Thatcher’s funeral: Forget ‘death etiquette’, what we need now is closure

17 April 2013

In St Paul’s Cathedral today David Cameron is reading an excerpt from John’s gospel: ‘Let not your heart be troubled, ye believe in God, believe in me also.’ The audience listens sombrely. The much vaunted protests do not amount to much. The whole thing is rather subdued. This, the dean of St Paul’s has noted, is ‘how we respond in the face of death.’ Quietly, thoughtfully, composed.

Except, of course, it’s not. Anyone who cast even a cursory glance over social networking sites and the press last Monday, indeed everyone who has lost someone close to them, could tell you that the dean, for all his Christian sincerity, is talking nonsense. Bereavement is more likely to yield anguish, rage and confusion than it is a carefully planned procession through the streets of London. The funeral ritual is the exception to the norm; it is an island of structure in what is commonly a sea of disorientation.

Disorientation is arguably what we have been witnessing over the last week. Among the politically engaged, Baroness Thatcher’s passing induced mass hysteria. I am not referring to the effusive tributes that poured in from her followers, or even the impromptu street parties. It is the response to these responses that is most interesting.

First, the heated debate over ‘death etiquette.’ Can one speak ill of the dead? Was it possible to decry Margaret Thatcher as a politician, or Thatcherism as a creed, without ceding the moral high ground? The Daily Mail, unsurprisingly, had its doubts. The left-wing literati approach was almost unanimous: ‘Every death is a tragedy. Coincidently, here’s an essay on the evils of Thatcherism which I just happened to have lying around.’

As with most controversies, this was not a controversy. One can say want one wants about the recently deceased. The more pertinent question was: why bother saying anything at all? If there was no great need to lecture your immediate peers, or the nation at large, about the ills of neoconservativism while Thatcher was alive, how did her death change anything?

The common answer, which as you can imagine I am stuffing with straw and putting a hat on as I type, is that the shameless Tory rewriting of history needed to be challenged. This was, and still is, the second trend: the public grappling over Thacher’s legacy. ‘The vilification and beatification of Lady Thatcher serve important political purposes,’ says lefty rent-a-quote Owen Jones in a recent Independent article. Jones’s intentions are as good as ever, but he’s talking absolute drivel.

The feared ‘Thatcher bounce’ in the polls failed to materialise. David Cameron’s assertion that she ‘saved Britain’ was absurdly millennial. But it had no more political effect on the nation at large than the equally absurd decisions of Francis Maude and Douglas Hurd to go on Newsnight wearing black ties. Because, surprise surprise, the public does not make political decisions on the back of an ex-politician’s death.

The vast majority of people are uninterested in procedural political events. And in many respects a procedural political event is exactly what Thatcher’s death was, and what her funeral is. According to a ComRes poll, only 28% of the country will be tuning in today. The fact that Big Ben is silent because of Tory simpering is silly in extremis, but it won’t change this country’s political trajectory.

The political community is doing what many individuals feel compelled to do in the face of death: they are spending some time alone with their thoughts and trying to come to terms with mortality. And like most of us, they’re having trouble.

The hyperbole used by Cameron to describe Thatcher’s achievements and the recollections of division trumpeted by her opponentsspeak of a fear that unless the events of history are recalled, they will become meaningless, in which case the past might well have never happened. This is an emotional response, rather than an effective way in which to carry out political debate.

Death not only threatens to reduce the past to unimportance; it is the smug satirist of the apparent vicissitudes of everyday life. This is what made the furore over ‘death etiquette’ so odd: in the face of the finality of death, etiquette is trivial. And yet the press was inundated with articles demanding we act in specific ways. In the face of death, the trivial is a convenient bolt-hole.

In response to the attention being lavished on Baroness Thatcher today, many left leaning twitter users will have a portrait of Britain’s greatest socialist, post-war Prime Minister Clement Atlee, as their avatar. Not one person will change their mind about how to vote in 2015 as a result.

Politics, on both sides of the house, is often as much about trying to rescue the achievements of the past from the indifference of time as it is about creating the future. Listen, David Cameron is reading again. ‘Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not wither thou goest; and how can we know the way?’ The hysteria that has dogged Baroness Thatcher’s passing is nothing but the cries of those who have been left behind. Let us hope they move on swiftly.

Jeremy Wikeley

Photo – Robert Huffstutter