17 Apr 2013

What Churchill's funeral says about Margaret Thatcher's

It was the smoke billowing above the dreaming spires far away down the line that announced he was coming.

We had stood in the bitter January wind waiting for what seemed hours. In our grey flannel suits and inadequate coats, we waited for the coffin of a man we had been told was perhaps the greatest prime minister of all time. In short, a man who saved the very country into which we had been born.

I was 17. I had no memory of the war, I was a bulge baby born after it. In life Churchill had seemed a remote figure from history. And yet as the train bearing his coffin drew closer, announcing its presence with a wailing horn, I and the boys among whom I stood felt huge emotion.

We had all grown up among parents who still grieved for lost loved ones; parents who had lived in the Blitz; parents who spoke chillingly of Hitler and the concentration camps; parents who talked of the “few”.

There had been strip cartoons about Churchill in our Eagle comics. We knew of his time in the Boer war as a correspondent. We knew too that he had written a remarkable multi-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples.

History records his flaws: spirits, a temper, a headstrong sense of his own being and capacity. But above all we knew that this was a man like no other who had led our families and the country through the country’s darkest hour.

Margaret Thatcher’s funeral – reaction, video and tweets in our live blog

When I saw Churchill’s coffin, draped in the union flag, flanked by a guardsman at each corner of the wagon. I cried and bowed my head. This was history, and every fibre of my being knew it. I glimpsed the driver in the engine cab, the guard at the rear, and then the disappearing red tail light as the train wound its way on to Blaydon and his final resting place.

I find myself thinking of that day, on Oxford’s Port Meadow. Today we bury another prime minister, a leader who leaves a population divided upon her legacy. It is a kind of moment in history.

For me, however – and, I feel sure, for a good many who witnessed Churchill’s passing – the emotions are less stirred. Respectful, aware that this day is not the same, and not eliciting the same acknowledgement of history.

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37 reader comments

  1. Groc says:

    I’m not entirely sure why she is being giving a military funeral – wouldn’t it be more appropriate if her coffin were borne by a procession of dusty right-wing economists and merchant bankers?

  2. Meg Howarth says:

    Beautifully understated and moving, Jon. Am about to leave to join the protestors who’ll be turning their backs on the Thatcher funeral procession for the simple reason that it’s become a nauseating overblown party-political spectacle. So an own-goal for Cameron and co as I’d otherwise have stayed away.

    1. Bob morris says:

      Wow what a vindictive nasty bunch you lefties are, it is a funeral of an old lady. Meg Howarth comments she is on the way to ‘turn her back’ on Mrs Thatchers coffin, crickey that’ll show them. The left rewrite history, cannot face up to the recent damage of 13 years of labour in power. You’ll never learn as you don’t study the facts and the facts are that Mrs T led this country at a time that socialist policies had nearly destroyed the UK. Once again the Conservatives are trying to cleanup the bloody mess….

    2. Meg Howarth says:

      It’ll clearly come as a surprise to you, Bob, but some ‘lefties’ are not supporters of the Labour Party – or indeed of any self-defining ‘left’ organisation. Some of us feel a new economic model is necessary to replace the old GDPfail-growth/full-employment-myth model.

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    Respect has to be earned.

    Churchill’s Second World War leadership earned it. But his peace time domestic politics were little more than reactionary Tory and therefore a complete failure.

    Thatcher was nothing more than a tin pot Boadicea with a corner shop mentality, a tenth rate messenger woman for the establishment. The moment she went gaga and tried to bluster the Yanks too was when they decided she had to go.

    No, no respect for Thatcher. Only contempt for her contribution to ruining millions of lives. A truly horrible woman with no redeeming features.

    1. Stuart Wright says:

      You should maybe look up Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill to see his peacetime politics were far from “Reactionary Tory”.

    2. Bob morris says:

      No redeeming features? I can think of many, here is 2 – keeping Michael Foot and then Neil Kinnock out of 10 Downing street.

