“After the storm of a life lived in the heat of political controversy, there is a great calm.” The Bishop of London’s sermon at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral Wednesday morning moved at least one member of the British cabinet to tears. But what was really remarkable about the sermon was its measured tone. Somehow one felt that the bishop might not have been a fervent Thatcherite himself, and yet he found something kind to say to those close to the former prime minister — “it must be difficult for those members of her family and close associates to recognize the wife, mother and grandmother in the mythological figure” — and something personal to say about her as well.
He remembered Thatcher’s famous attentiveness to the people who worked for her and cited a warning she once gave him at a dinner: “Don’t touch the duck paté, bishop – it’s very fattening.” He reminded the congregation that this was a funeral, not a memorial service: Thus there were no eulogies and no politics, only reflections on life, death, faith, family and continuity.
And formality was exactly what was required. The congregation included several people who had been her bitter political opponents — Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe, for example, two of the Tory leaders who brought her down — as well as three of her successors as prime minister: John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, all of whom might have had cause to resent her at different times. But in a well-run democracy, one shows respect for elected leaders, especially leaders who were in power for a long time, even if one comes from the opposite party or holds different views.
Intuitively, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral also seemed to understand this when he went out of his way to “pray for this nation, giving thanks for its traditions of freedom, for the rule of law and for parliamentary democracy” in his invocation. Around me, several people nodded. I arrived with the unusually large Polish delegation – prime minister, finance minister, foreign minister (to whom I am married) and former president Lech Walesa – but I happened to be sitting near the Hungarian prime minister and the Bulgarian president, as well as various Czechs, South Africans, Germans, Estonians and Italians. Not all of those countries have always had the rule of law or been democracies. I’d wager that even now, not all of them give thanks for the rule of law and democracy at the funerals of their senior statesman. But the rule of law and parliamentary democracy were precisely what was on display at St. Paul’s today, and thus the controversy Margaret Thatcher created in life was replaced by a great calm.