Interesting to note that the Father of the House Sir Peter Tapsell is declining to speak in this afternoon’s Margaret Thatcher Respectful Tribute Slam in Parliament. “It is not a university and I am not the public orator. I don’t want it to be thought that I have to get up and make a Periclean speech every time there is a tragedy.”
My initial response was to wonder whether a Cleonic oration might be more appropriate for the occasion; my second was to start thinking about Sir Peter’s use of the term ‘Periclean’. Of course the Funeral Oration is meant, as the standard go-to for commemoration of the glorious dead in speeches and epitaphs – see Jennifer Roberts’ chapter in Thucydides and the Modern World on the tradition from Gettysburg to the aftermath of 9/11, and a piece I wrote for Aeon on the use of quotes on war memorials. But that was a speech to commemorate the deaths of a fair number of people in war, and that’s how, more or less, it’s been used since – not least as a means of co-opting those deaths into the national cause, reducing the individuals involved and their grieving families into faceless components of the collective endeavour. It’s not an obvious choice for memorialising a single individual, which might be a good reason for eschewing Periclean orations in this instance – but my reading of his comment is that Sir Peter doesn’t think that they are inappropriate per se, just that he doesn’t see why he has to be the one to give them every time.
Probably the explanation for choosing the adjective is simply that ‘Periclean’, like ‘Ciceronian’, has now become an all-purpose term for any kind of old-fashioned, well-crafted oratory, the like of which is rarely experienced in modern politics (and even more rarely from anyone besides Sir Peter). But maybe there is a little more to it; for example, in evoking the Funeral Oration a clear link is being implied with war, so that Thatcher is memorialised as a warrior – against the Argentines, against the unions and the lefties – and the association with the deaths of young men in war does apparently offer grounds for considering the death of an 87-year-old woman who had been in poor health for years as a tragedy.
Certainly this does reinforce the impression that every public tragedy (or every occasion that can be conceived or presented as such) is felt to call for a Periclean speech, which then establishes the idea that this is indeed both a public and a tragic event. The tropes of the Funeral Oration are likely to be out in full force this afternoon, whether or not (mostly if not entirely not) the speakers are conscious of this. The heartfelt assertions of ‘our’ collective values, embodied in the deceased, presented in a way that excludes the possibility of dissent; the call for us all to follow unquestioningly in their/her footsteps, honouring the sacrifice and making sure it was all worthwhile. I can well imagine that some Number 10 functionary has already had a quiet word with Carol Thatcher to explain that her role in this event is to be as little talked of as possible, so that the political class can carry on with the task of mythologising her mother. As an excellent article by Jonathan Freedland has already suggested, this is how history gets rewritten…