Just after 5:30 a.m., as dawn was breaking over London today, a coffin draped in a Union Jack was carried out of St. Clement Danes church on the Strand and loaded onto a gun carriage.
More than 800 troops were performing a full dress rehearsal of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, which will take place in two days. Soldiers, sailors and airmen lined the 0.7-mile (1.1-kilometer) route, nine paces apart, from the church to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Their SA80 assault rifles were pointed down and their heads bowed. As the coffin, on the horse-drawn carriage, approached, the order came to present arms.
Thatcher’s death at the age of 87 on April 8 after a stroke has revived debates in Britain about the nature of her legacy. Supporters say she turned around a country in decline. Opponents say her free-market policies pushed many manual workers out of jobs and left businesses, especially finance, too powerful.
That debate was fought over the weekend through the proxy of the Top 40 charts broadcast by the BBC. Opponents of Thatcher pushed “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” from the soundtrack of “The Wizard of Oz” movie, to No. 2, while supporters who mounted a late campaign in response got “I’m in Love With Margaret Thatcher,” a 1979 single by the punk band the Notsensibles, to No. 35.
The band of the Royal Marines opted for the more traditional Funeral March by Chopin as the rehearsal coffin began its journey this morning.
The route went first along Fleet Street, which when Thatcher took power in 1979 was the home of Britain’s newspapers. They’re all gone now. She supported Rupert Murdoch as he took on print unions and moved The Sun, The Times and the News of the World to a new plant in East London.
As the procession moved along Fleet Street, the skyscrapers of London’s financial district towered behind the dome of St. Paul’s. They sprouted after Thatcher’s 1986 Big Bang opened up British banking, introducing electronic trading and allowing in foreign institutions.
The only audience for the rehearsal, apart from reporters, was cleaners coming out of offices after their night shift. Just before 6 a.m., with the military band playing Beethoven’s Funeral March, the procession arrived at the steps of St. Paul’s. Across the road, a Starbucks Corp. outlet was about to open.
As the coffin was carried up the steps of the cathedral, there was a deviation from the plans on the day. Veterans from the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, known as the Chelsea Pensioners, will be lining the steps. They weren’t there today, as they were judged too elderly to be asked to get up for the rehearsal.
The funeral will feature Thatcher’s own choice of favorite hymns and poetry. “He Who Would Valiant Be,” originally written by John Bunyan, and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” by Charles Wesley, reflecting the former premier’s Methodist upbringing, will be sung, according to the order of service released by the cathedral. The final hymn will be the patriotic “I Vow to Thee My Country” to the music of Gustav Holst. Poems by William Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot are printed on the order of service.
“The basic shape of this funeral has been in place for many years now,” Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister who has been in charge of the organization of the event, told Sky News television yesterday. “She didn’t obsess about it, but she took an interest and so she had some very clear views. For example, she was adamant she didn’t want there to be any question of a lying in state.”
More than 2,000 invitations have gone out for the service. All surviving former British premiers will attend, and all living former U.S. presidents have been asked. It’s the biggest such event for a British political leader since the state funeral for Winston Churchill in 1965. Queen Elizabeth II will lead the mourners.
Prime Minister David Cameron will hold talks with some of the foreign leaders attending the service, his spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, said today. Canada’s Stephen Harper and Italy’s Mario Monti are among those who plan to be there. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will represent the German government.
“You can expect the prime minister to meet some of the leaders,” Gray told reporters. “He will have some bilaterals, including some after the ceremony in the Guildhall,” where the City of London Corporation will hold a post-funeral reception.