  4. Kate says:

    My own little protest is proceeding nicely, Meg. Am keeping away from all media outlets for the duration of this ridiculous spectacle. It’s bad enough having to foot the bill but watching and listening to the sickening sycophancy is way too much.
    Mind you, Cameron has perhaps found his niche at last… Stand Up Comedy: We are all Thatcherites!
    Gotta laugh!

    1. Meg Howarth says:

      Hi Kate,

      As Jon’s just tweeted: ‘Brilliant! Britain stages the funeral of her first woman Prime Minister and the BBC dumps Woman’s Hour for the day!’ Beyond parody, eh?

  5. Susan McMillan says:

    I really despise the people who are protesting at Margret Thatcher’s funeral. She brought Britain back from the brink, when a series of Labour Governments, and yes, some equally useless Conservative Governments. Sorry about the miners, but the cold hard facts are the coal mines had to be shut down because they were inefficient and losing money. Sorry about the Poll Tax, but actually it was not a bad idea. No leader ever gets it perfectly right, but she is the best Britain has had since Churchill, and he was the best since Disraeli. Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, and the other ‘ism’s, are all totally discredited ideologies. And, most of the protesters are too young to have been around when Margret Thatcher was Prime Minister, so what do they know, anyway.

    1. Meg Howarth says:


      What do you think of the NHS – Atlee – and unemployment benefit – Lloyd George?

      As for ‘most of the protestors being ‘too young to have been around when Margret Thatcher was Prime Minister, so what do they know, anyway’ – what’s your source for this claim? For my part, I saw representatives of Hillsborough families, with their banner, and ex-miners from Barnsley, both groups having travelled to London to join the funeral protest. Following your logic, as you weren’t alive – I presume – when Disraeli was PM, how’ve you reached your favourable view of him?

    2. Mel says:

      “Sorry about the miners but the cold hard facts are …..” that whole communities were ripped apart, families destroyed and proud men committed suicide because they were so ashamed that they couldn’t feed their families. Mining was gradually coming to an end, the mining communities were not so stupid as not to realise that, but Thatcher did it with brutality and without care of trying to put any injections into those communities that could of at least in some part stop the complete hearts of those communities being ripped out. Her methods were callous and they became forgotten people. I take it from your ease at being able to dish out the cold hard facts that you knew no miners and never experienced a mining town before, during and after the Thatcher years. Thatcher dished out cold hard facts – the Conservatives today are dishing out the cold hard facts – easy to do when it’s not going to touch any part of the world you are living in – easy to ignore that there are people to consider when doing it.

    3. Steve Rogers says:

      And Conservatism.

    4. William McKinlay says:

      I think that you are wrong about the coal-fields ! They were efficient, profitable and had the best safety record in the world. I worked in them for thirty years as an engineer and happen to know what I’m talking about ! Wiilie Whitelaw and Peter Walker were later to say, as the energy crisis began to bite, that they had shut down a very efficient industry ! The quotation if you care to look, can be found in Seamus Milne’s book, ‘The Enemy Within’ .Her policies turned our energy industry over to Arab-Sheiks and Russian Oligarchs and resulted in the desertion of countless industries from these shores and mass unemployment within the manufacturing industries. The poll-tax was totally unfair,and far from being a good-idea ! Scotland and it’s present day politics are a testimont to that. As someone who comes from a family, who’s grandparents fought in WW1 and had seven uncles who fought in WW2, I resent the comment of a ‘scone grocer’s daughter’ in labelling my family and the rest of the mining community ,’The Enemy Within’ !
      I’ll put my pedigree against hers -any day of the week !

    5. Colin Todhunter says:

      Susan – Thatcher brought Britain ‘back from the brink’. Just where do you think Britain is today!? The coal mines did NOT have to be shut down. Don’t you realise we now import coal at a much higher cost? Let’s follow your logic. Every employee of BAe is subsidised to the tune of £13,000 per head by subsidies from the taxpayer. The corporate dole office (the DTI) hands out millions to the private sector to ‘protect’ jobs. And how many low paid workers receive welfare payments because their employers won’t pay them enough even though they are raking in billions in profits. In effect, the taxpayers are subsidising such employers. And the banks… well we know all about them. And all those ‘isms’ that you mention – as if capitalism is a raging success! What is really being celebrated when especially Establishment figures eulogise about Thatcher is the destruction of organised labour and the capacity of ordinary people to challenge the hegemony of the elite interests that Thatcher served so well. Much easier to point the finger at benefit claimants at the bottom of the heap. Much easier to hark back to inefficient industries that conveniently required a good old dose of union busting.

