A prime minister's funeral cortege through secret London reveals Britain's divided political loyalties
The route of Margaret Thatcher's funeral cortege tomorrow is steeped in the secret history of London. Her hearse will pass by sites in the Britain's capital, which colored her period in office, as Prime Minister, from 1979 to 1991. Yet at the same time these places will amplify the stark differences between her supporters and opponents. From ancient London to a city riven by class, politics and greed, these streets act as a prism on the Britain of today.
Tonight the body of Mrs. Thatcher lies in state, for fellow MPs and peers, in the crypt, Chapel St Mary Undercroft, in the Palace of Westminster, originally built by King Edward in 1297. A stone's throw from the House of Lords, it is a timely reminder to many of Mrs. Thatcher's former cabinet members, now in their eighties, "of their own mortality" according to a source working for a parliamentary peer. As the funeral processes up Whitehall tomorrow, it will be legally protected within the UK Exclusion Zone -- a 1,000-foot area around the Mother of Parliaments, where protest of any kind has been banned by law. Even Big Ben, which rings every quarter of an hour, will fall silent as it did during Winston Churchill's 1965 funeral and World War I when London lived in fear of German Zeppelins.
The cortege will process past 10 Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence where the campaign of the 1982 Falklands war was planned. At the top of Whitehall, at the end of the Exclusion Zone lies Trafalgar Square. Interestingly although the square celebrates the colonies, through the surrounding architecture and statues, it is one of London's few public spaces that has a long-standing history of permitted protest and dissent. On March 31, 1990, anarchists and anti-government demonstrators started fires all over the West End and descended on the square to fight running battles with the police during the riots against the poll tax, a regressive tax that Thatcher was eventually forced to abandon.
During her time in office, Trafalgar Square was also home to the Non-Stop Picket, a 24-hour vigil in front of South Africa House against apartheid, from 1986 to 1990. Thatcher never called Nelson Mandela "a terrorist"; it was the ANC, she believed, to be "a terrorist organization." In 1996, Mandela came to London and gave a speech from the balcony of South Africa House.
The funeral cortege will continue, making its way along The Strand, one of London's oldest thoroughfares that was established alongside the bank of the Thames before ancient Roman times. Twelve hundred years later, The Strand was part of Imperial London. People destined for the colonies bought pith helmets there. Empire was big industry, according to the Royal Geographic Society, "Between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, at its height it covered almost a quarter of the Earth's land surface and included nearly one-third of the world's population."
Before Waterloo Bridge, the hearse will pass the Savoy, where the political operators always made deals and when they were finished retired to Simpson's. It will also wind it way around the theaters of the Aldwych, recalling for many, the element of pantomime during the Thatcher years. The prime minister loved baiting her opponents with gambits like, "This lady is not for turning."
By the former headquarters of the BBC World Service in Bush House and the London School of Economics there will be echoes from the past of some of the harshest criticism against Thatcher policies that criminalized the poor and dissolved the unions. The cortege will then skirt the first of the "island churches" in the middle of the street, Mary Le-Strand, once the scenes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dances around a giant maypole. However it is the second island church, St. Clement Danes bombed during the Blitz and associated with the RAF (Royal Air Force), where Thatcher's coffin will be moved from the hearse. Her casket will then be put onto a ceremonial gun carriage drawn by the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery and escorted by 700 Armed Services personnel.
North of Fleet Street are the Inns of Court which would have witnessed dramatic legislative changes during Thatcher's premiership -- the privatization and sale of council flats, alongside welfare cut-backs -- the same ideological policies her Tory inheritors have re-instituted into the current coalition government. In front of the Royal Courts of Justice tomorrow will wait a 41-year old mother who plans to protest against Mrs. Thatcher in an understated way, by turning her back to the funeral. Since Rebecca Lush Blum could be arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, she sought permission from the police. "I am a working mum now," she told the Guardian newspaper, "and I just can't afford to be kettled" -- police control crowd tactics of squeezing protesters -- "or arrested and miss the school pickup."
Further down on Fleet Street, mourners will have a chance to nip into the legendary Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, just like Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens would have done -- for a farewell pint. Ironically, Fleet was once home to British newspapers before the acrimonious Wapping dispute, a year after the 1985-86 miners' strike when thousands lost their livelihoods and families were destroyed. The new trade union legislation of Mrs. Thatcher's encouraged newspaper magnates like Rupert Murdoch to make mass dismissals -- up to 6,000 -- after print-workers rejected new and less costly printing technology and went on strike. Murdoch's subsequent victory put the final nail into the coffin of the country's trade union movement and changed media in Britain and the United States forever.
The gun carriage, accompanied by the funeral dirges of Chopin, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, will climb its last mile up Ludgate Hill, where the pre-Roman founder of London, King Lud, is supposedly buried. Immediately before Christopher Wren's seventeenth-century masterpiece St Paul's Cathedral, it will journey pass the site where London Occupy ran a camp, complete with lectures and a newspaper, before protesters were evicted. Any threat to the free market economy was something that Mrs. Thatcher would not have tolerated, even from beyond the grave.
* The barony of Kesteven was not in use since 1915 until the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher took Kesteven -- a subdivision of Lincolnshire within which lies her hometown of Grantham -- as the name for her peerage. LG, OM and FRS respectively refer to Lady of the Garter, Order of Merit and Fellow of the Royal Society.