According to reports, plans are being made for Margaret Thatcher to be honoured with a state funeral in the event of her death. But is Britain’s first female Prime Minister worthy of the honour?
YES, says Oliver Johnstone
Friends, miners, anarchists – I am a proud and unshakeable Thactherite. Alas it would not surprise you, then, that I see it as my duty to defend the unarguable case that Lady Thatcher is entitled to the honour of a state funeral when she dies. This argument ought not be about the issue of whether or not the Thatcher premiership was a benign era for Britain, but rather it should focus on the politically neutral significance of the Iron Lady’s time in office.
First of all then we must ask ourselves – why have we honoured leaders with state funerals in the past? The most notable such occasion in recent history is naturally that of Winston Churchill in 1965, the honour bestowed upon him for the manner in which he led and delivered victory for Britain in the Second World War. The same can be said of other Prime Ministers such as William Pitt, or the Duke of Wellington for his status as a national war hero prior to becoming First Lord of the Treasury.
How is this relevant to the premiership of a woman who led the country through armed conflict for barely a year? The answer lies in our interpretation of notions of victory in battle, leadership through times of national struggle and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Whilst Lady Thatcher never experienced military struggle on a scale compare to Churchill, she experienced an unprecedented combination of domestic, military and personal challenges that entitle us to place her on a par with Churchill, in terms of her leadership through such times.
The challenge to Mrs. Thatcher on the domestic front was abundantly clear from the day that she first stood outside Downing Street in 1979 and recited Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer. Not even the most intellectually gifted left-wing academic could argue that the economic situation in 1979 was anything short of dire. Unions on strike, power blackouts on a daily basis, rubbish piled up in the streets, bodies left unburied, the IMF threatening to intervene, a three-day working week, spiralling inflation, all bore down on the incoming government.
Upon her leaving office in 1990, she had come through these challenges and modernised the British economy, curbed trade union power, expanded the economic franchise of property and share ownership to the masses and had opened up Britain to entrepreneurialism and enterprise. Lady Thatcher succeeded, at least, in rescuing the British economy from almost certain ruin in the late Seventies.
Where Churchill had gallantly led the British defensive of our island against the forces of Nazism before her, Lady Thatcher led the defence of proud British citizens in the Falkland Islands against the aggression of a malicious military dictatorship in Argentina. It is important to remember that the Falkland’s War was not the neo-conservative project of democratising rogue states that we might be used to today, but actually the defence of the right to self-determination for the Falkland Islanders. Whilst the scale is not comparable, the military campaigns of Lady Thatcher and Winston Churchill clearly show that they both bravely stood in defiance of anti-democratic, oppressive regimes and defended their people, even when the odds – and indeed, popular opinion – were against them.
Finally, one has to acknowledge the personal challenges faced by Margaret Thatcher during her career in public life. As a grocer’s daughter and indeed as a strong confident woman from Lincolnshire, she attracted a great deal of hostility and suspicion from the established male political class. Despite all odds she overcame these prejudices and became Britain’s first female Prime Minister and its longest serving in modern times. She has been threatened with attempted assassination in Brighton in 1984 and seen her close friends Ian Gow and Airey Neave brutally murdered by the IRA.
It is important to remember that politicians are human. Lady Thatcher is, as is becoming ever clearer, only human. To sacrifice one’s life, one’s friends and indeed one’s happiness to overcome the challenges one faces as a public servant and the challenges the country itself faces, is a sign of a great human. It should be our cause as a strong, free nation to celebrate the lives of great humans.
NO, says Andrew Williams
In the interests of transparency and declared partiality, allow me to lay my cards on the table from the outset – I am anything but a Thatcherite. Over the course of her eleven year premiership, Thatcher’s ferocious programme of economic restructuring sowed the seeds of a society which was, by 1993, more unequal than at any time since records began. Whilst unemployment had climbed to 1.4 million at the height of the Winter of Discontent, it had more than doubled within a year of Thatcher taking office. By 1983, 3.3 million British people were unemployed, leaving more people out of work than at any time since the Great Depression.
Ideologically, she was more dogmatic than the most ardent socialist. Her fixation with profit, espousal of rampant individualism and lack of compassion for the least well-off offend every nerve and sinew of my being. This is, as a postscript, the woman who made the ludicrous proclamation “there is no such thing as society”; rubbed shoulders with brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, only to denounce Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”; and who ordered the sinking of the Belgrano, killing 323 people.
However, my vehement objection to Thatcherism can hardly be put forward as a reason to deny the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th Century a state funeral. After all, for every Tony Benn, there is a Norman Tebbit; she is revered and reviled in equal measure. It is precisely for this reason that we should not be honouring Mrs Thatcher with a state funeral. The honour of a state funeral is tacit acknowledgement that the recipient is a figure to be universally revered; on the contrary, Thatcher is far from the subject of unanimous acclaim. That she played an enormous part in shaping the trajectory of this country is undeniable, but whether she sparked a sea change for better or for worse is far less clear.
In the United States, tradition dictates that every single President is honoured with a state funeral upon their passing, but that is not the case in our Prime Ministerial system. Indeed, the state funeral is an almost unique honour amongst politicians, with Winston Churchill the only Prime Minister to receive one in the 20th Century.
This was a unique honour in a unique set of circumstances – after all, Churchill led us to victory in the Second World War, an unprecedented conflict which safeguarded our democracy from the threat of Nazism. Whilst the Thatcher government also encountered military conflict in the shape of the Falkland’s War, the two are clearly incomparable. This was a war which lasted just six months, and consisting of a direct threat to a handful of British citizens living on the other side of the world. Lest we forget that her intervention was, at least partially, politically motivated; had it not been for the Falkland’s, a previously unpopular Prime Minister would have been out on her electoral ear by 1983.
Some have put forward Thatcher’s record of electoral success as possible justification for her state funeral. Certainly, this is not an achievement to be sniffed at. Whatever you think of her policies, three successive general election victories is a quite remarkable feat. But this is clearly not enough to consider her deserving of the honour. After all, Tony Blair won three consecutive general elections in altogether different circumstances, and probably would have served more time than Thatcher in office were it not for Gordon Brown banging angrily on his door to tell him “time up”. Would anyone plausibly suggest that Blair be given a state funeral? I somewhat doubt it.
This issue is a simple question of objectivity and consistency. It is objectively clear that Baroness Thatcher is one of the most divisive figures in British political history. A state funeral is an honour which should only conferred on figures universally considered worthy of greatness. To give Mrs Thatcher such a lavish public send-off would be an affront to the millions left jobless in mining towns across Wales and the north of England, to those whose small businesses folded under the strain of monetarism – or, indeed, to anyone with a social conscience.