For all the elaborate preparations that went into Margaret Thatcher’s funeral over the years, there must still have been many sighs of relief yesterday when the chimes of Big Ben returned to pronounce the public observances over. In the end, everything passed off almost as well as was possible for a national occasion that was solemnly commemorative and contentious at once.
Much of the reason it ran so smoothly, of course, lay in the planning. With each major national event of recent years – the funeral of the Queen Mother, the wedding of Prince William, last year’s Diamond Jubilee – has come trepidation that modern Britain might have lost the art of staging a grand national spectacle, or even of judging the right tone. Then it turns out, all over again, that yes, we can. Baroness Thatcher’s last journey was the latest proof.
The size of the crowds lining the route, and their good humour, both exceeded expectations. Threats that lumps of coal or milk bottles would be thrown did not materialise. There was no pitched battle between supporters and protesters. The style of policing remained generally light. The schedule was kept. The horses did not bolt. And no one could object to the weather, which remained a sombre, neutral grey throughout.
The prevailing mood in the crowd was one of quiet respect and dignity, with ripples of applause as the cortège passed. The only projectiles were flowers, Diana-style. The cathedral looked resplendent; the music was glorious; the Bishop of London skirted, not always elegantly, around the politics, and BBC Television recovered its gravitas. Everything seemed, miraculously, to fall into place.
Given the celebrations that had erupted within minutes of the announcement of Lady Thatcher’s death and that recurred sporadically through the week, it was not only inevitable, but entirely proper, that there were also protests – silent and shouted, written and choreographed. Anything else would have smacked of repression. But when the shouts grew loud, they were hushed by the majority. This was democracy policing itself in the best possible way, and a reminder that Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, even as she made bitter enemies, was three times elected to power by British voters.
A funeral, though – any funeral – marks a passing. And yesterday’s tone was set not only by those who were present – on the streets of London, in St Paul’s, and in the commemorative and protest events around the country – but by those who were not. The absence of Mikhail Gorbachev, Nancy Reagan and George Bush Snr, for reasons of ill health, underlined the truth that a whole generation of leaders – the generation that knew global conflict and ended the Cold War – will soon be no more.
There are perils in the loss of that experience and of those memories. Political leaders who knew war tend always to be more circumspect about embarking on military conflict than those, such as Tony Blair and George W Bush, who did not. But the Thatcher-era divisions, still so raw, that came back to haunt British political debate over the past week could be corrosive if they became entrenched again.
More than 20 years have passed since Margaret Thatcher left office. Yesterday showed that Britain can still do national ceremony and still knows how to behave at a funeral. In almost every other respect, though, these are different times, with different mores and different dilemmas. The strangeness of the past nine days, in which old battles were revisited and old passions inflamed, should provide the impetus for everyone – starting with our politicians – to put the past in its place and look forward.