Saturday, 13 April 2013

The funerals of Nixon, Thatcher, Shakespeare and the royals

Richard Nixon resigned as US president in 1974. The evidence of his crimes had become so overwhelming that he knew that he was facing certain impeachment. He was disgraced and humiliated and he left the US and its political system in crisis.

When Nixon died in 1994, Bill Clinton was president. Clinton was a Democrat whilst Nixon was a Republican. Clinton made a fulsome speech to the nation when announcing his death and declared a national day of mourning. He delivered a eulogy at Nixon’s funeral which over 4,000 attended including all living ex-presidents.

By honouring their political leaders, Americans are honouring their democracy and we should do the same. If we did, I would have no quarrel with the Thatcher funeral even though I believe that she harmed the country. Whatever her faults, Margaret Thatcher was elected three times and served as prime minister for 11 years. 

As it is, we do not have the American tradition. The only politician in the last century to have a comparable funeral to Thatcher’s was Winston Churchill who, by the time of his death, was a unifying figure who was seen as having been central to the country’s victory in war. Thatcher is not being honoured as a democratic leader but is being put on a par with Churchill and royalty.

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s insightful political commentator, has pointed out the discrepancy in the respect accorded to Thatcher and Clement Attlee, the other transformative post-war prime minister. He specifically criticised the Queen for attending Thatcher’s funeral and not Attlee’s. Attlee should have had the honour of the same type of funeral as Thatcher is having.

However, no royal should be accorded such a funeral except for the Queen herself as she is Head of State. The Queen Mother and, indeed, Prince Philip when the time comes, should have private funerals which should not be paid for by the taxpayer.

It is probably universal for societies to honour the people they consider great by funerals with appropriately grand trappings. Such funerals should be reserved for those who have been democratically elected – whatever their faults – and rare exceptional citizens such as a Shakespeare or a Newton.

It is wrong for those who have merely been born into or married into inherited privilege to have such an honour. The cult of monarchy diminishes our democracy. Far better is the cult of democracy, albeit that our democracy is flawed and our politicians too.
                                                                                                                           No. 299

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