Britain Bids a Conservative Farewell to a Revolutionary Leader

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's grand 'non-state' state funeral is a brief return to the imperial Britain she helped to bury.

LONDON – The funeral procession of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which made its way Wednesday morning through the streets of Westminster in central London to St Paul's Cathedral, where the funeral service took place, was described as "a non-state official funeral." For all purposes, however, this was an event that was paid for and organized by the state to the tune of over 10 million pounds.

Since the 1965 funeral of Winston Churchill, the man who led Great Britain during World War II, every British prime minister has been buried in a private ceremony. But Thatcher, like Churchill, is receiving full military honors; Queen Elizabeth II (who saw Thatcher as a divisive figure) is there, a very rare occurrence, and for the first time since Churchill's funeral, Big Ben, which towers over the houses of Parliament, was silent out of respect for the departed leader.

The cost of this grandiose spectacle - the state honors and the queen's presence in last respect for a woman whose legacy, even 23 years after being forced from Downing Street, continues to be extremely controversial - has attracted significant criticism from parts of the British media and some members of the opposition. But the leader of the main Labour opposition party, Ed Miliband, and most senior members of his party have remained silent. They know that if they criticize the ceremony, the Conservatives will immediately answer that it was their leaders, former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who authorized the funeral plans for Thatcher while they were in office. It was they – members of the party that fought Thatcher tooth and nail when she was in government and that Thatcher toppled from power in 1979 and consigned to 17 long years in the wilderness of opposition – who signed off on her commemoration.

Blair was known as the "true heir to Thatcher" as he successfully worked to pull his left-wing party to the center of the political map, forsaking to a large degree its historical ties with the trade unions. Blair accepted and enshrined the monetarist fundamentals that Thatcher bequeathed to the British economy and made no attempt to turn back the wheels of privatization. Thatcher's policies may have been sharp, brutal and insensitive, but her political rivals thanked her for carrying out what they never could have. That is why they decided already a decade ago that she would receive upon her death a "non-state" state funeral.

Prime Minister David Cameron, the current leader of Thatcher's Conservatives, has been trying for years to distance himself and his party from her toxic legacy and create a new, softer image for the Tories. He would have found it very difficult to authorize such a funeral for his predecessor. When asked to justify the expenditure on the event in an interview with BBC radio Wednesday morning, Cameron did not mention her 11-year record or any of her achievements in power but said instead that "she was the first female prime minister," as if that were the reason for the pomp. Cameron, a typical product of Britain's upper class, has made every effort to rebrand his party as something other than the embodiment of the old Britain of the class system and the establishment and would probably have preferred a much more modest farewell to the Thatcher, rather than remind British voters of the last generation's conflicts.

The military ceremony and religious character of today's proceedings are far from the multi-cultural Britain that has come into existence over recent decades and was finally recognized in last summer's London Olympic Games, where Britain was presented as a multi-racial and tolerant society, open to the world and entirely disconnected from its colonial past. Today, for a few hours, the old conservative Britain, with its white officers, lords and bishops, is back at center-stage, wearing dark, official mourning dress. This is a Britain that no longer exists; it had ceased to exist already in the Thatcher years. The daughter of the lower-middle class despised much of the old system. In fact, that Britain was laid to rest in 1965, at the funeral of another great prime minister, when the nation began to come to terms with the loss of its Empire.

Thatcher was the leader of a revolution that pulled Britain out of its post-imperial period of decline and stasis. Now that the social order has been changed forever, the revolutionary leader is being honored with a conservative funeral at the order of the leaders of the once-Socialist party.

This is an intensely internal British affair, and while the world's governments have been invited to attend, few international leaders have arrived in London. The United States sent former statesmen Dick Cheney and George Schultz but no serving cabinet members. France also sent a rather low-level representative who is no longer in office. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the trip, associating himself with a small group of prime ministers, including Canada's Stephen Harper and Poland's Donald Tusk – men who want to represent themselves as 21st-century conservatives in Thatcher's mold, unaware perhaps that in the birthplace of Thatcher, even the Conservatives have moved on.