A funeral will take place in London today. It is, we are told, strictly not a State Funeral although this fiction is increasingly hard to maintain. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it’s a State Funeral. Goodness me, the Queen is attending, the route is lined by the British armed forces, the coffin is borne on a gun carriage wrapped in a flag, traffic is stopped and the bells of Big Ben are muffled and they are playing nationalistic hymns. We concern ourselves that Obama will not come, but are pleased Mr & Mrs Cheney will. Of course it’s a bloody State Funeral.
So what’s wrong with that you might ask? Well quite a lot really.
One major difference between America and Britain is that we separate the powers of Chief Executive from those of the Head of State. Our Head of State is the Queen and her functionary is the Prime Minister who gets on with the grubby business of day to day power. Our Queen is a unifying figure whose principal role is to draw the country together and epitomise the values that hold us together in a national family. Monarchs have State Funerals. Monarchs do the fancy stuff in ermine and pearls and stunning state dinners. Monarchs have “ceremonial funerals”. Politicians by their very nature must be divisive figures, who press their philosophies first on party and then country. Politicians get down and dirty, doing the deals that are needed. By nature they are factional, which is why in the modern era there has only been one such funeral before, that of Churchill in 1965.
MacMillan never had a State funeral, he was buried quietly on his estates, nor did Wilson, or Callaghan or Home. Heath had a big old service in Salisbury Cathedral but his was a private celebration albeit on the lavish side. All these figures, great as they no doubt were, were by nature people who espoused differences in the state. None of them would have countenanced a State Funeral. Orwell would have argued that provided politicians have no great public funerals we can never have a Stalin.
Faction was Thatcher’s middle name. Never in this last century has a politician divided the country as much as she did. Even Tony Blair is a mere contentious shadow compared to the visceral spitting emotions this woman could still raise twenty odd years after removing from office.
Well, you might argue she was “transformational”, that she turned the country round, but so too was Attlee who ushered in the Welfare state and the NHS. He though was buried simply, in a quiet church in 1967, devoid of soldiers and flags and the trappings of state, in a service with 150 friends and family.
This decision by Cameron and the Conservative party is not tradition, far from it, it is a novel constitutional innovation that should have been resisted. By introducing this we blur further the division between Prime Minister, and Monarch. The people are not raised by this, rather we are diminished.
We can only hope today that the British will not allow this ceremony to be turned into a triumphalist Conservative party political broadcast, and will turn their backs on this sorry event.
Copyright David Macadam 2013