Remembering a great Briton
The funeral of Margaret Thatcher was beautiful, moving, just right. It had dignity and spirit, and in that respect was just like her. It also contained a surprise that shouldn't have been a surprise. It was a metaphor for where she stood in the pantheon of successful leaders of the 20th century.
The Right Honourable The Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, LG, OM, FRS -- so she was called on the front page of the service program -- was a great lady, and the greatest peacetime prime minister of England in the 20th century. She unleashed her nation's economy, defeated selfish bullies who before her had always emerged victorious, and stood with the pope and the president against Soviet communism. The main project of her career was to advance the cause of human freedom and individual liberty. As David Cameron's education minister, Michael Gove, noted the other day, she saw economics not as a science but as one of the humanities. It wasn't about "immutable laws," it was about "the instincts and values" of human beings, their sense of justice and rightness. She was eloquent, stirring and had tons of guts. And of course she was a woman, the first British prime minister to be so. She made no special pleading in that area and did not claim to represent what we embarrassingly call women's issues. She was representing England and the issues British citizens faced. She did not ignore her sex and occasionally bopped political men on the head with small, bracing recognitions of their frailty. "The cocks will crow, but it's the hen that lays the eggs," she said. She noted that if you want anything said get a man but, if you want something done get a woman. All this she uttered in a proud but mock-stern tone. She was no victim. An oddity of her career is that she was routinely patronized by her inferiors. It seems to have steeled her.
A supporter told me in London of her frustrations with staff. She said once to her aides: "I don't need to be told what, I need to be told how." Meaning I have a vision, you have to tell me how we can implement it. That stayed in my mind. Politics now, in England as well as America, is dominated by politicians who are technicians. They always know how to do it. They just don't know what to do.
Thatcher's funeral was striking in that it was not, actually, about her. It was about what she thought it important for the mourners to know. The readings were about the fact of God, the gift of Christ, and the necessity of loving your country and working for its betterment. There were no long eulogies. In a friendly and relatively brief address, the bishop of London lauded her kindness and character. No funeral of an American leader would ever be like that: The dead American would be the star, with God in the position of yet another mourner who'd miss his leadership.
The pageantry, for an American, was most moving. The English as always do this brilliantly but I wonder if they understand -- they must, but it's not something they acknowledge -- that when they bring out and put forward their splendor they are telling the world and themselves who they are and have been. Leading the procession into St. Paul's was the lord mayor of London, in velvet coat, breeches and buckled shoes. On his coat he wore Sir Thomas More's gold chain of office, taken from him before he was killed in the Tower. Imagine a nation that puts such a man to death, contemplates it, concludes in the end it was wrong, and now proudly displays the saint's chain at its greatest events. When I saw it I thought of a recent trip to the Vatican. Touring its archives, we were shown one of its proudest possessions: a letter from Galileo.
Things change. Time changes them. Great nations, and institutions, rethink. But only if they're great.
It mattered that the funeral was in august and splendid St. Paul's, mattered that Thatcher's coffin, placed under the great dome, stood directly over the tombs of Nelson and Wellington in the crypts below. (Marcus Binney in the Times said conservatives will note the above; happy to oblige.) This placing of Thatcher with the greats of the past, and the fact that the queen and Prince Philip came to her funeral, as they have for no prime minister since Churchill in 1965, served as an antidote to British television coverage surrounding her death.
It was terrible. They could not in any sustained way mark her achievements or even show any particular respect. All they could say was that she was "divisive and controversial," although sometimes they said "divisive and --well, really divisive." Anchors reported everything as if from a great distance, with no warmth; they all adopted the cool, analytical look they use when they mean to project distance. But as Tony Blair's aide Peter Mendelsohn, speaking at the think tank discussion at which Mr. Gove appeared, said, "to decide is to divide." He was quoting Mr. Blair.
And the more decisive, the more divisive.
In the past week left-wing political groups held death parties, all heavily reported, and threatened to demonstrate at the funeral. The head of the London police seemed to invite them to come. (Less important, but worth mentioning: The White House embarrassed itself by not sending a delegation of high-level current officeholders. Did the British notice? Oh yes. It's another way they think we're slipping.)
All this -- the media, the left -- had the effect of telling people: you'll look stupid if you speak in support of Thatcher, you'll look sentimental, old. And it may be dangerous to attend the funeral -- there could be riots!
I wonder if certain people pushed this line so hard so that the day after the funeral they could report no one came.
So then, the surprise that was a metaphor.
At the end of the funeral they all marched down the aisle in great procession -- the family, the queen, the military pallbearers carrying the casket bearing the Union Jack. The great doors flung open, the pallbearers marched forward, and suddenly from the crowd a great roar. We looked at each other. Demonstrators? No. Listen. They were cheering. They were calling out three great hurrahs as the pallbearers went down the steps. Then long cheers and applause. It was electric.
England came. The people came. Later we would learn they'd stood 30 deep on the sidewalk, that quiet crowds had massed on the Strand and Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill. A man had held up a sign: "But We Loved Her."
"The end is where we start from." That is T.S. Eliot, whose "Little Gidding" she loved. When they died, Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher were old and long past their height of power. Everyone was surprised when Reagan died that crowds engulfed the Capitol; people slept on sidewalks to view him in state. When John Paul died the Vatican was astonished to see millions converge. "Santo Subito."
And now at the end some came for Thatcher, too.
What all three had in common: No one was with them but the people.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, rest in peace.
(Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal © 2013 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.)