London stages its biggest political funeral in almost half a century on Wednesday when Britain's governing elite join the Queen and global leaders to bid farewell to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, known as the "Iron Lady".
In an event comparable to that of Winston Churchill's funeral in 1965, Thatcher's coffin will be carried atop a horse-drawn gun carriage through streets lined with admirers, and some detractors, from parliament to the city's most famous cathedral.
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More than 2,000 people including 11 prime ministers from around the world will attend the service.
"She was the first woman prime minister, she served for longer in the job than anyone for 150 years, she achieved some extraordinary things in her life," Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of Thatcher's Conservative Party, told BBC radio.
"I think what is happening today is absolutely fitting and right," he said, dismissing concerns by some Thatchercritics about the cost and pomp of the event.
Thatcher in 1960 (Photo: AP)
The bells of London's iconic Big Ben clock tower will fall silent in tribute for the first time since Churchill's funeral and more than 700 armed forces personnel will honour a woman who led them to victory in the 1982 Falklands War.
Guns will fire from the Tower of London every minute while the procession is under way.
Thatcher, who governed Britain from 1979 to 1990, died on April 8 after suffering a stroke.
British flags flying at half-mast (Photo: Reuters)
In life, the woman the Soviets christened the "Iron Lady" divided the British public with her free-market policies which sometimes wrought wrenching change on communities. In death it is no different.
People gathered along the funeral procession route early in the morning with placards that reflected a range of views.
"You gave millions of us hope, freedom, ambition," read a placard held up by one man, while a short distance away another man held one that read: "Over 10 million pounds of our money for a Tory funeral". Tory is another word for Conservative.
Polls have shown that many are unhappy that the estimated 10-million ($15 million) pound bill for the funeral is being picked up by the taxpayer, while some left-wing lawmakers say the pomp-filled funeral is excessive.
Controversial figure (Photo: AFP)
But her admirers, of which there are many in her party and in southern England, argue that she merits such a funeral.
"Some people say she divided the country: but if she was so divisive, how did she win three elections?" said Joseph Afrane, 49, a security officer from south London, who wore a cowboy hat, jacket, shoes and even watch emblazoned with the British flag.
'I vow to thee my country'
More than 2,300 mourners will attend including 11 serving prime ministers from around the world, the British government's entire cabinet, two heads of state and 17 foreign ministers.
But there will be notable absences. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Nancy Reagan, the widow of Thatcher's great U.S. ally Ronald Reagan, are too frail to attend.
The Netanyahus attend funeral (Photo: Gettyimages)
Thatcher struck up a close relationship with Reagan during the Cold War and was among the first to decide that Gorbachev was a man she could "do business with".
The guest list for her funeral has prompted talk of diplomatic snubs. A spokesman for Cameron denied the United States had snubbed Britain by not sending anyone senior from the administration of President Barack Obama.
Final parliamentary farewell (Photo: EPA)
The Argentine ambassador refused to attend after Britain said it wouldn't be inviting Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, following a request from the Thatcher family, amid increased tensions over the contested Falkland Islands.
Relations between the two countries remain strained after a 1982 war over the South Atlantic islands which Thatcher ordered a task force to retake after Argentine troops seized it.
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