of God that falls to Catholics; and whatever we thought of Margaret Thatcher during her life we must surely all pray now: Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.