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Whose Britain is it? Yesterday's restrained, dignified mourners? Or the outnumbered protesters?

By Paul Goodman
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As the coffin was carried out of St Paul's - the great west door having been flung open - a sound made its way inside, faint but persistent: the noise of applause.  The effect in the immense spaces of the cathedral was haunting.  For those of us who campaigned for the Conservative Party during the momentous years of the 1980s, many of whom turned out yesterday, it was as though the whole country had gathered to honour her life and work - not only the millions of voters who returned her to office three times, but millions of others: "the people of England, who never have spoken yet".

The moment was an illusion.  But just as dreams can yield insights into our lives, so it suggests a question about our country: whose is it?  Whose is the majority?  Did the tiny minority of protestors, who gained media attention out of all proportion to their size, speak for Britain?  Or is its true voice, rather, that of the outnumbering mass of dignified, restrained mourners, who packed the Strand and Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill in numbers far greater that commentary in advance of the service suggested?  Opinion polls and yesterday's service come together to give an answer.

  • The consensus of opinion polls is that more people think Baroness Thatcher was good for Britain than badICM found 50% of respondents saying that she was good for Britain, and 34% bad.  IPSOS/Mori found that the numbers divide up 47% to 42%.  Since Lady Thatcher never won more than 44% of the vote, these findings suggest that even some of those who didn't support her at the time - or now - believe that the way she governed was necessary.  Hence the plurality of those that come down on her side.
  • The funeral arrangements, many of them devised under Labour, recognised the significance of her achievement - and were right to do so.  That plurality may not approve of everything that her governments did, but it recognises that the Keynesian consensus which preceded her failed, and that no government since has attempted to restore it.  It's sometimes said that the left, from Scargill-supporting communists to Mandelson-style social democrats, hate her because she trounced them.  This is true.  But they also hate her because they know that they failed Britain and lost legitimacy before she was elected.
  • The Church of England, the armed forces, and Francis Maude certainly know how to organise a funeral.  From the immaculate timing of the coffin's entry to the cathedral to the carrying of the Mourning Sword, last used at Churchill's funeral, the funeral was carried out with serious thought and clockwork precision - recognising Lady Thatcher's unique and momentous significance as Prime Minister.  Adrian Hilton writes today in our culture column about the way in which the funeral worked, and those of us who aren't Anglicans should acknowledge that on such occasions the state church comes into its own.
  • Richard Chartres rose to the occasionAs Mark Fox wrote yesterday, the Bishop of London's words were beautifully judged, perhaps because they were thoroughly researched.  Chartres reviewed Lady Thatcher's two seminal speeches on politics and Christianity - to the Church of Scotland and at St Lawrence Jewry - and set the record straight about her views on politics and society.  (She believed that there's such a thing as society, but that you shouldn't slough off your responsibilities onto others.)  He was praised by many of those those Conservatives present at a Guildhall reception afterwards.
  • The Chancellor's tears caught the emotional depth of the event.  If you doubt it, ask yourself whether the funeral of any other British Prime Minister will compare with it.  Who will line the streets to mourn for Tony Blair?  What real legacy has he left?  How many people will turn out to remember Peter Mandelson?  Or Michael Heseltine?  Or Nick Clegg?  David Cameron is a better Prime Minister than his critics allow.  But he knows well that his own funeral won't take place on anything like the same scale.

The tens of thousands who lined the streets to mourn Lady Thatcher yesterday didn't represent the whole of Britain.  Their view won't have been echoed in most of Liverpool or Glasgow.  But they represented a big, big constituency: the quiet, decent, undemonstrative majority who keep the country going.  Set against their grown-upness, most of the anti-Thatcher protesters look like adolescents, and some of them seem scarcely sane.  Consider one of those named in this Guardian article, who blames Lady Thatcher for a death which occured eight years after she left office, and for sanctions imposed not by one of her governments, but by the UN Security Council.

So whose Britain is it, then? The protesters or the mourners?  Perhaps the best answer is: neither.  Most people yesterday didn't watch Margaret Thatcher's funeral.  They may have glanced at the flickering images on their TV screens, deleted a text message with the news, or half-caught a newspaper headline. To many of them, hers is a name from the past: you would have to be born in the early 1980s to have a childhood memory even of her departure from office.  On the choices they make at future elections hangs the success or failure of the great, unfinished work she undertook - saving the country she loved from decline.


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