The death of Clement Attlee, arguably the UK’s greatest post-war prime minister, was marked by a simple funeral. According to a report in Time magazine, “all the trappings of power were absent… there were no honour guards or artillery caissons, no press or television, no crush of spectators. Only 150 friends and relatives gathered for a brief Anglican ceremony…”
The death of Margaret Thatcher, a far-more divisive and unpopular prime minister, will be marked today in a very different manner. Much of central London will come to a standstill and millions will watch on television as the coffin is taken through the heart of Whitehall along a route lined by more than 800 military personnel and tens of thousands of mourners. Big Ben will fall silent, a military gun salute will be fired and the whole thing will cost somewhere between eight and £10m pounds ((€9.2m-€11.5m).
As in life, Thatcher has managed to split British public opinion. Even some of her supporters are uneasy about the amount of taxpayers’ money being spent on the funeral of a prime minister who showed such disdain for half the country she led. (One leftwing critic, the filmmaker Ken Loach, suggested privatising the funeral and selling it off to the cheapest bidder. “It’s what she would have wanted,” he wrote.)
Part of the reason for that unease is that this is not how we do things in the UK. Attlee is not the only post-war prime minister whose funeral was a modest affair. Harold Macmillan was buried in Sussex following a private service, there was a similarly simple service for Harold Wilson on the Scilly Isles, while Ted Heath was buried at Salisbury Cathedral. Winston Churchill was given a state funeral but then he did lead the country during the Second World War.
Thatcher’s funeral marks a fundamental change. For an Atlanticist like Thatcher, a politician so pro-American that at times it felt as if she preferred the US to her own country, it is perhaps fitting that her funeral brings to mind those commemorating US presidents. The Americanisation of dead politicians also extends, it seems, to the presidential library. Thatcher’s supporters have announced plans for the Margaret Thatcher Museum and Library, a “monument to her greatness”, according to The Sunday Telegraph.
This will be the new norm. The deaths of John Major, Tony Blair, even Gordon Brown – an unpopular figure in his own party let alone the rest of the country – will have to be marked in the same way.
Nostalgia is not necessarily healthy. Perhaps it would have been good if Attlee’s passing had been commemorated in a more public manner. But for many Britons this all feels a bit wrong. It’s showy and bombastic. She was a political leader, not a head of state. David Cameron tried to dub her the “patriot prime minister”. A true Brit wouldn’t have wanted to be commemorated this way.
Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.