March 12, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 17

By Allen Packwood


Daniel Finkelstein in The Times wrote that today’s events could be seen as more than a funeral for an individual, but as a watershed in the passing of the generation whose views and character were forged as young adults in the Second World War. Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925, her successor in 1943, and the current prime minister in 1966. The Evening Standard described a “State funeral in all but name,” carrying a picture of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square: “Not since the nation mourned Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 has the Queen attended the funeral of a British Prime Minister.”

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These comments got me thinking, as someone charged with helping to look after the archives of both Sir Winston Churchill and Baroness Thatcher, about their two funerals, separated by nearly half a century.

The first similarity is that they both took place in colour. This may sound bizarre, but the Churchill archive has so many black and white images of WSC’s funeral that it becomes very easy to think of it as a black and white event. Today allowed me to reimagine it in colour, looking afresh at the ceremonial uniforms and the decorations within the church. I suspect that this morning was considerably warmer than January 1965, though the arrival and departure of the coffin was still preceded by a cold blast of wind as the huge main doors were opened.

Much of the basic ceremony was common to both funerals. The perfectly timed and militarily precise procession to St Paul’s, the coffin draped in the Union Flag riding on a gun carriage escorted by a uniformed bearer party and honour guard; the traditional British funeral service with its hymns, readings and prayers; the presence of the Queen, the prime minister, former prime ministers, the leader of the opposition; representatives of foreign powers and the British political elite, all neatly arrayed in ranks dictated by diplomatic protocol and indicated by the colour of your ticket (my blue ticket ensured that I could not advance beyond the back of the nave).

There were differences in format. Churchill lay in state before his funeral, the Queen waited on the steps of St Paul’s for the coffin to leave, and Churchill’s service was followed by a progress up the Thames complete with accompanying fly past; but today’s event still had the look and feel of a public and State occasion.

Another similarity was the crowds, but probe a little more deeply and here also was a difference. The crowds that lined the route today carried digital devices, ensuring that every second was captured from multiple angles. Within the cathedral, waiting guests conversed on smartphones or iPads, following the coffin across London towards them on large television screens. There was a feeling of a media event; the mood outside the church was not solemn or sombre.

Instead of greeting the coffin in silence, as I am sure was the case in 1965, the crowds outside applauded and cheered. Some carried banners expressing their admiration or opposition to “Maggie,” or indeed their criticism of guests like Tony Blair, while others called out to celebrities as they arrived and departed.

Such changes in technology, social attitude and behaviour reflect a generational shift, one that probably began to take hold during Margaret Thatcher’s time in office. True, both funerals were very British affairs, but today’s was probably more self-consciously so, planned with the cameras and rolling news media in mind.

At the back, I was probably in the one place on the planet where you could not see much at all, though it still felt rather special to be there, almost like being an “extra” in the final act of some grand historical movie.

But at its heart there was a funeral service, and Amanda Thatcher’s brave reading in front of the world reminded me that this was not just about ceremony, or the end of an era, or a public spectacle, it was also about the passing of a great personage.

For a copy of the many references to Lady Thatcher in Finest Hour from 1983 to 2007, kindly email the editor.

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