It was reported today that the government had decided to honour Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990, with a state funeral when she dies (she is 82 and has had a number of health scares). Such funerals are normally reserved for kings and queens, with four others (Nelson and Wellington, both leading military leaders in the Napoleonic wars, and prime ministers Palmerstone and Gladstone) receiving them in the 19th century and Winston Churchill getting one in the 20th. A state funeral is, of course, a grand affair, conducted at state expense, and the cost is expected to run into millions. Clearly, this is going to be controversial.
They were discussing the idea on the Vanessa Feltz show this morning, and they had a pro-Thatcher contribution from Peter Oborne, now a columnist in the Daily Mail although he was formerly political editor of the Spectator. I knew my affections for Oborne, which were sown last week with his Dispatches programme last week, couldn’t last; they were dramatically ended this morning when the guy came out with a litany of mindless stereotypes about the opponents of Thatcher; they were just complacent old Tories and Guardian columnists living in Hampstead, middle-class people who liked the working class as long as they stayed in their place. The real working class loved Thatcher, because she brought them prosperity and wealth they had never known before.
Well, a lot of people were far more put out by Thatcher’s policies than old Tories or Hampstead liberals - the homeless people in London’s “cardboard city”, for example, and the three million unemployed, and those who lost out when the coal and steel industries were closed. That the deadlock with the unions in the various nationalised industries had to be overcome is not in doubt; the result of Thatcher’s policies is not that these industries have gone from strength to strength and are the equal of Mercedes-Benz or any other major European company, but that they are overwhelmingly in foreign hands if they have even remained open, with one British manufacturing company departing for the Far East after another. Perhaps this latter issue has as much to do with “liberalising” far eastern former communist economies turning into sweatshop havens as with Thatcherism, but the fact remains that the 1980s were the beginning of a decline of British industry, not a revitalising.
This is not to say that nobody benefited from some of her policies; Julian Baggini noted in his book Welcome to Everytown, in which he stayed in a district of Yorkshire which included former mining areas because its people had the most average tastes and habits, that many of those living in the mining areas were nowadays glad that the mining had ended, and that the jobs available to them today have far better conditions, although some in one of the towns he mentioned (Maltby) never worked again. For my part, I agree that defeating the Argentinian attempt to seize the Falkland Islands was justified (even if the Argentinians had a better claim to it than the UK, the actual invasion was an attempt by the notoriously brutal military junta to strenghten its legitimacy, and its defeat led directly to the end of that régime), but it is not the same as holding off Hitler from Great Britain. And neither is breaking the unions and driving British industry into the ground.
Of course, there is a possible compromise here: there are plenty of very wealthy people who could afford to pay for a state funeral for Thatcher out of their own pocket, and would. Let them, if they want one. It is not appropriate for the public to have to pay for a state funeral for such a bitterly divisive figure as Thatcher.
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