In an emblematic pre-funeral interview, David Cameron declared “We are all Thatcherites now”.
The words were not uttered triumphantly. Cameron’s tone was politely defensive. He had been asked whether he was a Thatcherite and avoided a direct answer by claiming that we all were. His evasiveness was complex not least because he was partly expressing what he believes.
The current Prime Minister thinks genuinely – but wrongly – that some of his more Thatcher-like policies place him on the centre ground. He has lived with deeply embedded Thatcherite assumptions for so long that he acts partly as if we all share them. So, on one level, Cameron was not being evasive at all, but expressing a view that explains how at times he can sound like Harold Macmillan while acting like Margaret Thatcher. Presumably, he believes that if Macmillan were still alive, he would be a Thatcherite, too, given that Thatcherites are what we are all supposed to be.
Yet, on another level, Cameron knows that we are not all Thatcherites and that he cannot win an election by being one. He is sharp enough to sense the danger were he to deliver the stark comment: “Yes, I’m a Thatcherite.” So he was being evasive, too, in an interview that opened a day of deep ambiguity. The Prime Ministerial interview to mark a funeral was itself an ambiguous act – an opportunity to field some soft questions when normal politics has ceased, and yet at the same time a challenge not to make it appear like such an opportunity.
To some extent, Cameron has been trapped by the frenzy of the past few days – not choosing to generate hysteria but having no choice but to respond to it. No doubt there is a part of him which hopes that he and his party will benefit from the largely reverential coverage, nearly continuous for more than a week and reaching a peak of uncritical reporting today. But part of Cameron’s thinking will have been prompted by a fear of being seen not to be doing enough. As the tidal wave erupted, he had no choice but to swim with it.
Everyone became similarly engulfed. Journalists I have spoken to from across the political spectrum have expressed surprise and concern about the level of coverage since the death, while continuing to feed it. Politicians, including some Tories who are great admirers of Margaret Thatcher, have also told me they had not anticipated such an excess of nostalgia and re-heated passion.
A prime ministerial death is, of course, a big moment. But once a death has happened, there is a limit to the number of “breaking news” stories that can arise. Thatcher could not die twice. Instead, a self-feeding news fever erupted, partly authentic in that some newspapers and some of their readers idolised her, but also, like Cameron’s reaction, partly defensive, a fear of missing out in some way or another on the funereal party, of not being part of the pack. In the case of the BBC, there was also a fear of offending those newspapers that terrify its more insecure senior managers, only for the BBC to still be attacked by those very newspapers. Overall, there has been self-generated media excess, disconnected with the level of interest of even the most ardent Conservatives.
The strange sense of ambiguity reached a climax with the funeral, a dignified service with contributions more restrained and nuanced than the public interventions of the lady being mourned. Yet it was preceded by a jarring military focus and generally felt over the top. I do not blame Cameron for giving the go-ahead for the no-expense-spared event. Imagine the furore if he had suggested a lower-key ceremony. Similarly, I do not blame John Bercow, the Speaker, for granting a recall of Parliament for a full day of tributes, although I know he did not want to do so, aware of the absurdity of MPs paying tribute late into the evening, many of them having never met her. He knew that the same papers that slaughtered the BBC would seek to destroy him, too. Even those senior newspaper and broadcasting journalists who had doubts about the level of the coverage were swept along in the tide, unable or disinclined to resist.
The result is an image of England (Scotland and Wales were different political countries in the 1980s, and still are) conveyed on TV screens that bears little relation to what England is, and in some ways, was. The Falklands War was a freakish one-off that became a rather pathetic echo of Churchillian glories in the Second World War. The Argentinian invasion in 1982 arose because of cuts in military protection around the islands, and also followed Thatcher’s ministers signalling, sensibly, they were willing to negotiate a handover. If the supposedly great war leader had not taken the military option, she would have had to resign as Prime Minister. But England is growing tired of war as a way of asserting “strength”. To Tony Blair’s surprise, the conflict in Iraq remained unpopular even when he hoped for a “Baghdad bounce” after the fall of Saddam. There is not even a political consensus about the renewal of Trident. Michael Portillo, a former Defence Secretary and Thatcher fan, is one of those who is opposed.
I hope those watching today, from outside the UK as well as within it, remember that there is more to this country than military-style prime ministerial funerals and early summer Jubilee celebrations in the freezing cold – the equivalent event from last year. There is also the country of Danny Boyle, David Bowie, the Beatles, punk rock, Fawlty Towers, The Office, free art galleries and museums, great theatre. No wonder England has a confused sense of itself.
Though there was a mesmerising, Shakespearean edge to today's beautifully choreographed ceremony, the mourners from Thatcher’s Cabinet who had killed off her leadership were all there, along with her immediate successor, a man she subsequently turned against. There was no hint of the old, intense battles today. Most funerals give only a limited impression of the life being mourned. And Thatcher’s told us little about a long-serving Prime Minister and the country over which she ruled.