As an American conservative student studying abroad in London, I felt it was almost a duty to attend the funeral of Baroness Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday. Not only because it was only the second time a Prime Minister has been accorded a funeral on such a grand scale in the last century (the first being Winston Churchill), but also because Mrs. Thatcher was one of the greatest free market advocates the Western world has seen. She was an inspiration to British and American conservatives alike, whether it was her close alliance with President Reagan that, along with the Blessed Pope John Paul II, destroyed Soviet communism once and for all, or for her aggressive approach to save Britain from decades of failed socialist economics, which was the reason for my admiration of her legacy.
Her funeral was attended by thousands of people from multiple nations, with a few left-wing protesters still mad that the Clement Attlee socialist experiment was turned back (with the exception of the NHS, though it has seen some small-scale privatization), and had dignitaries from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Dick Cheney to Henry Kissinger attending. Add in a warm spring day, and it wasn’t so much a day to mourn her passing, but to celebrate her life and her achievements.
I got to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the site of the funeral and the spiritual home of London, at roughly 9:30 AM. Leaving from my apartment in East London, I braved the always congested rush hour Underground (more congested today due to the road closings for the funeral) and made my way to St. Paul’s. As expected, there were metal detectors at every passage to the cathedral, though the main street was reserved for those with invitations to the funeral inside. I found a man in the same predicament as I was, an active Conservative Party member, and we soon found our way to the crowds huddled around the main entrance to St. Paul’s. Though the guests weren’t supposed to show up until 10, and the hearse wouldn’t be there until 10:30, the crowd was already five rows deep, making my vantage point difficult.
Soon though, the procession arrived. First it was a military band playing various funeral marches by Beethoven and Chopin. Then it was the Chelsea Pensioners, a cadre of retired military officials who live at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where they live in total comfort and care. This is where Mrs. Thatcher’s ashes are to be laid, as it was her favorite charity. Accompanying them were hundreds of members from the various branches of the British military, as well as the Horse Guard Regiment, and the Palace Guards. After the bells of St. Paul’s rang, the Queen, and her husband, Phillip the Duke of Edinburgh, arrived to the military band playing “God Save the Queen”, with the crowd singing the words.
Lastly, with a muffled ringing of the bells, on a gun carriage, came the casket containing Mrs. Thatcher. The crowd went silent as many bowed their heads in respect, while others snapped photographs. I couldn’t get a clear view, but I did get some photos of the casket being carried up the steps into the rotunda. Soon, the whole crowd cheered as it was making its way up the steps, after the 75-minute journey from Westminster Abbey, thousands of people cheering the last journey of a woman who some consider the greatest post-war Prime Minister, if not one of the greatest Prime Ministers ever.
After all, she is being accorded an honor that only Churchill received, the man who turned back the Nazis in World War II. The London Evening Standard’s Dominic Sandbrook even compared the outpouring of respect and affection to the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852, which was attended by millions. Not bad company to be in if you are a British politician.
The funeral lasted for roughly an hour or so, though there were no televisions in the plaza for the spectators to see what was happening inside the rotunda (it was shown live and on repeats on most major news channels). During that time, I milled around talking to the folks around me, who ranged from the libertarian university students who venerated Mrs. Thatcher’s commitment to the philosophy of free markets and personal responsibility, to adults who believed Britain has been in decline since Thatcher left in 1990. It got heated though, with two women saying that Britain was weakened because it lets in too many immigrants and it was destroying the “pure English race”, while the university students contested that Britain’s greatest strength was its diversity, and that there is no such thing as “pure English” (which apparently means going back to Anglo-Saxon heritage, though at some point the argument went back to the days of Roman Britain). Worried that a fight was going to break out as accusations of racism and treason were bandied around, it was broken up by the committee man that I met up with, lest the day be marred by a senseless nationalistic debate.
The bells chimed at roughly 11:45 AM, and the crowds, once again, became silent as the casket was walked down the steps. Here though, signs came out that people brought with them, mostly pro-Thatcher signs like these:
Though there was one man who, quite respectfully, protested the cost of the funeral and held his sign up.
The funeral costs were a bone of contention for days, with the total cost estimated to be £10 million (roughly $15.3 million). It was a fair point to make to be honest. Had this been in America, I’d expect some fiscal conservatives to raise the same alarms, especially when both America and Britain are facing down economies requiring government spending cuts. It can put into a broader scope when one considers that the Queen Mother’s funeral a decade ago was only £8.5 million (roughly $13 million), and she was a member of the Royal family during a time of relative prosperity. Many felt that Mrs. Thatcher was worth it, and most of the money is covered by private benefactors. Some of the costs include the payments the military officers receive per day regardless of duty, so the totals are a bit skewed.
After another round of applause and cheers from the throngs of Thatcher supporters occurred as the casket was loaded onto a hearse and taken to a private ceremony for members of her family, where she will be cremated and be taking to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. By 1:00, the whole thing was over, and the crowds dispersed to private gatherings at pubs, or went back to work.
As I was leaving, I noticed that a small beam of sunlight hit the giant dome of St. Paul’s, and a patch of blue sky appeared overhead amidst the clouds that were around all morning. To me, it wasn’t just a break in the clouds. It was the Iron Lady herself smiling down upon those who came to say goodbye.
Goodbye Maggie. And Thank You for being the Iron Lady the world so desperately needed.