Wednesday, 17 April 2013

All Prime Ministers should be treated equally

If there is one day in all our lives on which we are entitled to expect unqualified praise, then surely it is the day of our funeral.

Who amongst us would anticipate, on that day, people to say ‘he was a nice chap, but made some stupid decisions and not many people liked him’ or ‘nice woman, but she was really rude and screwed up badly at work’?

So let it be for Baroness Thatcher. This is not the day to examine her record as Prime Minister, about which anyone who lived through the era will have strong views, either for or against. That’s not to say I won’t return to this at a later date.

No; what I want to consider is the appropriateness of her ceremonial funeral, with military honours, largely funded by the nation (us). I have read, but failed to grasp, the distinction between what happened this morning and a state funeral.  It was certainly the only funeral of a former Prime Minister attended by the Queen since that of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, and few would begrudge Sir Winston the unique honour of his state funeral.

However, I believe that the decision taken by the Queen upon the advice, we are led to believe, of Gordon Brown, to grant Lady Thatcher a funeral of the same status as that of the Queen Mother and the Princess of Wales, raises a serious constitutional issue.

There have always been great Prime Ministers, average Prime Ministers and some who frankly will scarcely trouble the computer keyboards of future historians, and hopefully, as long as we have a democracy, there always will be. We, the voters, will decide which is which.

And that’s the point. The voters, not the monarch, are empowered to discern the wheat from the chaff. As soon as the sovereign head of state starts to decide that one Prime Minister is greater than another – in this case greater than all but one – we are on a slippery slope. One of the principal justifications of a constitutional monarch is her/his political neutrality, their ability to deal with Labour and Conservative leaders and to ‘treat those two imposters just the same’. I felt the same unease at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, when Tony Blair – Prime Minister for a decade – was disgracefully omitted from the guest list when all other serving Prime Ministers were invited.

Once the Queen gives the appearance of being politically biased, it must fundamentally change the relationship between her and future Prime Ministers of all hues. And that would be bad for the country.

Now that the pomp and circumstance – immaculately executed as always –is  over, a protocol needs to be drawn up on how the deaths of current or former Prime Ministers should be handled in future. I don’t mind particularly what send-off is decided upon by those democratically elected to make such judgments, but what is essential is that they all get the same treatment. That’s what democracy is about.


  1. I agree with you, Robert, but there is an interesting take on this in the latest Private Eye:
    "David Cameron's decision to abandon the guidelines drawn up for the former PM's passing and instead recall Parliament for tributes was, Alastair Campbell declared on his blog last week, a blatant example of "the Right's politicisation of Margaret Thatcher's death."
    "Whatever the possible reasoning, the fact is that is the break with tradition and precedent, the recall of Parliament, and the nature of the funeral arrangements - effectively a State funeral by stealth, without full Parliamentary approval - have politicised the death in a way that was not necessary and risks becoming horribly divisive," the former Labour spin-doctor said.
    Can this be the same man who deftly turned the death of Princess Diana in 1997 to his boss's advantage? Yes it can. "We have to be careful that it doesn't look like we are writing our script, rather than hers," he noted in his diary of the funeral arrangements at the time. "But what was clear was that we could shape the event... I could sense some of the civil servants were not happy at our involvement but TB clearly felt we had to stay on top of this the whole way through.... Everyone was saying how well TB did and how badly Hague had done in his tribute to Diana. 'People's Princess' was the phrase everyone was using."
    It is also the same man who, in 2002, had to cringingly withdraw a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about newspapers which claimed Downing Street was trying to boost Blair's role at the Queen Mother's funeral after a key organiser of the ceremony, Black Rod, pointed out that Number 10 staff had, er, done exactly that."

    1. Got my Private Eye this morning but not read it yet. I guess all politicians try to gain political advantage from events. I tried har not to make a party political point in my blog (for once!).