  6. Simon Treves says:

    I was six when Churchill died, and I vividly recall watching his funeral on our B&W telly in the front room. I too felt huge emotion – I remember crying and not knowing why. Perhaps my tears were cued by my parents’ reaction, who knows.

    There is simply no comparison with today’s desperate showboating.

  7. Barbara Towers says:

    Totally agree with the 3 comments already posted. Thatcher worked for Thatcher and nobody else. Just the same as this government totally out of touch with reality and totally gaga. What goes around comes around and it will do. If it were not for Churchill we would all be talking German and there would never have been a Thatcher.

    1. Bob morris says:

      More twaddle. Did Mrs T ever get rich like Blair?, was the country broke when she left office? That’s a no, let’s think what state the country was in when Callaghan left office, when Brown left office? Was it better? No the country was left both times in crisis.

  8. Liz Folan O'Connor says:

    No matter how many individuals you can find to bear witness in front of their grand houses and fast cars to how Thatcher motivated them to rise up and become all they could be, it will never be as many as the 4,000 or so police women and men who today have been cast as the thin blue line between the few mourners who agree with her policies from the many protesting on the sidelines who do not. If it takes 4,000+ publicly-funded policemen and women to protect an idea, than there is clearly something wrong with that idea.

    1. Bob morris says:

      maybe you should try reading Hayek, Milton then you may have some understandings of the subject.

  9. Robert Taggart says:

    Churchill did not save wartime Blighty from tyranny – Squaddies did that – and most of them were conscripts.
    Thatcher though did save peacetime Blighty – from the tyranny of the left – and their union barons.

    An ‘iron clad’ funeral for the Iron Lady !

  10. Meg Howarth says:

    Great Jenny Diski piece on today’s ceremonial –
    ‘There were suits. Hundreds of them. Dark, dull and filled with white-haired, crumbling, portly, puffy men…’ and MUCH more. Enjoy!


  11. James de la Mare says:

    A good perceptive sensitive article. Yes, there’s no real comparison either between the two people, Churchill and Thatcher, or between the motives of those who arranged the funerals. Thatcher didn’t (and couldn’t) come anywhere near Churchill. I lived through the War (1939-45) and the entire country knew what Churchill was doing for us. I saw him on Coronation Day. I saw him on his 90th birthday and went to his lying in state in Westminster Hall. It took until after midnight to get there – the queue stretched over the river Thames. I saw his funeral procession. Moments of history.

    Forget, please, all the myths and hype about Mrs Thatcher, that she supposedly “saved the country”, and all the rest. Within her own limits and obstinacy she did what she could (much of it since undone) better than other politicians of her time. She must be thanked for that. Her death however has been disgustingly exploited by certain media and politicians for their own ends. A very sad and regrettable end that could have been more dignified.

  12. Simon says:

    Mrs Thatcher was key to delivering us from the Cold War without a shot being fired. Surely Jon you must at least acknowledge that. Whoops sorry I forgot your hero Hobsbawn, damn it the wrong side won. 20 Million about right Jon?

    1. Meg Howarth says:

      So, Simon, Gorbachev played no part in ‘delivering us from the Cold War without a shot being fired’?

  13. Yvonne McDonald says:

    A depraved spectacle.

    Maggie Thatcher was a psychopath who destroyed perfectly viable industries, just to destroy the unions. I hope that this funeral will be remembered at the next general election and that the parties which participated suffer at the ballot box.

