Baroness Thatcher was 87 when she died. She had been ill for some time and, in her final months, very ill. Preparations for her funeral – the ceremonial, the guest list, the order of service – had been in train, it turned out, for more than four years. Yet the announcement when it came last Monday nonetheless sent shockwaves through the country, unleashing emotions of an intensity almost as fierce as when she had been at the height of her powers. British politics ends the week subtly changed, and the country has learnt something about itself.
We have learned that, while a week may be a long time in politics, 30 years can seem but the twinkling of an eye. The bitterness, admiration and affection felt by Margaret Thatcher’s supporters when she was forced out of office welled back instantly, to be given vent in the very personal tributes paid on the day, and subsequently in the special session of Parliament. Still equally raw was the hatred that she and some of her policies had provoked. There were times in the past week when it seemed that the miners’ strike and the poll tax protests had not ended. Glenda Jackson’s vitriol in the House of Commons could not have been foretold, nor the number of Labour MPs who would choose not to attend. Lady Thatcher may be dead, but what she wrought, good and bad, is not forgotten.
Even more remarkable is the extent to which the divisions her politics opened up have been transmitted to a new generation. Those who sang, danced and drank at the so-called death parties that sprang up were mostly young people who would have no memory of her years in power. Some of the mythology these latter-day anti-Thatcherites peddle – the notion that she slashed benefits and privatised everything she set eyes on – is plain wrong. But it strikes a chord because of what is happening today. As time passes, it will be more and more difficult to counter.
If old hurts have returned, however, sometimes in a new form, the death of Britain’s first, and so far only, woman prime minister has also left the configuration of UK politics ever so subtly different. David Cameron may feel, in one way, that a great burden has been lifted from his shoulders. The lady who was not for turning is no longer there to chide him. He can pay tribute and move the party on.
Yet the memories that her passing has revived – from the sound of her voice and the stamp of her authority to the familiar quips and the pictures of the last British leader truly to star on the global stage – all threaten to diminish him by comparison, for all that these are different times. And the waves of nostalgia undoubtedly washing over the Conservative Party could give new heart to those many Tories with misgivings about the depth of Mr Cameron’s shade of blue. He needs to brace himself for some dangerous months as leader.
Ed Miliband, too, finds himself in a slightly different place from the one he occupied this time last week. The Labour leader faced a far more difficult task than Mr Cameron in judging the pitch of his Commons speech, but the result was, rightly, hailed as a triumph, steering adroitly between what the party wanted to hear and what was right for the occasion. It marked another stage in dispelling doubts about his suitability to be prime minister.
The return of virulent anti-Thatcher sentiment, however, could bolster the left of the party in a way that again calls into question its electability. Mr Miliband, like Mr Cameron, must hope that the funeral will have a cathartic effect, not just on the country, but on their parties, laying Thatcherism, as well as Lady Thatcher, to rest. The depth of the passions on show this week suggests, however, that this is unlikely. In death, as in life, the lady is changing politics.