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The Right’s politicisation of Margaret Thatcher’s death, part two

Posted on 11 April 2013 | 1:04pm

As I said yesterday, I spent Monday driving down from Scotland, listening to hour upon hour of coverage about Mrs Thatcher’s death. When the news was announced that David Cameron was cutting short his meetings with European leaders to return to London, I thought ‘why?’ The answer is perhaps becoming clearer.

What would he, as Prime Minister, be expected to do when the death of such an important public figure was announced, that he could not have done overseas? First, he would be expected to speak on behalf of the nation and, as he was like her a leader of the Conservatives, their political party. Second, he might be expected to make a call to the family. Third, to make sure all necessary arrangements were in place. All doable from anywhere in the world.

I know from my time in Downing Street that there are plans, kept under regular review, for the arrangements in the event of the death of senior public figures, like ex Prime Ministers and members of the Royal Family. I know too that the plans for Margaret Thatcher’s death were reviewed more than once since David Cameron became Prime Minister, and that in the event of her death during a Parliamentary recess, the guidance was clear there would be no recall of Parliament, and that tributes should be made in both Houses on the first day back. This is what happened when Jim Callaghan died, for example.

The Conservatives are supposed to believe in tradition and precedent. Yet Cameron decided to ditch both, tear up his own travel plans, and head back to London effectively to demand a recall of Parliament. He is now saying that this also had the support of The Speaker and Ed Miliband. The truth is it was hard for Ed Miliband to say anything but yes, Prime Minister, or fall into a trap that would have had the Right accusing him of tribally disrespecting a huge national figure. I understand that if the Labour leader had said No, The Speaker would have rejected the demand for a recall. Prime Ministers are rightly powerful people. Cameron used that power to make sure that what he wanted happened. His own chief whip was seemingly taken by surprise. The Speaker’s office instructed staff shortly after the death was announced that there would be no recall, because that was what their well rehearsed plans stated.

So we are left with the question – why? What was so urgent that these tributes could not wait until Parliament was back? And it is hard to escape the conclusion that as a politician, not as a national leader, Mr Cameron and his team saw some advantage. Perhaps, as has been suggested to me by a civil servant, he was worried that the many Thatcher worshippers on the Murdoch papers, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express would turn their ire further upon him if he did not bow down in worship with them. Perhaps he felt some potential benefit in associating himself closely with a strong leader who, in death, was likely to have greater focus on achievements than failings. Perhaps he felt that this association would help him with his right wing which fears he is not a strong leader, and that his brand of Conservatism is shipping support to UKIP. Perhaps he thinks her presence back at the heart of national debate will help him with the difficult decisions ahead, on welfare for example.

Whatever the possible reasoning, the fact is that it is the break with tradition and precedent, the recall of Parliament, and the nature of the funeral arrangements – effectively a State funeral by stealth, without full Parliamentary approval – which have politicised the death in a way that was not necessary and risks becoming horribly divisive, that word so often associated with Mrs Thatcher’s style and policies.

That papers who have long believed she should have been sanctified have done so should surprise nobody. But Cameron should not have put himself in a position where it looks like he is joining in.

  • You forgot the local elections. Thatcher-mania may help reduce a land-slide defeat and Cameron needs all those local workers happy in two years’ time.

    Only a conspiracist would suggest that someone ensured that she died at the best time, but Tories are notoriously good at taking advantage of any opportunity whatever the ethical or financial (as long as someone else is paying) considerations.

  • Anonymous

    Although I can’t stand Cameron, I can’t really blame him for politicising her death. If the shoe was on the other foot, I’m sure Campbell and Blair would have done exactly the same thing. Its the people who actually fall for it all that I blame.

  • Shirley Davis

    I’ve returned to say am not enjoying this national mourning for someone who ruined many lives. And have seen a figure from apartheid SA is on guest list – that makes me so sad, I could explode!

  • Anonymous

    It’s such an obvious ploy to wrap Thatcher around Cameron as the start of his ‘re election campaign.’ Labour always plays the game, and gets screwed by the Tories every time. Politics as you know is a dirty game. Someone should remind the Shadow Cabinet of that ie you 🙂

  • Anonymous

    This so reminds me of Blair and the death of Diana. It’s no more than political opportunism as Alastair well knows.

  • Anonymous

    Yep, you’re right. This is a seedy attempt by the Conservatives to promote themselves, aided and abetted by some of the establishment. I hope it will backfire, simply by reminding people what wickedness looks like. To use a phrase you’re fond of, AC, perhaps the UK press is actually behind the curve on this one. The foreign press will do us a favour if they seek out those antipathetical to this crap – that’s the real story.

