UK lawmakers pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher
LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers remembered former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday as a towering political figure who restored her country’s confidence and pride — but who alienated many voters, from coal miners to gay people, with her uncompromising policies.
Prime Minister David Cameron led praise for Thatcher during a special session of the House of Commons, recalled from its Easter break after the ex-leader’s death Monday at the age of 87.
“Let this be her epitaph: That she made our country great again,” Cameron told a packed room of lawmakers.
“She defined and she overcame the great challenges of her age and it is right that Parliament has been recalled to mark our respect,” said Cameron, who heads the Conservative party that Thatcher once led.
The special sessions at the House of Commons are usual for former premiers, but are generally brief. More than seven hours was set aside for Thatcher, a reflection of her status as one of Britain’s most iconic political figures — and one whose legacy still sparks furious debate.
Legislators hailed a string of Thatcher’s achievements, from privatization of cumbersome state-run industries to reclaiming the Falkland Islands after Argentina’s 1982 invasion. They are once-controversial measures on which both government and opposition parties now broadly agree — perhaps Thatcher’s greatest accomplishment of all.
Amid the tributes, some lawmakers brought up the negative effects of her free-market economic policies — unemployment, shuttered industries, frayed social bonds.
Ed Miliband, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said Thatcher was “a unique and towering figure ... the prime minister who defined her age.”
But he said that residents of mining communities were left “angry and abandoned” when she closed the country’s coal pits after a bitter strike. And he said gay people “felt stigmatized” by Section 28, a 1980s government order banning what it called the promotion of homosexuality.
Labour Party lawmaker Glenda Jackson, an Oscar-winning actress in the 1970s, was met with howls from lawmakers when she launched a blistering attack on Thatcher’s record.
“There was a heinous social, economic and spiritual damage wreaked upon this country,” she told the House of Commons. “By far the most dramatic and heinous demonstration of Thatcherism was not only in London but across the whole country in metropolitan areas, where every single shop doorway, every single night, became the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom for the homeless.”
Scottish and Irish nationalist legislators spoke of deep wounds that have not healed. Scottish National Party lawmaker Angus Robertson said that “we will never forget and never forgive” the poll tax — an unpopular measure imposed on Scotland a year before the rest of the country.
Several left-wing legislators skipped the session altogether, including former housing minister John Healey, who said Thatcher’s “legacy is too bitter to warrant this claim to national mourning.”
Division over Thatcher’s record has spilled over into debate about the public expense of her April 17 funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which will be attended by Queen Elizabeth II and dignitaries from around the world.
The only other funeral of a prime minister that the queen has attended was that of Britain’s World War II leader, Winston Churchill, in 1965.
Thatcher’s son, Mark, said the late premier “would be greatly honored as well as humbled” by the queen’s presence at her funeral.
He added that his family had “quite simply been overwhelmed by messages of support” and condolence.
Thatcher’s family is paying some of the cost of the funeral, which will see the former leader mourned with full military honors, but a portion will be paid by the state.
Taxpayers also will pick up the tab for lawmakers who have had to cut short vacations to attend Wednesday’s session. They can claim expenses of up to 3,700 pounds ($5,750) for the journey.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was right to commemorate “a leader of historic proportions in our country’s history.”
He told the BBC: “I think we can afford to contribute to a funeral.”
Thousands of people are expected to gather to see Thatcher’s coffin taken from Parliament to the cathedral next week, part of the way by hearse and then on a horse-drawn gun carriage.
Hundreds of soldiers, sailors and air force personnel will line the route and form a guard of honor, and the coffin will be carried into the domed cathedral by members of units that fought in the 1982 Falklands War, Thatcher’s high-risk military triumph. Military bands and artillery salutes will also form part of the carefully choreographed ceremony.
Police and security officials are planning for potential disruption from anti-Thatcher protesters — who may stage celebrations during the funeral — or attacks by Irish Republican Army dissidents.
Irish militants killed several Thatcher allies during her 1979-1990 premiership, and in 1984 set off a bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton during a Conservative Party conference. Thatcher escaped injury, but five people died.
AP writers Paisley Dodds and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report.