Queen at Thatcher’s funeral highlights mutual respect
Queen Elizabeth II’s attendance at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday, a rare honour, sheds light on the largely secret relationship between two of the world’s most famous and powerful women.
Her presence at the ceremonial funeral – organised at the monarch’s consent – might lay to rest decades of rumours that the pair could not get along.
It will be the first time that the Queen, now 86, has attended one of her prime ministers’ funerals since that of Winston Churchill in 1965.
Between 1979 and 1990, Britain’s first female prime minister had an audience with Queen Elizabeth every Tuesday, week in, week out.
As with all her premiers, the wide-ranging and frank conversations were never recorded and the content never publicly discussed. A consummate constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth’s political views are simply not known.
For her part, Thatcher stuck with convention and gave little away on their 11 years of exchanges in her autobiography, The Downing Street Years (1993).
“All audiences with the Queen take place in strict confidence,” she wrote.
“Anyone who imagines that they are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience.”
Maybe straightfoward and respectful encapsulates their relationship better than cosy friendship, with each one perhaps somewhat in thrall to the other.
Thatcher, a staunch monarchist with an amusingly low curtsey, was hugely in awe of Queen Elizabeth -- who in turn, experts say, respected her fellow female figurehead for having made it to the top on merit in a male-dominated environment.
In 1986, The Sunday Times newspaper printed a Buckingham Palace leak saying the Queen was dismayed by the social impact of Thatcher’s economic policies, found her “uncaring” and disagreed with her flying in the face of Commonwealth sanctions on South Africa.
The leak sparked a furore and was denounced as misreported exaggeration.
However, it was ultimately attributed to a close source - her press secretary, who left sometime afterwards.
“Although the press could not resist the temptation to suggest disputes between the palace and Downing Street, especially on Commonwealth affairs, I always found the Queen’s attitude towards the work of government absolutely correct,” Thatcher wrote.
“Of course, under the circumstances, stories of clashes between ‘two powerful women’ were just too good not to make up.”
Six months apart in age, the pair went through World War II and the social and economic changes of the following decades at the same stages in their lives.
Thatcher remains her longest-serving British prime minister.
“I think they got on much better than the media would like us to believe. The only thing that they wouldn’t necessarily have totally agreed on was the Commonwealth,” well-connected royal biographer Hugo Vickers said.
“The Queen would have had enormous respect for Thatcher as a woman who had made her way through life by merit.
“I know for a fact that the Queen was very upset by the way Thatcher was disposed of by the Conservative Party. She thought it was a dreadful thing to happen,” he said of her rapid ousting by colleagues in 1990.
“She immediately gave her the Order of Merit and later the Order of the Garter,” two rare and high honours.
“Those are indications that the Queen liked her because those two orders are in her personal gift.”
The sovereign rarely attends personal prime ministerial celebrations but went to Thatcher’s 80th birthday party in 2005.
In office, Thatcher was defensive of the Queen’s sovereignty and outside power, remained defensive of her as a person.
When Argentina invaded Britain’s Falkland Islands in 1982, the “Iron Lady” successfully sent a task force to recover them.
“What was the alternative? That a common or garden dictator should rule over the Queen’s subjects and prevail by fraud and violence? Not while I was prime minister,” she said.
And when US president Ronald Reagan sent troops into Grenada to restore democracy in 1983, she gave her closest ally a monumental ear-bashing for invading the Queen’s territory without the Queen’s permission.
Vickers said Thatcher’s now-deceased husband Denis told him in 1997 that his wife was “absolutely horrified by the way the Queen was treated by the media” after the recent death of Diana, princess of Wales, “because she was such a kind and caring woman”.
“Denis said: ‘Margaret and I are just ordinary middle-class people and we’ve got huge respect for her’. That was the attitude they took.”