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Even on the day of her final journey Iron Lady manages to raise hackles


Margaret Thatcher on her last journey: controversial to the last

Margaret Thatcher on her last journey: controversial to the last

Margaret Thatcher on her last journey: controversial to the last

POMP and circumstance were laid on by the gun carriage-load, but human touches were in evidence, too. The Bishop of London recalling how Margaret Thatcher warned him off duck pate because it was fattening.

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer and heir to an Irish baronetcy, wiping away a tear – funerals have a knack of drawing subterranean grief to the surface.

Sir Mark Thatcher looking as if the pinnacle of ecstasy had been achieved as Queen Elizabeth spoke a few words to him on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral. This was the first prime minister's funeral attended by Elizabeth, 87 on Sunday, since Winston Churchill's almost 50 years earlier.

Britain is a natural at these stylised rituals. From trappings to processions, it gives good pageantry. The state was in its element yesterday as it combined with the family to lay Mrs Thatcher to rest.

She passed into the hands of historians long before she died, but yesterday a line was drawn under a defining era. Not one that everyone looked back on with affection or respect, however. As one of the protest banners put it, 'Now Bury Thatcherism'.

Some held that her funeral, verging on a state occasion with its military panoply, was excessive for a politician – even such an influential one. Prime Minister David Cameron insisted it was appropriate for Britain's first – and so far only – female premier. "Even those who opposed her policies were capable of saying this was a remarkable woman and therefore it's right to mark her passing in this way," he said.

But the last occasions when a gun carriage holding a coffin draped in a flag rolled through London's streets was in 2002, when the Queen Mother was buried, and in 1997 for the Princess of Wales. Both figures were deeply loved.

In the case of Mrs Thatcher's obsequies, the sense conveyed was of politicians eager to make the case for their profession as a noble calling, rather than the public clamouring for spectacle. A spectacle they received, all the same: from a marching band, to police motorbike outriders, to military servicemen shouldering the casket. Symbolically, Big Ben's chimes were stilled for more than three hours.

A mourning sword with black scabbard, last carried at Churchill's funeral, was held aloft and preceded Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh into St Paul's. Such Churchillian overtones were striking. But they acted as a reminder that he had been a unifying force during the uncertainty of World War Two, while Mrs Thatcher was a divisive figure.

The public was urged to set aside politics for the day. However, politics and Mrs Thatcher, later Baroness Thatcher, were inseparable. Even on the morning of her funeral, a memory shared by Peter Mandelson raised Irish hackles.

He told BBC Radio 4 that when he was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, she made her first and last approach to him, saying: "I've got one thing to say to you, my boy. You can't trust the Irish, they are all liars. Liars, and that's what you have to remember, so just don't forget it."

A Labour politician, Peter Mandelson belonged to the opposite side of the House, yet still she couldn't help herself butting in. And what a sweeping – indeed, emotional – generalisation from someone trained as a scientist. But perhaps the Brighton bomb cast its shadow over her.

That shadow lay across St Paul's, in the shape of her former minister Norman Tebbit among the mourners. He was injured in the IRA attack on the Tory Party conference, which left his wife permanently disabled.

So many faces from previous times came into focus in the cathedral. FW de Klerk, president of South Africa during the apartheid era, should have had his chewing gum confiscated before going in – Mrs Thatcher would have been the first to tell him to spit it out.

Her four successors arrived with their wives, exchanging kisses and handshakes – Cameron, Brown, Blair and Major. Later, Cameron did one of the readings, while I fancied London Mayor Boris Johnson quivering with a sense of displacement.

"That should be me up there – and one day it will," his body language appeared to suggest.

The Duchess of York sat in the body of St Paul's, while her former in-laws were in pole position at the front. Among the mourners, too, was Ronnie Flanagan, former chief constable of the RUC. The North has changed beyond recognition since he was police chief.

The simplicity of the service's religious component was at odds with the mourners' formality. Tails were worn by the men, pearls by the women, mitres by the bishops. But they weren't a patch on the regimental uniforms outside, from the highwayman-style hats of the Chelsea Pensioners, to the bearskins of guardsmen and the gold braid which wreathed hussars' jackets.

No potential for symbolism was overlooked. The coffin was taken from the Palace of Westminster, past Downing Street, where it was clapped. At the bottom of Fleet Street, jeers punctured the cheers, and by the time the World War One gun carriage approached St Paul's, the black horses leading it were tossing their heads fretfully.

On the whole, reverence was the hallmark, however. All very well, of course, but some of the reminiscences in a BBC studio made a welcome break from solemnity. Her former correspondence secretary, Matthew Parris, imagined her saying: "How much did this cost, dear?"; while her speechwriter, the author Michael Dodds, recalled her in Carmen curlers, making him burn the midnight oil on re-writes.

But the abiding memory from Margaret Thatcher's funeral is audio rather than visual: a lone, muffled bell tolling from St Paul's to receive her remains – a reminder that the same conclusion awaits everyone, whether baroness or bell-ringer. 'Therefore, send not to know/ For whom the bell tolls,/It tolls for thee.'

Irish Independent