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Britain Bids Farewell to Margaret Thatcher

by AFP
Leon Neal—AFP

Leon Neal—AFP

Maggie Thatcher receives a fitting sendoff.

Thousands of well-wishers applauded Margaret Thatcher’s coffin as it passed through the streets of London on Wednesday before a funeral filled with pomp and splendor for Britain’s polarizing former prime minister. Queen Elizabeth II led the British establishment and representatives of 170 countries in bidding farewell at St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Iron Lady, who had a profound impact on her country and helped end the Cold War.

But in a sign of the bitterness Thatcher’s legacy still provokes at home, several hundred protesters turned their backs as her funeral cortege went by, booing and chanting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Dead, dead, dead!” The hecklers were far outnumbered by the tens of thousands who turned out to watch her coffin travel from Parliament to St. Paul’s, many breaking into spontaneous applause and throwing flowers.

Some 700 soldiers, sailors, and airmen in full ceremonial uniform lined the route as the coffin was carried first by hearse and then by horse-drawn gun carriage, as a military band played funeral marches. In addition, about 4,000 police officers were deployed along the procession, amid heightened security following the bombings at the Boston Marathon and fears of disruption by leftwing groups.

At the cathedral, the Queen led mourners in a rare tribute from the monarch, who had not attended a prime ministerial funeral since Winston Churchill died in 1965. Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of Thatcher’s Conservative party, led a cast of three former premiers—John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown—and politicians from across the political divide.

Global figures, including Thatcher’s fellow Cold War warrior Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of State, and show-business stars Joan Collins and Shirley Bassey joined the former prime minister’s family in paying their respects.

In his address, Bishop of London Richard Chartres said Thatcher was a polarizing figure but insisted there was no place for politics at her funeral. “After the storm of a life led in the heat of political controversy, there is a great calm,” he told the 2,300 assembled guests, all clad in black. “The storm of conflicting opinions centers on the Mrs. Thatcher who became a symbolic figure—even an ‘-ism.’ Today the remains of the real Margaret Hilda Thatcher are here at her funeral service.”

Thatcher’s coffin had arrived at St. Paul’s following an hour-long procession from Parliament, during which its famous Big Ben bell was silenced. The coffin was draped in the Union Jack and dressed with flowers and a card reading “Beloved Mother—Always in Our Hearts,” a message from her 59-year-old twins, Mark and Carol Thatcher.

The ‘Best Prime Minister since Churchill’

The pavements along the route were packed by well-wishers, many of whom had risen at dawn to travel to London. “I wanted to pay my respects to the best prime minister since Churchill,” said Gloria Martin, a property developer in her 60s with an array of “I Love Maggie” badges pinned to her chest. “She was strong, she was resolute, and she put her country first above any idea of popularity.”

The crowd included veterans of the Falklands war, viewed by many of her admirers as Thatcher’s finest hour and which played as a central theme of the ceremony. Servicemen from units that fought in the 1982 conflict with Argentina carried Thatcher’s coffin into St. Paul’s while two brothers who served in the war walked behind. Argentina was pointedly not represented among the mourners, who included the prime ministers of Canada, Israel, Italy, Poland, and Kuwait.

But the pomp and splendor—paid for with millions of pounds of public money—have sparked criticism from those who argue that Thatcher was too polarizing a figure to merit such a state-sponsored sendoff. Some in the crowd turned their backs as the funeral cortege went by to protest at the damage wrought by her radical free-market economic reforms, which created mass unemployment in Britain’s industrial heartlands.

“We’re spending £10 million on it and that’s disgraceful and unacceptable at a time of austerity,” said 22-year-old student Casper Winslow, who held a placard reading “Rest of us in poverty.” The British government has yet to disclose the costs of the funeral, but insists it will be less than the reported £10 million.

Cameron has said it was right to give Thatcher a proper farewell. “It is a fitting tribute to a great prime minister respected around the world,” he told BBC Radio. “And I think other countries in the world would think Britain got it completely wrong if we didn’t mark this in a proper way.”

The funeral included Christian hymns reflecting Thatcher’s strict Methodist upbringing, and Bible readings by Cameron, and Thatcher’s granddaughter Amanda, followed by a blessing from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Her body was to be cremated in a private family ceremony.

Britain’s first and only woman prime minister, in office from 1979 to 1990, had suffered from dementia and was rarely seen in public during her final years. She died from a stroke aged 87 nine days ago. Her death prompted tributes from around the world for the role she played in bringing down the Iron Curtain, but sparked renewed debate at home over her legacy.

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