After the distasteful scenes leading up to it, Baroness Thatcher’s funeral yesterday was a dignified and noble affair, with the streets of London lined with people who were there, overwhelmingly, to acknowledge her long service to the country, and to mark her life and her passing.
The Bishop of London, in his funeral address, was very clear on this: “There is an important place for debating policies and legacy; for assessing the impact of political decisions on the everyday lives of individuals and communities. Parliament held a frank debate last week … but here and today is neither the time nor the place. This, at Lady Thatcher’s personal request, is a funeral service, not a memorial service with the customary eulogies. And at such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgments which are proper to the politician; instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling. It is also the place for the simple truths which transcend political debate. And above all it is the place for hope.”
The Bishop continued on to explain that Margaret Thatcher was a great servant in her political life, overcoming many hurdles in her belief that she had a role to play to help the country get back on its feet. He exploded the myth that she was not a believer in ‘society’; her widely quoted statement that “there is no such thing as society” referred in her mind, he explained, to “some impersonal entity to which we are tempted to surrender our independence”. Instead, she believed that we needed to work not to be dependent on others, but to live with others and for others, in an ‘other-centred’ way, beyond ourselves. The word Margaret Thatcher used … was “interdependence”.
Life, the Bishop pointed out, “is a struggle to make the right choices and to achieve liberation from dependence, whether material or psychological.” Margaret Thatcher was very aware of this, and she had a strong sense of the essential values needed to make society – this web of inter-relationships – work: “She was very aware that there are prior dispositions which are needed to make market economics and democratic institutions function well: the habits of truth-telling, mutual sympathy, and the capacity to co-operate. These decisions and dispositions are incubated and given power by our relationships. In her words: “The basic ties of the family are at the heart of our society and are the nursery of civic virtue.”
This is enormous good, solid, common sense. It is very easy to think and speak harshly about politicians. What they do has an impact on our lives – which we tolerate easily if it is exactly what we would like, but (as is to be expected) this will not always be the case, and we can be very quick to condemn them. We expect a great deal from our politicians in other ways, too: for them to be paragons of virtue, models of honesty and probity, and statespeople whose wisdom transcends the norm … it is hardly surprising, therefore, that as mere human beings they often fail to live up to these ideals, and that their fall from grace is greater in our eyes.
And yet politicians are there to serve. They have chosen this path – in large part, at least – to try to make a positive difference in the world, and we should sometimes stop our critical tongues and remember this. The oppositional nature of so many of our political structures should of course continue to be a source of irritation and frustration for us, but maybe we should be a little more generous in our appreciation of what our politicians are seeking to do for us.
In this world, we will thrive as a human race when we learn not to live in isolation from one another, nor to live in dependency upon others, but together, interdependent, with a shared and common goal, but bringing to this our unique capacities and insights. If nothing else, we were reminded of this at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. It was indeed a time for compassion and hope.