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British MPs gather to honour Thatcher

10 April 2013, 17:53

London - British lawmakers will interrupt their holidays for a special session of parliament on Wednesday to debate the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, although many of the former premier's most trenchant critics are likely to stay away.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron will lead tributes to Thatcher, who died on Monday aged 87 after suffering a stroke, followed by the leaders of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the opposition Labour party.

But in a sign of the bitterness that remains over Thatcher's 11 years in power, several lawmakers said they would boycott the special sessions in the House of Commons and House of Lords, called to consider "the matter of tributes" to the "Iron Lady".

Supporters say Thatcher's free-market reforms made Britain stronger - Cameron said she "saved our country" - but critics say they destroyed millions of lives.

"Some MPs might think it is their duty to be there - I certainly do not. Her legacy here was the destruction of thousands of jobs," said Ronnie Campbell, a former miner and Labour lawmaker.

A Labour spokesperson said he expected "a large number of Labour MPs to be attending" the debate, adding that he expected remarks to be "appropriate".

Queen to attend funeral

Firebrand left-wing lawmaker George Galloway also said he would stay away from what he derided as a "state-organised eulogy", which starts at 1330 GMT and could last seven and a half hours.

Thatcher's funeral will be held on Wednesday next week and, in a rare move, will be attended by Queen Elizabeth II - the first time the monarch will have attended such a ceremony for a former prime minister since Winston Churchill died in 1965.

Security is likely to be extremely tight for the ceremonial event at St Paul's Cathedral in London, with fears of disruption by Irish republican dissidents and far-left groups.

"Maggie" remains as polarising a figure as ever, and there are concerns about potential violence at the funeral after trouble erupted at several street parties celebrating her death on Monday night in London, Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow.

International tributes have flooded in to the "Iron Lady" who helped bring down communism, including from US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis, who hailed her "promotion of freedom".

Many world figures are expected to attend her funeral, although a spokesperson for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he would not be among them because his health was too frail.


Foreign Secretary William Hague, a fellow Conservative, said Britain was grateful for the condolences for the country's first female prime minister and longest serving premier of the 20th century.

"She was an inspiration to many people in other countries, not just this country, particularly people aspiring to their own freedom and democracy at a time they didn't have it, such as behind the Iron Curtain," he told reporters on Tuesday.

Cameron's office said the government had agreed during a meeting with Thatcher's family and Buckingham Palace that her funeral will take place on 17 April, followed by a private cremation.

Her twin son and daughter, who were out of the country when she died, are expected to attend. Her husband Denis died in 2003.

Thatcher's coffin will rest in the Houses of Parliament the night before the funeral and will be taken through the London streets on a gun carriage to the cathedral with full military honours.

Several Conservative lawmakers have called for her to receive a full state funeral, but her spokesperson Lord Tim Bell said Thatcher had specifically said such an observance was "not appropriate".

Changed course of history

There is already criticism over the cost of the ceremony, which is one step down from the state funeral given to Churchill but the same honour afforded to the Queen Mother and Princess Diana.

However, Hague told BBC television: "It's right parliament meets and commemorates such a leader of historic proportions in our country's history. She changed the course of our history."

A new poll published by The Sun tabloid on Wednesday found Thatcher was the most popular British prime minister, with 28% of respondents putting her as the country's top leader.

But her legacy - encompassing brutal clashes with miners, the crushing of the trade unions, violent poll tax riots and the Falklands War with Argentina - remains as divisive in 2013 as it was during her premiership from 1979 to 1990.

Even in her home town of Grantham, eastern England, where she was born to a humble grocer and his wife, opinion was sharply split.

Divisive, confrontational

"I am glad she is dead... She closed down the mines and bought the coal from communist countries, our enemies," said 39-year-old Michael Blocksidge outside the town's guildhall, where the flag flew at half mast as it does over the parliament and Buckingham Palace.

Outside Thatcher's plush central London townhouse, a slow but steady stream of mourners laid flowers in tribute.

"I'm very sad. She is a big icon," said Martin Wolf, aged 37, a Czech national who works at the London hotel where Thatcher staged her 80th birthday party.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which is close to the Conservative party, acknowledged in an editorial on Wednesday that Thatcher "was divisive and confrontational. But she lived in a divided and confrontational time".



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