  14. William McKinlay says:

    I was born early in the war,went to school in the late 40’s and remember Churchills funeral. We came of mining stock , of God knows how many generations. My sister aged 8years , died before the NHS came into being . I remember that my father detested Churchill, because he was the man that turned the guns on the miners of Tonypandy, and yet there was a grudging admiration present as well ! Churchill was regarded as a ‘worthy’ opponent. Margaret Thatcher was a different story ! My father in particular, regarded her as a ‘political lightweight’ ,without an original thought in her head ! An ‘ego’ full of second-hand ideas ,and a tool ,of unscrupulous and ruthless men! He used to say, that when her time came , as it surely would, she would be the last to know,and her feet would hardly touch the ground as she left ! So it proved to be ! tears and all ! For myself, as an ex-colliery engineer on strike for over a year, my feelings are those of my father. An old friend once gave me a fine bottle of House of Commons Whisky, to be consumed on this day ! This instruction has been carried out to the letter I’m proud to say ! Thank you Jon, for all of your observations.

  15. Keith says:

    A lioness surrounded by yapping chihuahuas.

    Working class Keith,

    On a council estate, in deepest,


    1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      You are very lucky to be working class. Many cannot get work

  16. Keith says:

    And as for self-publicist Galloway and vinegar-paps Jackson, two of the many chihuahuas I cite above?
    Well, I doubt whether there will be as much as a chippy-tea held when they shuffle off this mortal coil.

    Pass the vinegar, please, and NOT Jackson’s.


    Still working class.
    And still luvin’ it in deepest, crime ridden SALFORD

  17. Joe crosby says:

    The sordid farce is finished, when do we find out how much we have been ripped off for this time by our ruling elite

  18. Philip Edwards says:


    62 years old Anne Wiliams has just died of cancer.

    She was the mother of Kevin Williams who died at Hillsborough in 1989, and she was one of the Liverpool mothers who have fought for The Truth ever since. She was one of the group of families and fans who never gave up in their fight against the disgusting lies, propaganda and hypocrisy of people like Thatcher – and for that matter against media employees like you who said they would never get a new inquiry.

    Do you think Anne will get a public funeral costing a minimum of £10 million?

  19. Philip says:

    The problem with Mrs T is that she leaves a legacy of Maggiolatry or Thatcherphobia. Neither is entirely accurate. In the 70s, the trade unions abused their power & the UK economy & public services were stultified. However, when you break something, you need to have a plan to replace it – and with something that works. Mrs T had a naive belief that “the free market” fettered by as little regulation as possible would galvanise the economy & enrich society. But it plainly hasn’t worked that way. We have a well-educated, skilled, well-paid elite & a large number of people who’ve been left behind, in un/semi-skilled precarious jobs, while the wealth gap has widened enormously. There was no plan for re-training, no investment in the skilled workers whose industries were allowed to collapse as the “free market” was allowed to reign supreme. Instead they were consigned to disability benefits or JSA & described as skivers. And if the Maggiolaters hadn’t been so vociferous, the protests would’ve been small.

  20. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    My dad cried in front of the television when Churchill was buried. That was the one and only time I saw him cry. Mum was so annoyed at the outpouring of emotion for this Tory. I was just a child looking at division.

  21. Meg Howarth says:

    Re Thatcher and personal wealth: ‘Mystery of her £6m house with links to THREE tax havens http://mirr.im/17bGnrh

    And remember Dennis was a millionaire, so MrsT was cushioned against the daily economic realities of most of the population.

  22. Gus Ferguson says:

    I too was at Port Meadow in Wolvercote in Oxford waiting to see Churchill’s train go by. I was there with my father and our dog. I was five. I remember ordinary men and women standing and bowing their heads. I remember our dog doing the same. There was a dignified distance between people as they did this. Like an Anthony Gormley piece. I don’t remember Jon Snow. Mind you in them days his ties were probably more sober.
    The moment clearly left an impression on Jon as this is the second time he has mentioned it. I think it marked in the popular imagination a great passing of a time when we were at our best and faced our worst. Many of the people waiting for Churchill’s train had served their country. There were many at Thatcher’s funeral who expressed quite openly their gratitude for opportunity she had given them to serve themselves.

  23. Michael Feltham says:

    I am now utterly fatigued by the excessive saccharine eulogies poured out on Hilda Margaret’s life and suggested achievements.

    Perhaps I can best sum up in the words of the Bard.

    “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”

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