The death of Margaret Thatcher has unleashed a huge division in the British people between those who loved her and those who loathed her. You could say she was the ultimate ‘Marmite’ politician. Wednesday’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral brought together politicians from across the world, celebrities from show business, top people from the media, top brass from the military, a huge global TV audience and a £10 million bill for the UK taxpayer.
Margaret Thatcher was a remarkable person. She was a paradox in many ways. A grocer’s daughter from a strict Methodist family, she worked her way through university and a career in science, was elected to parliament and became the first woman to be prime minister of a European nation. This was an incredible achievement in the grey-suited, male-dominated world of Whitehall. Her leadership style was not Borgen, and she did not encourage the advancement of other women. She frightened most of the men around her, telling one ministerial colleague: “You are completely useless!” Lord Howe’s famous resignation speech described how he was ravaged like a dead sheep. She was a conviction politician, and if you disagreed with that conviction, then stand by for the ‘hand-bagging’! At the same time, she befriended Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan and helped to end the Cold War. She based many of her convictions on her Christian faith, but also battled with the Church of England. There are many paradoxes. She was formidable for most of her life, and yet vulnerable in her declining years, living with dementia.
When Archbishop Robert Runcie led the special service at St Paul’s Cathedral at the end of the Falkland’s War, he rightly insisted on including the Argentinian dead and injured in the public prayers. According to her husband Denis Thatcher, the PM was “spitting blood” with the church after that. After the Brixton riots of the early 1980s – I remember them well, as I lived in South London then – the Church of England set up a commission to understand and respond to urban poverty called ‘Faith in The City’. By publicly branding it Marxist, Thatcher ensured that it got excellent media publicity and support. The work of the commission raised hundreds of millions of pounds for inner city regeneration projects, and it continues to this day.
Writing in Women’s Own magazine that “there is no such thing as society” just made local communities want to prove her wrong. Telling the world that she would not meet Nelson Mandela, as she does not talk to “terrorists”, just made her look silly.
But, at the end of the day, Wednesday’s funeral was not about policies or politics or even ‘Thatcherism’. Amidst all the ceremony and security, at its core it was simply commending to God the soul of a human being. The history books will decide on her legacy. But I am pleased that the church stood up to her when needed.