Plans to mark the funeral of Baroness Thatcher with approved and “guerilla” protests along the route of the ceremonial procession gathered pace yesterday as it was announced that the bells of Big Ben will be silenced in her honour.
More than 300 people have already signed up to turn their backs on the former Prime Minister’s Union flag-draped coffin as it is marches past on a gun carriage close to the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand on Wednesday morning en route to St Paul’s Cathedral.
Scotland Yard refused to confirm claims from organisers that the symbolic protest has been given formal permission to proceed by officers planning the substantial security operation accompanying the funeral, which will involve up to 4,000 officers.
The discord between protesters - who have vowed to create as much noise as possible as the solemn procession passes - and organisers of the ceremony will be increased by the decision to deliberately silence Big Ben and the Great Clock at Westminster for the first time since the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.
In a statement, Commons Speaker John Bercow said: “I believe there can be a profound dignity and deep respect both expressed in and through silence and I am sure that the House will agree.”
The children of Lady Thatcher, Sir Mark and Carol, who are understood to have declined an offer for Big Ben to toll 87 times for each year of their mother’s life, said they appreciated the “great honour” of the bells being silenced.
The announcement of the details of the procession and the service in St Paul’s, which followed an early morning rehearsal of the proceedings today, were accompanied by an increase in preparations by those seeking to use the occasion to express their disapproval of the former premier.
The Met is understood to be evaluating intelligence about whether there are grounds to stage pre-emptive arrests against known potential troublemakers who may be planning to attempt to disrupt the military procession.
Instructions on how to target the funeral by shouting slogans and songs celebrating Lady Thatcher’s death at chosen points along the route from Westminster to St Paul’s were being circulated online.
Police were heavily criticised in 2011 following the decision to swoop on individuals believed to have been planning to cause a disturbance at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, though judges later dismissed a claim that the force had acted unlawfully.
A spokesman for the Yard, which has also signalled its willingness to make greater use of the stringent powers of the Public Order Act, said: “Arrests are made with the purpose of preventing criminal activity. If there is evidence, and it is necessary to prevent crime, arrests would be made.”
Organisers of a Facebook campaign to highlight the “turn your back” protest said that the demonstration had been approved by the Metropolitan Police.
Rebecca Lush Blum, 41, from Hampshire, a veteran protester, said: “I sat there last week getting crosser and crosser at the attempt to rewrite history. David Cameron said Mrs Thatcher had saved the country. I think she actually destroyed this country.
“I wanted to do something that was dignified and peaceful. I spoke to a number of officers and I’ve received assurances that this protest will not be problem as long as it remains peaceful. It is sad that I have to seek these assurances but I’m a mother and I cannot take the risk of being kettled or corralled for hours on end.”
The pre-announced protest, which is also being backed by the Socialist Workers’ Party, is set to be accompanied by smaller demonstrations as police, including plainclothes officers deployed in the roadside crowd, attempt to control events.
Organisers have called for such “guerilla” demonstrations to target television news crews used to provide coverage of the event by surrounding cameras and shouting slogans when they are broadcasting live as well as gathering at “flashpoints” along the procession route.
One online entry called for megaphones to be used to sing a song celebrating Lady Thatcher’s death to the tune of Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody”. One version of the suggested words stated: “We all sing together in one breath/ Happy riddance Maggie Thatcher/ We all celebrate today/ ‘Cause you finally met up with your death.”
The Yard declined to discuss how many applications it had received to stage protests along with funeral route or how many it had approved.
Downing Street has reiterated Prime Minister David Cameron’s view that so-called “celebrations” of Lady Thatcher’s demise were “disgraceful” as the row continued over the estimated £10m cost of the funeral.
A spokesman said:“The right thing to do is to mark the passing of Lady Thatcher in the way that we are doing. That is clearly the Prime Minister’s view. When it comes to costs, it would be considered pretty extraordinary by very many people both here in the UK and abroad if we did not mark her passing in the manner we are doing.”
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