THE bells of Big Ben were silenced.

Flags flew at half-mast. Crowds lined the streets as the coffin draped in the Union flag was taken on a gun carriage with a military escort through central London to St Paul's Cathedral.

Margaret Thatcher had decreed that she would have no memorial service full of eulogies from old colleagues. Yet her funeral yesterday, despite the emphasis placed by the Bishop of London Richard Chartres on "the simple truths which transcend political debate", was a state occasion in all but name.

Loading article content

Far from uniting the nation, however, the contrast between the cheers from people lining the route of the cortege and the protests such as Yorkshire miners parading an effigy of the late Prime Minister illustrated how deeply divisive a figure she remains. It is not surprising that, at a time of swingeing cuts across public spending, the cost of the ceremonial funeral has attracted considerable anger. Reports of £10m have been dismissed as exaggerated by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, but security required 4000 police officers and the ceremonial arrangements 700 military personnel.

Such expenditure, even if significantly less than £10m, is difficult to justify. But the pomp and ceremony on a scale comparable with the funerals of the Queen Mother and Diana Princess of Wales raise more fundamental questions about the nature of the accolade for a former Prime Minister in the UK, where the head of government is not head of state. That distinction normally means that only royalty is accorded the sort of ceremonial which marked Baroness Thatcher's final journey. The exception was the state funeral for Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. It, however, honoured a Prime Minister who had led a National Government at a time when the country was united in the struggle against Nazi Germany. There was a palpable sense that a nation paying tribute and full military honours for a wartime leader was appropriate and the presence of the Queen was expected.

While admirers of Mrs Thatcher, inside and outside St Paul's and across the country, wanted to honour her memory in similar fashion, it was not only the protesters but also many people unwilling to be publicly disrespectful who were unhappy at the lavish scale and expense of her funeral.

It is undeniable that she was a major national figure and deserves acknowledgement as the both longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century and the first woman to hold that office. To argue that she should be singled out for honour for the transformational effect of her policies, however, is to move on to dangerous ground. While she succeeded in smashing many shibboleths, the results remain controversial, especially now when unemployment is high and welfare spending has become a political football generating a poisonous dichotomy about the "haves" and "have-nots".

The claim that Clement Attlee brought about equally radical change through establishing the welfare state and the NHS is valid and the contrast with his modest funeral, attended by 150 mourners, striking. Mrs Thatcher reportedly did not want her funeral arrangements to be a waste of money. If so, the panoply of gun salutes and military pomp were a disservice, even for one who dispatched a task force to successfully reinforce the sovereignty of the Falklands. Misplaced militarism must not be repeated. Though "subject to the common destiny of all human beings" as the Bishop of London said, even in death, all prime ministers remain political figures; especially Margaret Thatcher.