Shortly before 10 a.m. London time the coffin of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, long-serving prime minister of Great Britain, emerged from the back entrance of the chapel in the Palace of Westminster under overcast skies to a hushed crowd. Bells pealed from a church near the Houses of Parliament, where Thatcher served 11 years, as the funeral procession began its long march to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The procession passed 10 Downing Street, from which Thatcher served three terms as prime minister, and made its way through Trafalgar Square before entering the Chapel of St. Clement Danes. From a brief service there, a military guard placed the casket on a horse-drawn gun carriage as it made its way along Fleet Street and into the heart of the city, up Ludgate Hill to St. Paul’s.
It was an outsized show of public mourning for a political figure who often drew scorn during her time in office, driven from office by her own party more than 20 years ago. A crowd police estimated to be three times the size of last summer’s Olympic winners’ parade lined the processional route. Steady applause and cheering followed Thatcher’s casket through the streets. In one moment of irony, onlookers flung flowers ahead of the caisson as it made its way along Fleet Street, the symbolic nucleus of British national newspapers that lambasted Thatcher during her time in office—nicknaming her “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” for cutting a universal milk program to schoolchildren. Boos punctuated cheering along the route but the mostly black-clad mourners were respectful, admiring even.
Simply showing up to greet the passing funeral procession became an act of courage after Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon made public street events a potentially deadly undertaking. Streets along the funeral route began to close on Tuesday and Scotland Yard doubled its police force to nearly 10,000 for the event. Authorities also anticipate heavy security to accompany Sunday’s London Marathon, with 37,000 runners expected in spite of the marathon bombing in Boston that killed three and wounded more than 170.
Funeral arrangements for Thatcher—one of Britain’s longest-serving politicians, who saw the country’s transition from its post-World War II economic doldrums to the end of the Cold War—actually began several years ago. Code-named “Operation True Blue,” a committee representing national security and intelligence services, Buckingham Palace, Parliament, government departments, and the Church of England began drafting plans for what was anticipated to be a very controversial laying to rest.
The True Blue preliminaries proved essential when Queen Elizabeth announced shortly after Thatcher’s April 8 death that she would attend the service, and after the Boston bombings. The queen had not attended services for any former prime minister since Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965.
Over a decade ago Thatcher drew up a list of 1,200 people she would like to attend her funeral. It included Nancy Reagan, widow of former President Ronald Reagan, who at 91 was not able to travel to London this week. And it included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who at 89 became the dean of the American attendees after President Barack Obama declined to attend—or to send any elected or currently appointed officials on his behalf.
Leading the official U.S. delegation were former Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker, who both served while Thatcher was in power. A congressional delegation and former GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party favorite and a member of the U.S. House from Minnesota, also attended.
Plenty of heads of state were in attendance, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major. Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney also attended.
Inside St. Paul’s, the bishop of London, Richard Chartres, began his invocation by acknowledging “the storm of conflicting opinions” surrounding Thatcher, who he said “became a symbolic figure—even an -ism.” The decision to hold a ceremonial service for Thatcher, rather than a formal state funeral, he said, was meant to “recognize the wife, mother, and grandmother in the mythological figure.”
Thatcher had before her death requested a reading from Ephesians 6:10-18 by her granddaughter Amanda Thatcher. The 19-year-old is a graduate of Highland Park High School in Dallas, where she was captain of the girl’s track team and made a recent missions trip to China.
Current Prime Minister David Cameron gave a second reading from John 14:1-6. Chartres, in his homily, quoted Thatcher at length: “Christianity offers no easy solutions to political and economic issues. It teaches us that there is some evil in everyone and that it cannot be banished by sound policies and institutional reforms. We cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them.”
That was the heart of the British leader, who espoused a firm moral order, limited government, and individual freedom. Even as demonstrators and her detractors clustered in the streets, Britain’s farewell to its “Iron Lady” overall was warm, admiring, and respectful.
As the service ended at noon, a delegation from Poland gathered outside St. Paul’s, including Congress of the New Right President Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who said he met Thatcher several times as she supported the democratic uprising in the former Communist bloc nation. Also in the delegation was a 28-year-old member of New Right who said he came simply to pay respects for a heroine. Thatcher “broke the trade unions and she was very effective,” Korwin-Mikke told London’s Daily Telegraph. “I think there are more people who admire her in Poland than in England.”