, LONDON, Apr 17 – The funeral of Margaret Thatcher takes place on Wednesday, with Queen Elizabeth II leading mourners from around the world in bidding farewell to one of Britain’s most influential and divisive prime ministers.
Seven hundred soldiers, sailors and airmen in full ceremonial uniform will line the streets of London as Thatcher’s coffin is transported on a gun carriage to a service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Although it is not officially a state funeral, Britain has pulled out all the stops for the Iron Lady, who transformed the country and helped end the Cold War during her 11 years in power.
The ceremony, nine days after Thatcher died from a stroke aged 87, will be the first time the queen has attended a prime ministerial funeral since Winston Churchill died in 1965.
The Falklands War, viewed by many of her admirers as Thatcher’s finest hour, will be a central theme with veterans of the 1982 conflict with Argentina walking behind her coffin.
Argentina will pointedly not be represented among the 2,300 guests, who include US political figures Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger, the prime ministers of Canada, Israel, Italy, Poland and Kuwait, and show business stars from Thatcher’s time in power.
But the pomp and splendour — paid for with millions of pounds of public money — have sparked criticism from those who argue that Thatcher was too polarising a figure to merit such a state-sponsored send-off.
Opponents of the former Conservative leader are planning protests to highlight the damage wrought by her radical free-market economic reforms, which created mass unemployment in Britain’s industrial heartlands.
More than 800 people have pledged to attend an event called “Maggie’s good riddance party”, while others intend to turn their backs as the funeral cortege passes by.
More than 4,000 police officers will be deployed amid fears of potential threats from far-left groups, fanatics or even Irish republican dissidents still raging at the hard line she took against hunger strikers in Northern Ireland.
Thatcher’s coffin was kept overnight at the 13th-century Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in Westminster, after a private ceremony attended by her 59-year-old twins Mark and Carol and former colleagues.
At 10:00 am (0900 GMT) on Wednesday the coffin will be dressed with the Union flag and taken by hearse to another church on the Strand, where it will be transferred to a gun carriage drawn by six black horses for a procession down Fleet Street to St Paul’s.
Members of the military will line the route and a Royal Marines band will lead the way playing funeral marches by Chopin, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
The chimes of parliament’s famous Big Ben bell will be silenced during the procession, which is expected to be watched by crowds of well-wishers along the route.
The coffin will be carried up the west steps of St Paul’s by eight men from military units that served in the Falklands, and behind them will walk two brothers who survived an attack on their vessel by Argentina during the war.
The service is due to start at 11:00 am (1000 GMT) and will include readings from the Bible, Christian hymns and a final blessing by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
Prime Minister David Cameron will give one reading, while Thatcher’s granddaughter Amanda will give another.
Britain’s first female prime minister, who was in office from 1979 to 1990, had suffered from dementia and had rarely been seen in public for years before her death on April 8.
Tributes poured in from around the world highlighting the role she played in bringing down the Iron Curtain by reaching out to reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and persuading US president Ronald Reagan to do the same.
Gorbachev and Reagan’s wife Nancy will not be able to attend the funeral due to ill-health.
While her international role was recognised, Thatcher’s death revived the bitter divisions in Britain that had plagued her premiership, with the ruling Conservatives plunged into mourning while left-wing activists danced in the streets.
Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband will attend the funeral, along with every surviving British prime minister, all Thatcher’s surviving cabinet ministers and all Cameron’s ministers.
Their attendance caused the cancellation of Cameron’s weekly question and answer session in parliament, a move protested by firebrand lawmaker George Galloway, who complained: “The canonisation of Lady Thatcher has gone on enough.”
Other guests include singer Shirley Bassey, actress Joan Collins, musical composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Britain’s last Hong Kong governor Chris Patten and London 2012 Games chairman Sebastian Coe.
Fashion designer Anya Hindmarch, who designed one of Thatcher’s famous handbags, will also attend.