  • Gilliebc

    Cameron is doing what he always does, i.e. making it up as he goes along and not missing an opportunity to bathe in what he probably sees as reflected glory. He’s an opportunistic media savvy, snake oil salesman.
    It’s quite telling too that the Telegraph have not given many opportunities for people to comment on the death of MT. Some blogs were open for comments for a short while, but quickly closed down when they didn’t get the sort of comments they were looking for.

  • Anonymous

    Tory right have been having a right sickfest this week. Bilious I am.

  • Anonymous

    Tory right have been having a right sickfest this week. Bilious I am.

  • Mark Wright

    The Tories have made the mistake of assuming that their current policies of blame and division would be further bolstered by a timely look back at the past for the nation to remind itself that sometimes tough Tory medicine is what is needed to make the patient better in the long run.

    Except the Tory cure has not turned out to be better in the long run, has it?

    Endless footage of Thatcher’s 80’s has reinforced what many already know. It has also provided an opportunity for those who were either too young, or too transfixed by the Tory promise of prosperity at the time, to reevaluate the Thatcher legacy in the context of our modern times. Many will now find that legacy wanting.

    In Oct 2002 the then Tory Party chairwoman Theresa May acknowledged in her speech that the Conservatives are seen as “the nasty party”. She was right. Two successive landslide defeats had forced the ‘natural party of government’ to take a hard look at themselves. So toxic was the Tory brand that their next leader David Cameron spent FIVE YEARS tobogganing with dogs, declaring his love for hooded apparel and changing the party logo to a squiggly tree in a desperate bid to make the Tories electable. He even modified the traditional Tory deep blue to a more more accessible, amenable, lighter shade (a bit like the blue Alastair uses on this very page in fact 😉 ).

    The reasoning behind both his, and Theresa May’s, thinking was clear – a significant part of the electorate think the Tories are a bunch of heartless bastards who couldn’t give a toss about those less fortunate and seek only to further their wealth and power; if the Conservatives are to have any chance of winning they must redefine themselves and put as much clear (light) blue water between them and their past as is politically possible to do without alienating their core vote.

    I hate to break it any Conservatives who may be reading this but that reputation was not forged during the ailing years of John Major’s premiership.

    Cameron stuck rigidly to his strategy until relatively recently.

    By picking up Thatcher’s torch and using it to light up a legacy that is seen as cause for celebration only by the privileged few and those that wish they were, David Cameron has performed yet another U-turn (oh, the irony).

    However, this is a more serious misjudgment than most on his part. By insisting on a recall of parliament enabling us to witness various Tories genuinely waxing lyrical about the ‘good old days’ and by pushing for an ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not A State Funeral’ funeral he’s managed to focus an entire nation on those very aspects of the Conservative Party’s past that he’s spent the last 8 years trying to get us to forget.

    It was absurd (and expensive) to bring back parliament during recess for ONE day in order for a debate that could have taken place mere days later. To then have the PM have an *actual* day off next Wednesday as he basks in the steely blue aurora of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral will only seek to reinforce for many, and perhaps highlight for the very first time to many others, that David Cameron, and the Conservative Party he serves, is, and always was, the mouthpiece of the British Establishment and that our glass ceiling is their glass floor. It always was. And in their eyes, it always will be.

  • Anonymous

    No – Diana was not a political figure.The equivalent would have been Blair playing up the death of say, Barnara Castle.

  • Andrew Bonser

    Great article. We are in the midst of a nostalgia binge and it’s warping peoples sense of rational and objective thought leading to selective memory. This is a potentially dangerous path politicians and the media are leading us on. Nostalgia cannot be allowed to inform policy and politics. It is worrying for democracy that the population as a whole is expected to show deference to a politician in this way, and the vilification of those that don’t? It is even more worrying that an independent head of state and her military is being drawn into this political show. Is one part of our society once again to be cast as the enemy within?

  • Dave Simons

    In September 1997 Tony Blair was still on honeymoon after a landslide electoral victory. He had no need whatsoever to try to turn to his own political advantage the opportunity of Diana’s death.

  • Liz Broomfield

    Thank you for your excellent articles on this subject. I’m still conflicted as to what to do on Wednesday. I have always said I will go and chain myself to some railings if She was given a State Funeral. Now we’re told it’s not that … but it is, really. There is talk of lining the route with backs turned. But I don’t want to get caught up in a riot. There are talks of stuff going on locally, but again, riots. What does a good lefty and her friends do in this situation? Any advice? I’ve already been carefully not watching the coverage …

  • HollyGirl


  • Anonymous

    Mark, it’s not the who that counts, it’s the opportunism. Perhaps a better analogy would have been be GB for TB or vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think the head of state is independent, that is the point, though it may suit the House of Windsor to pretend they’ve been misled. In the last couple of years they’ve shown their colours all too clearly.

