After all the controversy – it was too much, and too expensive; it would be marred by protests – this morning’s funeral for Lady Thatcher in London was a splendid and memorable affair, which did her memory, and her country, proud. It was a moving, dignified and pitch-perfect occasion: unmistakably British, and a fitting send-off for the country’s greatest post-war prime minister.
Big Ben fell silent – for the first time since the funeral of wartime leader Winston Churchill – and tens of thousands of admirers lined the streets to applaud Lady Thatcher’s coffin as it was borne on a horse-drawn gun carriage to St Paul’s Cathedral. The funeral was conducted with full military honors: the coffin was carried into St Paul’s by servicemen representing units that played key roles in the 1982 Falkands war against Argentina, and two of the field guns that fired a salute during the funeral procession had last been fired in anger during that conflict.
A solemn and dignified service followed, featuring choral music and hymns by Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Brahms among others. Lady Thatcher’s granddaughter, Amanda, read from Ephesians chapter 6 (in a soft but unmistakeable Texas accent – she’s the daughter of Lady Thatcher’s son Mark and his American first wife), and Prime Minister David Cameron from John chapter 14 (‘I am the way, the truth and the life’).
The Bishop of London gave an address in which he spoke about the strong personal faith that informed Lady Thatcher’s politics (she was baptized a Methodist and later converted to Anglicanism), and about how much the person he knew differed from some of the myths and caricatures. The final hymn was Lady Thatcher’s favorite I Vow To The My Country, and when her coffin was carried out of the cathedral the crowd erupted into cheers and applause as the cathedral’s bells rang out.
In the run-up to the funeral, much had been made of possible disruption by left-wing protestors, but in the event few turned up; the Washington Post, rather optimistically, had reported that protestors were expected to ‘line the streets’, but there were barely enough of them to line a taxi stand. I suspect that many of the louts and “activists” who have been filmed drinking and dancing on the streets of London and elsewhere in the past few days forgot to set their alarms, and slept through the whole thing. Those protestors that did show up struggled to get themselves noticed or heard; early on in the proceedings there were reports of objects being thrown at the funeral procession, but it turned out the only things that were thrown were flowers.
But at least the protestors showed up, which is more than can be said for senior officials from the Obama administration. In what was seen as a snub both to Lady Thatcher’s memory and Britain’s present Conservative-led government, President Obama declined to send a high-level representative. The U.S. Delegation was headed by George Shultz and James Baker, who served as Secretaries of State under Reagan during the Thatcher years. Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger and Newt Gingrich attended as personal guests, while House Speaker John Boehner dispatched Republicans Michele Bachmann, Marsha Blackburn and George Holding (in a TV interview Bachmann described Lady Thatcher as “a great intellect who had a great heart … she was also a woman of faith, and was able to bring great moral clarity to bear”).
This was a state funeral in all but name, and the normal protocol would have been for Obama to send at least the vice-president. Joe Biden was, however, apparently too busy trying to salvage something from the wreckage of the gun control negotiations – although Americans can at least be grateful that they were spared the spectacle of Biden walking into St Paul’s and telling the Archbishop of Canterbury “This is a big f***ing cathedral!”.
If Biden really was too busy, then why not the First Lady, or Secretary of State John Kerry, or even Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton – you would have thought Hillary would have been chomping at the bit to attend, eager for parallels to be drawn between her and Britain’s first woman prime minister. In diplomatic terms, the delegation was lower-level than the one Obama sent to Venezuela for the funeral of the anti-American dictator Hugo Chavez last month (that was led by Democrat Congressman Gregory Meek,(who perhaps fittingly has been accused of having corrupt ties to the Chavez regime).
The snub comes as no surprise to us Brits who follow US politics – it’s entirely in keeping with the petty disrespect Obama is fond of showing his opponents, and will no doubt go down well with left-wingers both at home and abroad. And Obama has shown before what little regard he has for the “special relationship” between his country and Britain, from his decision to return, in a fit of anti-colonialist pique, the bust of Winston Churchill that was presented to George W Bush after 9/11, to his thoughtless and embarrassing gifts for former PM Gordon Brown (a set of DVDs) and the Queen (an iPod).
British conservatives won’t be particularly bothered by the Obama administration’s lack of respect. We – and no doubt Lady Thatcher herself – would rather have the cold-warriors Schultz and Baker, along with the likes of Cheney, Newt and Bachmann, paying their respects than the oafish Biden or the feeble appeaser Kerry (who in tandem with Obama would surely have prolonged the Cold War by another couple of decades, if not lost it altogether).
Lady Thatcher, of course, stood for just about everything that Obama opposes and sneers at: free enterprise, low taxes and the cause of the individual against the state home; and standing should-to-should with allies, and facing down intimidation by adversaries instead of indulging them, abroad.
So we’re not going to hold Obama’s snub against him. After all, the tributes paid to Lady Thatcher from all quarters over the past few days will have been a stark reminder of his own failings and shortcomings, both at home and on the foreign stage. Obama must already be painfully aware of how insignificant a figure America’s first black president will appear in the history books, when set alongside the first woman to lead a Western democracy.