Thatcher's funeral - the crowd, the media and reality

Despite shameless media fawning the streets were in fact eerily quiet; the biggest crowd out was the police. But signs of her legacy are still pervasive.

Jeremy Fox
19 April 2013

On Thatcher funeral day, I had to catch a morning train to Glasgow  from my home in South London. My other half drove me to the Oval from where I could take the Northern Line to Euston. Although London’s morning rush starts early, there were no buses in sight.  Bus stops en route - usually crowded -  had barely a handful of people clustered round them. Many more people - several hundred - were walking.  With a few of London’s most important thoroughfares closed, it seems the buses had opted for a go-slow.

At the tube station, I waited on the platform, one of a silent, glum-looking crowd. When the first train pulled in, the carriage nearest to where I stood was too full for anyone to board.  The next train would be along in seven minutes - against the two or three minute intervals familiar to rush-hour commuters. Anxious not to miss my Glasgow connection, when it arrived I pushed into an already overcrowded carriage to the obvious disgust of a young man left  standing on the platform who clearly thought I had taken his place.

Inside the carriage, we passengers stood pressed together like clothes in a jam-packed wardrobe. A voice announced that there would be severe delays on the Northern Line. No one smiled or offered a glance. Many were wearing tiny earphones,  nodding rhythmically and staring at a space just beyond their nose as if the noise in their ears had removed their ability to see beyond themselves.  An image flashed into my mind of having stumbled into a futuristic dystopia where earphones were obligatory and the sounds emitted were of a kind that Winston Smith might have recognised, or that may be familiar to the browbeaten citizens of Pyongyang: martial music interspersed with improving messages and praise for the great leader.

Several times the train came to a halt between stations, and with the Boston bombs fresh in my thoughts, I could not help wondering if this were not a perfect occasion for a terrorist to do his worst. No one spoke. Though the heat from so many bodies was stifling, I felt not the faintest glimmer of human warmth. It was as if everything that our culture has taught us about human solidarity, and community of feeling had been expunged, replaced by living exemplars of Thatcher’s most celebrated dictum; that there is no such thing as society. Was this the Iron Lady’s cruelest triumph, to have so set us on a path of sharp-elbowed individualism that we no longer acknowledge each other?

Conscious that travel through the centre of London even by tube could be slow, I had left home early, and when I at long length I tumbled out of the Underground at Euston, bathed in sweat and feeling as  if I had already done a day’s hard slog, I still had half an hour to kill before departure. I wandered over to WH Smith to glance at the newspapers. The Telegraph, doubtless confident of the political colour of its readership, gave pride of place on its front page to the regal splendor of the upcoming funeral; while the Guardian and the Independent both led with the Boston tragedy - though, as I saw later, they made up for this apparently thoughtless misreading of priorities by flooding their websites with wall to wall coverage of Thatcher’s stately journey to whatever world awaits her beyond the grave.

I flicked through the pages of the broadsheets, plus a couple of tabloids but found none worthy of my coin. Together, they brought to mind a favourite little passage of Thoreau’s in which he describes the pages of a newspaper of his time:

“Almost all the opinions and sentiments expressed were so little considered, so shallow and flimsy, that I thought the very texture of the paper must be weaker in that part and tear the more easily......There was, moreover, a singular disposition to wit and humor, but rarely the slightest real success; and the apparent success was a terrible satire on the attempt…”

While The Guardian at least had the temerity to publish some dissenting opinion about the  current frenzy of Thatcher hagiography (in particular a fine dissection by Seumas Milne), the fawning grotesqueries of the right-wing press concerning Thatcher and her era demonstrate how little has changed since the 1840s. 

Upstairs in the Virgin lounge, a large screen offers the BBC News Channel in full funereal flow. From outside St Paul’s a reporter gives a run down on the forthcoming proceedings, making sure to emphasize the solemnity, britishness and simplicity of the occasion, and bringing to mind the ludicrous remark by the Right Rev. Richard Chartres, Bishop of London that this was “...a simple funeral that reflected her disciplined Methodist upbringing as a grocer's daughter in Grantham”.