  • Anna Knowles

    A thoughtful and considered piece here from Peter Oborne – a right-winger, but on this occasion, right.

    He remarks that Attlee too was a transformational Prime Minister, who introduced the welfare state and the NHS, but who had a modest private funeral, without military or civil pomp.

    Cameron’s attempt to bolster the Tory party might backfire. A useful reminder of the horrors of Thatcher will be the sight of her son following her coffin: a convicted felon who dare not visit his own children in their country of residence for fear of arrest and prosecution; the epitome of the greed of his mother’s era, when true skills were devalued and only the ‘entrepreneurial’ had any status, the fast buck merchants who knew how to part mugs from their money.h

  • Anonymous

    1. Cameron almost certainly is politicising her death, though its true to say that he was under pressure from the media and the right to do so, and that Miliband was under incredible pressure to go along with it.

    2. For a Blairite, and the chief spin doctor no less, to criticise such behaviour is utterly laughable!

    I think one thing left and right are united in this week, see the tributes from Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and others, is that Blair and Cameron are exactly the sort of guys who would focus group such a course of action and act accordingly, whereas Thatcher would have looked to her own mind and what she believed was right (even if she had warped sense of that) and act accordingly. So a really bad time to mention playing politics, when one of the giants of not playing politics has just died.


    ‘Cameron is doing what he always does’ – Really – he has not made up a WAR yet – re Iraq

  • Anonymous

    Point taken but Diana didn’t divide the country in the way politicians do (though i have to confess my partner for one was heartily p—-d off with the whole Diana thing!). The opportunism is surely in attaching yourself to a politician you admire to advance your own political cause, which I am staring to think is what Cameron is up to. Bllair didn’t do that with Diana’s death.

    Your TB/GB thing is, um, interesting but its still early in the morning and I’m not sure I could get my head round that one without about 20 or so slugs of strong coffee.

  • Anonymous

    He might not have had a need as you put it but the fact is he did.

  • Michele

    Tony Blair had to help the Queen, she was in shock and had no experience to let her know what to do within the more modern world.
    Her family would always have had the formal arrangements made for them in just the way Thatcher’s funeral is being arranged now.

    Her background was one of darkened rooms/screened windows during mourning.

    I hated the way the public expected her to jump through hoops, to display her shock, to want an actress’s performance.
    She grieved in private and she awaited the formal guidance she should have.

  • Michele

    What an ugly cyncial spin, barf barf barf

  • Michele

    I can’t believe YOUR opportunism.

    Why don’t YOU state just what TB should have done after 6 days of the Queen being in a kind of purdah? A very suitable and understandable one. Imho it was the public that behaved appallingly.

    I was working like a demon that weekend, the crash was just being reported as I was going to bed and when I got up 3hrs later PD was dead. Don’t mind admitting that although I had little regard for her I did have for her boys and couldn’t believe either set of people that filled London that week – either those with the ‘So what’ attitude or those expecting the Queen to come over all Judy Garland.

  • Anonymous

    This funeral is being brought to you by The Conservative Party.

  • Dave Simons

    So what should he have done? Kept well out of it? You’d have damned him if he didn’t as you damn him as he did. I’d have liked him to qualify any personal regret with a scathing attack on the institution of monarchy and celebrity culture, but there was a fat chance of that, and I might be in a minority for a few years yet!

  • Dave Simons

    Entirely agree. One aspect of the great individualistic and entrepreneurial ideology we’ve had rammed down our throats for three decades is you rarely hear about the many small businesses that failed – only the success stories. We got one of the latter on Channel 4 News last night from a supposedly rags-to-riches character who, I’m sorry to say, had dishonesty and crooked dealing oozing out of every pore. The juxtaposition of the Attlee and Thatcher funerals is a fitting expression of how the worthy are forgotten, under-rated and taken-for-granted, and the unworthy get sanctified.

  • Dave Simons

    Correction – you’re just describing different ways of playing politics.

  • Michele

    What ‘tribute’ has KL made? Did you mis-read this …….. “Every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact she was fundamentally wrong”.

    As for her ‘not playing politics’? Nope, she played class war (believing herself to have been elevated).

  • ikeaddy

    Excellent observations, as ever Alastair. My view is that it’s wrong to celebrate someone’s death – no matter how you feel about them. But as the Right have politicised Thatcher’s demise, they can’t really complain if the Left do the same.

  • Michele

    Is he crying at the shaming rollicking he’s finally getting from IMF?
    Unemployment figures lurched upwards again today; such Irony.

  • Anonymous

    Garbage! Doing or saying what you think is right is the opposite of playing politics! Don’t you know what the phrase means?! Thatcher and Benn didn’t play politics, Blair and Cameron do it with every issue, ie think about how what they say or do will “play” will it bolster them and undermine their opponents.

