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Debate over funeral for 'loved, hated' former PM Thatcher divides nation

Peter Morrison / AP

Anti-Margaret Thatcher graffiti adorns a wall on the Falls Road in west Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will be buried with military honors, it was announced Tuesday, as a fierce debate over her funeral arrangements illustrated the extent of division over her political and social legacy.

While many expressed sadness at her passing on Monday, some raised glasses of champagne in impromptu street parties, and Judy Garland's "Wizard of Oz" song "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" was sent surging up the UK singles charts.

The “Iron Lady” who led a conservative resurgence in her home country and forged a legendary partnership with President Ronald Reagan, died from a stroke on Monday, aged 87.

The first and only woman to hold the job and longest-serving prime minister of the postwar era, she earned a formidable international reputation as a champion of freedom and the catalyst for the end of the Cold War.

 


However, many former industrial areas of Britain still bear the scars of the bitter struggles of the 1980s, when her free-market reforms saw the closure of dozens of state-run coal mines and steel factories.

 

Her televised memorial, in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral on April 17, will be the grandest for a British politician since wartime leader Winston Churchill in 1965 and will be attended by the Queen and world leaders.

But at her own request, she will not receive an official state funeral – an apparent acknowledgement that a fully-publicly-funded national event would have enraged her enemies and turned her burial into a political issue.

Some of the cost will still be borne from public funds, but in common with her ideology of personal financial responsibility she also insisted that public money not be wasted on a ceremonial fly-past.

Though Margaret Thatcher will not be given a state funeral, a service held in her honor at Westminster Abbey will be followed by a televised funeral a day later at St. Paul's Cathedral. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

“So it will be a plain old ceremonial funeral for Maggie,” wrote U.K. journalist and newcaster Jon Snow on Tuesday. “We won’t notice the difference. But her agreement to avoid that state funeral would seem to recognize that, in death at least, she did finally know her limits.”

Some lawmakers, from areas where the closure of state industries has left a legacy of long-term unemployment and social deprivation, said they would not be attending the event, nor even a special meeting of the House of Commons.

Mining union official Chris Skidmore said Thatcher should not even be given a ceremonial funeral, adding that she would never be forgiven by mining communities for the policies which led to thousands of job losses. "Where there was hope she brought despair," he told ITV News.

In south London and the Scottish city of Glasgow, small crowds gathered to cheer and toast her death with champagne and cider. "We've waited a long time for her death," Carl Chamberlain, 45, told Reuters in Brixton, south London, the scene of anti-Thatcher riots in 1981.

In Northern Ireland, a wall was daubed with the phrase: “Iron Lady – rust in peace.”

The editor of the U.K.’s conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper said online comments had been disabled on its Thatcher stories because of the volume of anti-Thatcher abuse.

Conor Burns, a Conservative lawmarker and friend of Thatcher, said he was "delighted" that some had seen her death as a cause for celebration because "the hatred that burns in their hearts...is actually an enormous tribute to her...they hate her because she won."

Tuesday's front pages reflected the division. The Daily Mail described Thatcher as "The Woman Who Saved Britain," while the Daily Mirror headline read: "The Woman Who Divided A Nation." The Northern Echo said she she would be "loved, hated, never forgotten."

The Associated Press noted the contrast between the willingness of small groups of Britons to publicly mock a longtime national leader, and attitudes in the United States.

There were no similar scenes of jubilation after the 1994 death of Richard Nixon, a polarizing figure who is the only U.S. president to resign from office, said Robert McGeehan, an associate fellow at the Institute for the Study of Americas. 

"This really shows the dissimilarity between the two countries," said McGeehan, a dual national who worked with Thatcher in academia after she left office. "One does not recall, with the passing of controversial figures in the U.S., anything remotely resembling the really crude approach we've seen over here," he said. "There is a class ingredient here that we simply don't have in America. They like to perpetuate this; the bitterness goes from father to son."

In London’s West End theater district, audience members watching a production of Billy Elliot were asked to decide Monday night on whether a song anticipating Thatcher's death should be performed hours after she died, ITV News reported.

The musical, which is set during the bitter 1984-5 coal miners’ industrial dispute, features the song "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher," with lyrics that refer to celebrating the death of the former prime minister. Following a show of hands, the song was performed.

Thatcher’s official biography, withheld at her request until after her death, will shortly go on sale. Its author, the journalist Charles Moore, wrote on Tuesday:

“Her love for her country was expressed even more in her action than in her words. As with all great loves, it was often spurned.”

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