That the idea of a State funeral for Margaret Thatcher is even on the agenda says something for the extent to which the Right wing in Britain still sings the best tunes the loudest across our politics and media. And yes, I am aware that Gordon Brown expressed his support for the notion – I thought it was a mistake then and think it so now – but only because at the time he was trying to sing one or two of those tunes himself.
Winston Churchill was by common consent – a view widely held when he was alive, and one which has cemented itself in history – a great man and a great Prime Minister whose leadership was fundamental to victory in the Second World War. Regardless of people’s politics, virtually all could see and appreciate that greatness. That near universal sense of acclaim and respect cannot be claimed by supporters of Margaret Thatcher, or indeed for any other Prime Minister since Churchill. Indeed, the one who gets nearest was his direct successor, Clement Attlee; he achieved a huge amount during his short tenure, but it was too short to merit the full State send-off.
Those who argue that Margaret Thatcher merits such an honour point to the fact that she was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, her role in the Falklands, her role in the cold war, and her impact in changing Britain’s approach to the economy. Only the first of those really marks her out as special. None of the others, alone or combined, put her remotely near the Churchill league, let alone Nelson or Wellington.
Yes, her leadership was vital in the Falklands War, but the war cannot be compared with the Second World War, nor her leadership with Churchill’s. Yes, she got on well with Ronald Reagan and did business with Mikhail Gorbachev, but their role in bringing the Berlin Wall crashing down was considerably greater than hers. As for the economy, this is the place where a dominant right-wing media has rewritten to the point of romanticism the role of a leader who presided over massive unemployment, social division and a series of policy catastrophes of which the poll tax was the most telling but not the only one.
Those who argue that she shouldn’t get a State funeral because she was a divisive Prime Minister are right. But that is far from being the only reason. The main one is that she wasn’t as good in the job as her supporters would have you believe, and a lot of the changes she made to Britain were for the worse not the better.