/ 17 April 2013

Thatcher laid to rest as opponents turn backs on funeral

Pallbearers carry the coffin of Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Pallbearers carry the coffin of Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

About two dozen opponents of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher turned their backs on her funeral procession and some others booed as her coffin passed through central London on a gun carriage on Wednesday.

One man held up a placard "Boo!" and some shouted "scum" while others clapped, threw flowers along the route and cheered for Britain's longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, Reuters reporters said.

Thousands of supporters lined the route from Westminster to St Paul's Cathedral.

Polls have shown that many are unhappy that the estimated 10-million pound bill for the funeral is being picked up by the taxpayer, while some left-wing lawmakers say the pomp-filled funeral is excessive.

A coffin containing the body of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was driven Wednesday from the Houses of Parliament to the church of St Clement Danes for prayers ahead of the former leader's full funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral.

From there the coffin – draped in a Union flag and topped with white roses and a note from her children reading "beloved mother" – will be borne on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses to the cathedral, where 2 300 invited guests await.

Queen among mourners
Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip will be among the mourners, who include dignitaries from around the world, 11 prime ministers, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former US vice-president Dick Cheney.

Dozens of people camped out overnight near the 17th-century cathedral in hopes of catching a glimpse of Thatcher's coffin and its military escort, and hundreds had arrived hours before the funeral was due to start.

"I came to commemorate the greatest hero of our modern age," said 25-year-old Anthony Boutall, clutching a blue rose. "She took a nation on its knees and breathed new life into it."

Flags on government buildings were lowered to half-staff across the country ahead of the service, but not all Britons were joining in the mourning.

Hundreds of political opponents said they would stage a silent protest by turning their backs as the coffin went by.

"Like anyone else she deserves a decent funeral, but not at the expense of the taxpayer," said protester Patricia Welsh (69).

Security after Boston bombings
More than 700 soldiers, sailors and air force personnel will line the route to the cathedral and around 4 000 police officers will be on duty as part of a major security operation, stepped up after Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and wounded more than 170.

Parliament's Big Ben bell will be silenced for the funeral service, which will include hymns and passages from the Bible read by Prime Minister David Cameron and the late premier's granddaughter, Amanda Thatcher.

The woman nicknamed the Iron Lady transformed Britain during her 11-year tenure from 1979 to 1990, privatising state industries, deregulating the economy, and causing upheaval whose impact is still felt.

She died on April 8 at age 87.

Thatcher is being given a ceremonial funeral with military honours – not officially a state funeral, which requires a vote in Parliament. Still, the proceedings will feature the same level of pomp and honour afforded Princess Diana in 1997 and the Queen Mother Elizabeth in 2002.

That has raised the ire of some Britons, those who believe her legacy is a socially and economically divided nation.

Retired teacher Henry Page stood outside the cathedral on Wednesday morning bearing a sign in protest at the funeral's reported $15-million cost that read: "Over 10 million pounds of our money for a Tory funeral!"

Cameron insisted the ceremony was "a fitting tribute to a great prime minister respected around the world".

The dean of St Paul's, David Ison, has acknowledged the funeral has divided opinion, but said the service itself would be a sombre affair.

"There is no tribute," he said. "There is no eulogy, and that was Mrs Thatcher's decision. It's not being triumphalist. It's not a celebration of her life and her achievements."

Some high profile guests sent their regrets:

  • Former first Lady Nancy Reagan – whose husband Ronald had a close relationship with Thatcher – will not be able to attend;
  • Nor will former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who shared key moments in history with the late prime minister.
  • Germany's Angela Merkel was sending her foreign minister;
  • America's political power families the Clintons and the Bushes declined to attend;
  • Alicia Castro, Argentina's ambassador to the UK also declined.

Thatcher went to war in 1982 to retake the Falkland Islands after Argentina invaded the remote British territory off the South American coast. – Sapa-AP additional reporting by Reuters