Our attention moves to Whitehall where a second reporter is charged with interviewing members of the public who right now “line the streets in anticipation of witnessing the cortege”. Except that most of those caught by the BBC cameras are dressed in police uniform. The reporter confesses that the area - usually so busy at 9am seems eerily quiet. Nevertheless, she has managed to round up a hardy quartet of Thatcher acolytes from leafy Wimbledon who have come to pay their respects to the woman who put the ‘Great’ back into Britain. I am reminded once again - as if I need reminding - of the extent to which our mendacious, forelock-tugging media betray their calling and the people they supposedly exist to inform. May it be noted that, at 9 am on the morning of Thatcher’s funeral, Whitehall looked almost as bereft of life as Pripyat after the Chernobyl meltdown.

On the following day, the front pages are all Thatcher, and the BBC - measuring carefully its hyperbole so as not to overstep the bounds of statistical accuracy - speaks of thousands (not tens or hundreds of thousands) to describe the thin line of flag-waving Thatcherites who eventually turned out.

For half an hour on the evening before the funeral, I had watched the late-night parliamentary debate on a motion to cancel Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions in deference to the delicate sensibilities of our parliamentarians. Having attended the funeral or dutifully watched it on TV, they would surely need time thereafter to reflect on the many significances of death and to wonder whether their admiration for Mrs T in this world, and possible desire to join her in the next, would lead them to heaven or, in Hamlet’s words, to the other place.

I listened to only two speeches - both of them as passionate as they were prolix. George Galloway - who in the minds of most right-wingers surely qualifies as a “usual suspect” - reminded the House that closing some of London’s main arteries, muffling Big Ben, allowing the Prime Minister to avoid answering to the people’s representatives, and worst of all making the people pay for Her funeral were measures deeply offensive to a large proportion of the citizenry. Dennis Skinner - a former miner - spoke movingly about Thatcher’s destruction of mining communities, but also and just as tellingly, of Thatcherism’s neo-liberalising zeal which, under the pretence of turning us into a nation of shareholders, ended up by delivering most of our industry as well as our public utilities into foreign hands - and even, like French-owned EDF Energy, or German-owned Deutsche Bahn (recent purchaser of Arriva) into the hands of foreign states. Neo-liberals apparently think it’s okay for major components of UK PLC to be in the public sector, so long as it isn’t the British public sector. Those who believe that we can control our economic life without owning any of its fundamentals, Skinner implied, are living in fairy land. Yet this is what Thatcher’s policies have wrought: a country no longer in charge of itself.

Something else struck me as I listened to these speeches and to the accompanying chorus of heckles from the Tory back benches:  the striking contrast in accents between Tory and Labour voices. Dennis Skinner and George Galloway speak in tones that reflect the region where they were born and raised. If we travel to such regions, we will hear their accents in the local pubs and in the stores and on the the playing fields and on local radio. The likes of George Galloway, Dennis Skinner, John Prescott  sound as different to each other as they are to the Tories. Tory sounds, on the other hand, are tribal: the rotund consonants, the plum-in-mouth elongation of vowels into diphthongs  that are natural to the Camerons, the Jacob Rees-Moggs, and that grocer’s daughter Thatcher and grammar-school boy Hague learned in the process of gaining acceptance into the ranks. Prince Charles also speaks with a Tory brogue as do sundry members of the landed gentry. It is the soundscape of privilege, of a “natural” elite. It is telling that similar tones are now increasingly dominant on the Labour benches too.  

In his peroration, Dennis Skinner reminded the house that, in the end, the argument about the Thatcher legacy is also about a country that remains deeply divided by a phenomenon that all three major parties have done their best to erase from the political lexicon: class.

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