Eyewitness report: Thatcher's sterile funeral

Margaret Thatcher's coffin in St Paul's
Margaret Thatcher's coffin in St Paul's
Alex Stevenson By

Shrouded in solemnity, but not necessarily grief, Margaret Thatcher's funeral in St Paul's Cathedral saw the Establishment lay to rest one of its champions with all the sombreness it could muster.

The remains of Britain's first female prime minister stood in a coffin draped with the Union Jack in front of the altar. It was impossible to gaze on without remembering the fallen soldiers who returned to this country with their coffins covered by the same flag, some from a conflict which this 87-year-old led.

Even that mildly critical thought seemed out of place. This was not an occasion for bitterness or recrimination; it was an attempt to provide a historic figure with a funeral which presented her as a humble human being.

But none of Britain's soldiers had a send-off quite like this. Two thousands three hundred people gazed on a simply magnificent scene. Christopher Wren's creation is a superb space for this sort of occasion. From the glimmering gold of the ornate ceiling decorations to the way the sunlight kept fading up and down on the white statues looking on, this was an unsurpassable setting.

The great and the good had gathered here, upon receipt of an invitation from the strangely blurred mixture of the Thatcher family and the UK government. All were seated with at least half an hour to spare, leaving just those in the front row with the opportunity of a bit of pre-funeral milling. Nick Clegg dominated the conversation with Ed Miliband, while Cherie Blair mingled just a little bit too much. Her exchange of pecks on the cheek with Gordon Brown were, as always, exquisite.

The entire weight of the heavy atmosphere tended towards grand dignity. In such a location the gravity of the pious priests provided its own ominous presence. The military precision of the tri-service pallbearers did not conceal the exquisite care with which they went about their task. In the middle of so many important people, with the nation watching, their commander quietly gave the orders which echoed up to my perch in the South Transept. When they finally reached their seat afterwards, I saw his shoulders rise and fall in a big sigh of relief.

The Bishop of London delivered an address which sought to transcend politics, as death tends to do. It also contained a recollection of Thatcher the human being, in which she advised him against "very fattening" duck pate. This was the only light note of the entire service. Apart from this, its tone was a study in grey and black. The quavering but dignified voice of Thatcher's granddaughter Amanda contrasted with the polished, flawless performance of the prime minister.

Just as soldiering is 90% boredom and ten per cent terror and excitement, so attending funerals like that is mostly made up of waiting and listening. The sounds floating around the airy cathedral were thoroughly eerie as the guests sat and silently waited. As well as the organ, martial music, ripples of applause and the tolling of a bell wafted up from outside.

After it was all over parliamentarians began an almighty scrum for the exit. The press had to leave by a different door, which meant fighting against a tide of dignitaries heading in the other direction. Eventually I gave up trying to work my way round them and let them pass. The entirety of British public life, and then some, was on its way out. Boris Johnson seemed thoroughly chirpy. Henry Kissinger seemed determined to get some fresh air as quickly as possible. Douglas Hurd ambled past. Jose Manuel Barroso looked distracted.

Outside, blinking in the sunlight, I spotted a Conservative backbencher filming the throng like a tourist. Given the calibre of the attendees, that was pretty much all he amounted to. I collared Alex Salmond, who declared the music to be excellent and the service a little "English". My eye had been distracted by a man in the crowd holding a "MAGGIE TRUE BRIT" banner above his head. How long had he been in that pose, I asked. "Thirty minutes!" he declared. He was a former Army man, he explained. This was where the real feeling was to be found. I got the impression that, for her, he would have happily ended up in a coffin draped in a Union Jack.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.