Some Ceremonial Questions

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I have a knack of being out of circulation for the deaths of major public figures. When Princess Diana died, I was on a Buddhist retreat in Norfolk, and by the time I returned home, the whole thing was over. And I heard about the death of Margaret Thatcher whilst down here in southwest France, where I’m spending a couple of weeks rewriting my next novel. So I have been a little set apart from all of the debate and discussion and rhetoric. I will, however, be back in the UK in time for the funeral, which we are told will be a Ceremonial, but not a State funeral; and whilst mulling over this, I found myself wondering something really rather simple. What is a Ceremonial funeral, and who decides who gets to have one?

I headed over to the official No. 10 Downing Street website to try and find out an answer to this question; but I confess that this did not help much. The website told me that the decision was ‘in line with the wishes of Lady Thatcher’s family’, and that it was ‘with the Queen’s consent’. The first of these suggests that the family are happy to support a decision made elsewhere, and the second suggests that that the queen is also happy, for reasons of her own, to approve it. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the decision itself. It doesn’t tell us who made this decision, nor on the basis of which criteria it was made.

Next I found a handy parliamentary guide to State and Ceremonial funerals, but this was also astonishingly unhelpful. “The process for deciding when a state funeral should be held for a person other than the Sovereign,” it reads, “is relatively unclear, not least since it happens so rarely and at long historical intervals. There is no official process set out in public, but the Sovereign, Prime Minister, and Parliament have been involved in the past.”

That, for what it is worth, is the process for State funeral. For Ceremonial funerals, the document is even more vague, noting that there is no parliamentary process needed to authorise a Ceremonial funeral, going on to read, with a studied vagueness, “It is not clear whether Cabinet is consulted, or whether the official Opposition is consulted before the announcement takes place…”

All of this points to the kind of shadowy decision-making process that has no place in a mature democracy. It risks replacing transparent democratic processes with cults of celebrity that can be used for political manipulation by the vested interests of those who are in power.

Here, then, is a suggestion. What if the decision whether a former Prime Minister had a Ceremonial funeral or not was not an unaccountable political decision made in each individual case, reflecting attitudes (whose attitudes, incidentally?) to the individuals who have held the office? What if, instead, the decision was a general principle decided by parliament, and reflecting attitudes to the office of the Prime Minister itself. In other words, what if, in the interests of a democratic and transparent political process, the question “does this person individually deserve a ceremonial funeral?” could be replaced with the question, “do we give former Prime Minsters Ceremonial funerals in this country?”

In moving from the first question to the second, if the decision was to go ahead with Ceremonial funerals for former Prime Ministers, then it would be on a clear an unambiguous principle. Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron—all of them could have Ceremonial funerals not because somebody or other thinks that they personally do or don’t deserve it, but because there’s a general consensus that the office of Prime Minister is one that deserves a degree of ceremonial honour. And if the decision was that this is not the kind of thing that we wanted, then the families of those who had died could make their own arrangements as they saw fit.

This would have the virtue of clarity, and it would free us from the disadvantages of the present system which is, at best, non-transparent, and at worst, open to the worst kinds of political manipulation.


Image of St. Paul’s: Wikimedia Commons.

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