    There is an argument about whether it is right to be of conviction, or indeed right to respond to opinion in a democracy, but that’s another issue.

  • Anonymous

    Both Ken and Benn saluted her strength and the fact she was a politician of principles with whom you knew where you stood ie if you voted for her you knew what she would do. They didn’t mention them but you knew it was a dig at Blair and call me Dave. (Wonder why she never got the moniker “call me Maggie”).

    And yes of course they both said they thought she left the poor poorer, the country more unequal etc etc, they didn’t salute her policies.

  • Dave Simons

    Of course Thatcher and Benn played politics – they were both ‘professional politicians’ like Blair and Cameron. Example – why did Thatcher choose not to have a confrontation with the miners in 1981, as planned by Nicholas Ridley before 1978? Because whatever her convictions about what was right a political assessment was that it was the wrong time – the electorate (aka ‘the country’) would not have supported her. Similarly when you talk about Benn’s convictons you forget that he was a minister in Harold Wilson’s government before he acquired his now more famous left-wing convictions, and he was certainly not sympathetic to radical students in the 1960s, though ironically a lot of them became Bennites in the later 1970s and 1980s.

  • Michele

    You’ve got ESP then (to know what Ken and Benn were really thinking)?
    Or just pretending and wrong wrong wrong ?

    I don’t believe the thang about ‘principles’ or the word ‘strong’, both were utterly wrong assessments imhoo.
    It IS ‘only’ an honest opinion (but still better than one that’s clinging on to a mirage and pseudo-Rambo fakery).

    Force is not principled, forcing men who’d spent up to 6yrs at war followed by 35+yrs down t’pit or in steelmaking and providing nothing at all for them to move in to was about no more than ugly snobbish cruelty, self-interest and ‘proving’ what only similarly-minded wannabe-Rambo oddities would describe as strength.

    These were men who were paid hourly (and not at all when off work even if by industrial injury).
    DS’s post elsewhere says it all.

    Govts should treat all citizens as equals and that is not what anyone would claim Thatcher did.

    I’m not up for a slanging match about the dead, it’s not worth it.

    Propaganda is everywhere !

  • Michele

    This is off topic of the title but is definitely on topic re the horrible sense of entitlement squelching and oozing out of every pore of a certain family we are being smothered by these days.

    I don’t remember BJ’s Dad talking in BJ’s flummery ‘style’ in the few snips I’d seen of him on TV in the past, perhaps it’s less noticeable when not simply being listened to as on radio:-
    5mins interview with the wannabe clown

    It’s all such a hoot innit? :-s

  • Michele

    Just listening to Steve Richards discussing the authorised biography from Charles Moore and the position it puts such a writer in to.

    All the new info that’s come to light about boyfriends pre-Denis has come from letters written to her adoring sister which Muriel saved and their author must have inherited.

  • Michele

    I always listen to ‘The Reunion’ and have regarded it as in-depth discussion. I’m such an ingenue eh?

    Isn’t detail its very reason to be?
    Sue MacGregor mentioned at about 37+ mins in that AC had been invited to be part of the conversation while adding (somewhat spinnily?) that if he had been present it WOULD have been even noisier.
    Not might be, would.

    She said he’d responded ‘prefer not to’

    Did she remind anyone she’d been part of the Today team at the time?

    The ‘popular’ G Dyke had apparently not seen, heard or read a single news item or headline including the infamous words ‘sexed up’ till 3 days afterwards. I do not believe that.

    Spin and accusation and sin of omission all over t’place isn’t there?

  • Michele

    Oooops my error, Ms MacGregor had actually left ‘Today’ (although obviously not the Beeb) about a year before the interview with slobby Gilligan so wasn’t a ‘physical’ part of that team any more.

  • Michele

    yadder yadder

    John Rentoul was on The Media Show late last year and the interview about his book

    was noted on iPlayer to show that it was going to stay on for a year rather than the usual week …..

    It’s gone.

    Isn’t it time that Hardtalk / Sackur tackled a few of the Beeb’s own?
    Tucking things away (such as a very interesting play on the topic that was on recently but with very little oooompahpah ) is simply making OUR precious organisation look defensive and dishonest.

  • john

    I can not understand why this woman that sold this countrys industrys put 4 mil on the dole and changed how people think about the poor (as spongers), When it was her polices that stoped us working in the first place she made it so the money go’s one way to London. And now we as u.k can not make trade as we dont make anything any one wants NO COAL SHIPS STEEL. And she did all this for WHO not the people OF THIS country no for a few of her rich friends who are still there now .to compaire her to winston chirchill was so wrong. He united us. She divided us i was so disapointed with all the money we spent on her. Still jobseekers paying of her now as 20 mil is what the torys took from them this year in cuts funny that is or not !