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Thatcher discord sets the clock back 30 years

I arrived back from holiday to find the country divided and inflamed once more

Returning to the country at the weekend after a short trip to Bermuda, I had a disorienting feeling that had nothing to do with jet lag. Was it really 2013? Or had I flown into a time zone that meant putting back my watch 30 years?

Police were battling with political protesters in Trafalgar Square. Football hooligans were fighting on the terraces at Wembley and in the streets of Newcastle. And everyone was arguing about Margaret Thatcher. It was a deeply sobering reminder of how things used to be, and wherever one stands on the Thatcher legacy, there was no gainsaying that her tenure as Prime Minister was marked by a discord that was pretty unsettling for most of us.

We have come a long way since those days, and modern Britain is, by and large, the model of a tolerant, inclusive, and peaceful society (yes, there is such a thing).

And on top of everything, I arrived back to discover an ideological debate about whether a tune sung by The Munchins back in 1939 should be banned from the BBC or not. I felt a little like someone who was out of the country when Princess Diana died, and returned during the mourning period to find a very different Britain.

Some people seem to think that this is what Mrs Thatcher would have wanted - deep divisions and a battle of ideologies - and others believe this goes to show what a significant political figure she was. It's all a bit puzzling. On my way to Wembley on Sunday, I got on the Tube wearing my Manchester City colours. A middle-aged Chelsea fan admired my home-made scarf. “What's it made of?” he asked. “The finest cashmere,” I said, with mock pride. “Oh I see,” he replied, “so Mrs Thatcher didn't steal all your money, then.”

It may be that this particular manifestation of the north-south divide, when fans of London clubs would wave £5 notes at supporters from the north, is a thing of the past, but it was interesting, and a little alarming, to learn that some established enmities lurk not very far below the surface.

And on Wednesday, when Mrs Thatcher is buried, they will be clearly apparent. I haven't thus far been able to understand the thought process which determined she should get a full ceremonial funeral. It seems to me that either all former Prime Ministers get the full treatment, or none does. Otherwise, a subjective judgement is being made by someone (Parliament? The Queen? Black Rod?) on the public contribution made by the deceased. The argument goes that Margaret Thatcher was a transformative PM. She changed Britain (it matters not, apparently, whether it was for good or bad). She won three general elections. She took us to war. But all of the above is true of Tony Blair. And if he died tomorrow, I very much doubt that he would be given full military honours. And would the Queen attend? Possibly not.

So I can understand those who feel that a rather big statement, political or otherwise, is being made with Mrs Thatcher's funeral. And I can't be alone in experiencing uncomfortable flashbacks of a Britain we thought we'd left behind many years ago