In the most significant result of any opinion poll commissioned during the life of the present UK parliament, only 25% of voters supported the use of public money – £10 million of it – on the funeral of the baroness. The flipside is that three quarters of the British electorate are opposed to the taxpayer-funded extravagance, an event 'asking for trouble' as the bishop of the deceased's home diocese has put it.
So the event goes ahead in the teeth of public opposition – not quite an overwhelming majority but close. The poll may show that the people who protest in Trafalgar Square, who buy a CD mocking her memory, and who sponsor sceptical discussion of her legacy in the Scottish Parliament on the day of her funeral are more in tune with the popular mood than the political establishment, which has rarely in recent times seemed more detached from the democratic will.
A hint of faded glamour is being conferred on the proceedings by the presence of a number of luvvies in the cheap seats. The 'household names' will include at least two ex-cons, Jeffrey Archer and Gerald Ronson, two Welsh warblers (Jenkins and Bassey – I had assumed the latter long dead), Lloyd-Webber and his erstwhile partner Rice, the inevitable 'celebrity chef' (one Marco Pierre White), the insufferable Jeremy Clarkson and the film actress Joan Collins. But the luvvie-in-chief at the court of the baroness will not be among the mourners, Sir James Savile having departed this vale of tears.
Yesterday afternoon, as I was re-arranging the shelves, a book obligingly fell at my feet, and there it was staring at me from the floor of the study – a photograph of Savile, cigar disgustingly in mouth, on the cover of an anthology of interviews by the toughest cookie in Fleet Street, Lynn Barber. How instructive to read it again years later, with Savile gone and his patron about to be despatched with military honours.
The interview with Sir James in the Independent on Sunday is dated July 1990, near the abrupt end of her premiership, and Barber finds him drooling over a letter he has received from Mrs Thatcher's office offering him a knighthood. He hands Barber a plastic folder containing such memorabilia as the envelope which enclosed the letter of offer and telegrams of congratulations from the monarch's husband and her eldest son Prince Charles ('the most caring fellow I've ever met – oh, unbelievable').
Barber notes that many organisations use the disc jockey as a conduit to the royal family, since it is well known that he can pick up the telephone to most of them. He admits to being a habitué of Highgrove and Buckingham Palace and of No 10 and Chequers, where he 'often spends Christmas or New Year'.
Barber, a journalist not renowned for her shyness with public figures, approaches the skeleton in the cupboard with uncharacteristic nervousness. She braces herself to repeat the 'persistent rumour' that the newest knight of the realm is 'into little girls'. Savile reacts 'with a flurry of funny-voice Jimmy Savile patter' and assures her that he would never dream of letting a kid past his front door – 'You just can't take the risk'. Barber finds his explanations 'perfectly credible' and adds: '...the fact that the tabloids have never come up with a scintilla of evidence against Jimmy Savile is as near proof as you can ever get'.
Savile does not deny that he may have had sex. 'All I can say is that I've never ever got anybody into trouble, I've never knowingly upset anybody...'. Barber buys this too, suggesting that his non-existent love life is the reason for the unpleasant theories circulating about him. By the end of the interview she has come to the astonishingly benign conclusion that he seems 'almost saintly'.
Perhaps Savile's ability to hoodwink a journalist should not surprise us, but his success in pulling the same trick with Mrs Thatcher, whose judgement is being so widely praised, deserves a little belated attention this week of all weeks.
The most remarkable sentence from Barber's risible encounter is this: 'In 1988 the Department of Health suspended the whole management board of Broadmoor and put Savile in charge of running the place, which he is still doing with every apparent success'.
Few sentences more eloquently, though in this case unwittingly, capture the Thatcher era, with its disdain for the idea of society. Only an administration which had shamelessly invested its faith in 'families and individuals' could permit one such individual to control the lives of deeply disturbed people without the least regard for that individual's grotesque unsuitability. As one of the dismissed management board said at the time: 'The lunatics have been put in charge of the asylum'. There was only one lunatic: Mrs Thatcher's friend.
Savile's appointment, the circumstances of which have still not been properly accounted for, would never have been tolerated in a society which was functioning properly. But there was no such thing as society; that was official. No doubt Mrs Thatcher knew that Savile had been given the keys to the institution with a brief to do what he liked – he was her regular guest and confidant, after all; it is even possible that she personally approved the arrangement. We may never know.
Left to his own devices in a country which consisted only of 'families and individuals', Savile went on to rape and abuse vulnerable people in Broadmoor, in Leeds Infirmary, at Stoke Mandeville, and in the BBC's Paedophile Centre in West London. His career as a serial child offender, while he hob-nobbed with royalty and flattered 'the woman who changed Britain', is a perfect example of what happens when society, with its many checks and balances, is declared not to exist. But I don't expect we will be hearing any of that as the gun carriage bearing the corpse of the baroness makes its majestic way to St Paul's. Pity her greatest admirer, the former head of Broadmoor, won't be there to witness the spectacle.