Margaret Thatcher's funeral: Grassroots mingle with the great and the good

Party faithful join family members to bid fond farewell in personal ceremony
  • @oliver_wright

They began arriving early, just after eight. Black hats and morning suits mingling with commuters emerging from the rush-hour Tube. Some were household names: Jeremy Clarkson, looking uncomfortably smart in black suit and black tie; Joan Collins on the arm of husband No 5; the Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins in funeral chic and the Duchess of York, seated safely on the other side of the cathedral from her former in-laws.

Others were not famous but probably better known to Baroness Thatcher. Sue Goodchild, who served as her social secretary during all her time in Downing Street, was among a large contingent of staff – both before and after her time in politics – who had come to pay their last respects.

Pru Winton, Amelia McCourty and Tiz Baskerville travelled from Cheshire, Warwickshire and Suffolk respectively. They were grassroots Tories who had met Lady Thatcher many times over the years at conferences and constituency visits. More than 300 ordinary party faithful had been invited.

Then, of course, there were the politicians – friend and foe alike. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Major exchanged pleasantries while Cherie Blair air-kissed David Cameron.

Behind them was the current Cabinet: George Osborne, William Hague and Philip Hammond in full morning suits; Liberal Democrats Vince Cable and Danny Alexander in black suit and tie. The  odd one out was Ken Clarke. He was attired in his usual ruffled grey suit.

Political titans of the past were well represented, too. Lords Heseltine and Howe, who between them effectively ended Lady Thatcher’s premiership, looked frailer and older, while close by were seated her staunchest supporters, Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson.

From abroad came Benjamin Netanyahu – who brought his own security, the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, and Stephen Harper from Canada. Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney and ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sat to one side near the altar, close to the Polish union leader-turned-President Lech Walesa. While the congregation waited discreet television screens relayed images of Lady Thatcher’s funeral cortège making its slow progress to St Paul’s.

Last in, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were escorted to their seats by the centre of the nave and the mourning sword, last used at Winston Churchill’s funeral, placed in front of them. Prince Philip flicked through his order of service while next to him the Queen laid her black handbag on the floor by her side. Then, as a single bell struck the hour, Lady Thatcher’s coffin entered the cathedral.

The funeral was, despite the grandeur of the setting, a strangely personal affair. Her granddaughter Amanda gave a faultless and moving reading from Ephesians, while in his sermon the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, dwelt on Lady Thatcher the woman rather than, as he put it, the “symbolic” and “mythological” figure she was perceived of in public.

Addressing her reputation, he told the congregation: “This is a funeral service not a memorial service. At such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgements which are proper to the politician. Instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling. It is also the place for simple truths which transcend political debate.”

George Osborne shed a tear – but so too did a number of lesser-known members of the congregation.  Afterwards, Mrs Goodchild, who kept in touch with Lady Thatcher and last saw her just three months ago, said she would have been very moved by the address and the character of the  service. “She was a loyal, kind and warm woman,” she said. “This was a fitting tribute.”

Others agreed. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, said the funeral had been “in every respect perfect for the occasion”. “You can’t mourn too much when someone is 87, has had an extraordinary life and has achieved so much.”

John Redwood said the most moving moment was when the  congregation could hear the cheers from outside. “It was exactly the kind of tribute you would hope for – we are grieving a loss but also commemorating a life well-led, an extraordinarily active life.”

With distinctive style and still-crumpled suit, Ken Clarke summed up the mood. “She was the first woman prime minister, she was the longest-serving prime minister in modern times and she changed the country on a scale which no other prime minister came near,” he said.

“It was a good send-off.”