When Paul Dooley was a police officer in the 1980s, he faced off against striking coal miners in the north of England. And although many in Britain at the time were highly critical of the tactics used by the police—there were pitched battles at some mines between strikers and the police—Dooley believed he was doing his duty.
“You did it with a willing heart, because you knew it was the right thing to do,” he says. “We supported people who wanted to work. Out of every month, you spent 10 days away from your family. But it was the right thing to do.”
The person normally credited with defeating the miners in the nearly year-long, country-wide strike—and in the process breaking the back of Britain’s powerful trade unions—is Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister at the time. As a police officer, Dooley served her with pride.
So when Thatcher passed away on April 8, Dooley began making plans to pay his final respects to the woman he feels is Britain’s greatest leader in living memory. On Tuesday, the 62-year-old traveled 200 miles from Manchester with his wife, stayed the night in a hotel in London and got up early Wednesday to set up their folding chairs by the route through central London along which Thatcher’s coffin was due to be carried. Her funeral was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of London’s best-known landmarks and the site of the funerals of other famous Prime Ministers, including one of Thatcher’s heroes, Winston Churchill.
But the differing opinions among the people lining the funeral procession’s route show how divisive a figure Thatcher remains. Not far from Dooley, Tammy Samede was marking the late premier’s passing in a very different way, taking part in a “Turn Your Back on Thatcher” protest, which was organized on Facebook by activists and which saw several hundred people turn their backs on Thatcher’s coffin as it passed by. “I know it sounds very disrespectful, but it’s the best way I can air my views without creating any distress,” she says. “It’s about what she’s done, and her continuing legacy. Thatcherism is still going.”
Samede’s grandfather was of one of the miners who went out on strike to protest the government’s closures of mines. “He still has depression to this day,” says 34-year-old Samede of her grandfather. “I’m here for his sake, representing him because he can’t be here.”
Even casual bystanders had opinions of the woman who led the British government from 1979 to 1990. “Thatcher was a force of nature,” adds Daniel Reed, 45, a motorcycle courier, standing nearby. “Like a plague, or a swarm of locusts.”
The funeral and procession, with full military honors—one step down from a full state funeral—is estimated to have cost over $15 million. It’s an expense that Henry Page, 61, a retired teacher, finds hard to stomach. He held a banner in front of his chest that read: “Over £10 million of our money for a Tory funeral.”
“The estimated cost of the funeral, I think is completely inappropriate,” Page says. “If they’d divulged the full cost of the funeral then people would have been very upset about it. There’d have been far more protesters.”
As it is, the procession went off without major disruption, and most of the crowd of thousands lining the route burst into applause as Thatcher’s coffin passed by, draped in Britain’s Union Jack flag.
Many of the people lining the streets were too young to remember much, if any, of Thatcher’s time in office. But for many young Conservative Party supporters she remains an inspiration. 30-year-old Matthew Smith, a lawyer, held a rose sprayed blue—the color most closely associated with the Conservative Party. “She was a great Prime Minister, certainly the greatest of the postwar Prime Ministers, in my view,” he says. “And arguably the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century.”
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Student Max Sztyber, 22, had only been alive for one year when Thatcher left office but he feels that her legacy continues to affect people of his generation. He also came to take part in the “Turn Your Back on Thatcher” protest. “The argument that we’re too young to be here, we don’t remember her time in power, is sort of irrelevant,” he says. “We’ve grown up with Thatcherite governments, and everything’s going more and more right-wing all the time. It’s as much about the future as it is about the past.”
Few can dispute that Thatcher permanently changed Britain. And as the funeral began and the packed sidewalks began to clear, it seemed clear that this “force of nature” still has the power to whip up a political storm.