LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron delivered an emotional tribute to Margaret Thatcher in parliament on Wednesday, but political opponents boycotted the debate on her legacy, underlining how divisive a figure she remains even in death.
MPs were recalled from their holidays for the first time for the death of a public figure since Queen Elizabeth’s mother died in 2002, reflecting the “Iron Lady‘s” place in history.
Thatcher, who died of a stroke on Monday aged 87, not only won three elections to become Britain’s longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, but also reshaped its politics so fundamentally that her status as Britain’s only female premier seems almost incidental.
“She drew the lines on a political map that we here are still navigating today,” said Cameron, wearing a dark suit and tie. “She made the political weather, she made history and - let this be her epitaph - she made our country great again.”
MP after MP from Thatcher’s ruling Conservative party stood up in the lower house of parliament’s wood-panelled chamber to describe how she had inspired them, many of them drawing parallels with the wartime colossus Winston Churchill.
Among the achievements they listed: her role in ending the Cold War, her forthright defence of British interests in the European Union, her leadership during the 1982 Falklands War against Argentina, and her liberalisation of the British economy.
Tulips and lilies were placed at the foot of a statue of Thatcher outside the parliamentary chamber.
But in death as in life her policies provoked a fury freighted with personal loathing among some critics who stressed what many saw as the darker side of her rule.
Scores of MPs from the Labour party, which has 255 parliamentarians in the 650-seat parliament, boycotted the debate, leaving swathes of the chamber’s green leather benches empty.
A few hours into the debate, barely a dozen Labour members were taking part.
George Galloway, an outspoken MP from the socialist Respect party, said he had no interest in attending “a state-organised eulogy”.
Many Labour MPs from the north of England, which saw industries such as coal mining and shipbuilding shrink or fold on her watch, spoke of the bitterness she had left behind.
“This has become a public debate about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy,” Chi Onwurah, a Labour MP representing the northern English town of Newcastle, told parliament.
“Words cannot express the visceral dislike with which some of my constituents regard Margaret Thatcher.”
She said Thatcher’s policies had destroyed jobs, industries and communities, and offered the victims nothing in return.
Cameron conceded that Thatcher was not universally popular but said she had overturned Britain’s post-war political order, winning battles over trade union reform, nuclear arms and state ownership of industries.
“She certainly did not shy from the fight and that led to arguments, to conflict, yes even to division,” Cameron said.
Those divisions remain so deep that plans for next Wednesday’s funeral have become a security headache.
Parties in several cities to celebrate her death ended in arrests, and media reported that police may pre-emptively arrest known troublemakers before they travel to her funeral, as part of a security operation codenamed “Operation True Blue”.
Hundreds of police and soldiers will have to guard not only against protesters seeking to disrupt the event but also against the threat from Northern Irish dissident groups opposed t British rule.
Thatcher escaped assassination in 1984 when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) blew up a hotel where she was staying. The IRA laid down arms as part of a peace deal, but Thatcher remains a hate figure to many on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Her ceremonial funeral with military honours will begin with a procession through London to a service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
In a break with protocol, the Queen and her husband Prince Philip will attend. The last time the monarch attended a prime minister’s funeral was when Churchill died in 1965.
Thatcher’s son Mark said she would have been “enormously proud and grateful” that the monarch was going to her funeral.
Many opposed to Thatcher’s free-market ideology say she was too divisive a figure to be sent off in a style usually reserved for royals like Princess Diana or the Queen Mother.
“Let’s privatise her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she’d have wanted,” said filmmaker Ken Loach, whose films denounce the impact of Thatcher’s policies on the working class.
Liverpool and Glasgow, two cities ravaged by Thatcher’s dismantling of state industries, both saw disturbances.
The Official Charts Company said the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead”, from the musical “The Wizard of Oz”, had climbed to number 10 in the singles chart after a campaign by Thatcher haters.
And in Brixton, a part of south London hit by riots during the Thatcher era, in 1981, protesters scaled a cinema and replaced movie titles with the words “Margaret Thatchers dead LOL” (sic).
They also hung up a banner that read: “The bitch is dead”.
Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Jason Webb; Editing by Kevin Liffey