British lawmakers gather to honour Thatcher

LONDON (AFP) - Britain's lawmakers will gather for a special session of parliament on Wednesday to debate the legacy of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose death on Monday exposed bitterly divided views on the "Iron Lady's" 11 years in power.

Fellow Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron will lead proceedings, while the head of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, and Labour leader Ed Miliband are also expected to pay their respects.

But firebrand foes such as independent George Galloway have vowed to stay away in protest at Mrs Thatcher's often divisive policies.

Queen Elizabeth II will lead mourners at Mrs Thatcher's funeral next week, the first time the monarch will have attended the ceremony of one of her former prime ministers since Winston Churchill died in 1965.

Tributes from world leaders who hailed the role of the "Iron Lady" in bringing down communism kept flooding in as the British government announced that the funeral would be next Wednesday at St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Speculation mounted on Tuesday that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and ex-US first lady Nancy Reagan would be invited to the ceremonial funeral, one step down from the state funeral given to Churchill, but the same honour afforded to the Queen Mother and to Princess Diana.

But "Maggie" remained as polarising in death as she did in life, with violence erupting at street parties celebrating the passing of a figure who critics say destroyed millions of lives with her free-market economic policies.

Mrs Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister and longest serving premier of the 20th century, died on Monday aged 87 after suffering a stroke. She had suffered from dementia for more than a decade.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, a fellow Conservative, told a briefing on Tuesday ahead of a meeting with G8 counterparts that Britain was grateful for the condolences from around the world.

"She was an inspiration to many people in other countries, not just this country, particularly people aspiring to their own freedom and democracy at a time they didn't have it, such as behind the Iron Curtain," Hague said.

Pope Francis was among the latest to pay tribute, hailing her "promotion of freedom". Similar tributes have come from US President Barack Obama and dozens of current and former world leaders.

Mr Cameron's office said the government had agreed during a meeting with Thatcher's family and Buckingham Palace on April 17 for her funeral, followed by a private cremation.

"A wide and diverse range of people and groups with connections to Lady Thatcher will be invited," it said.

The queen and her husband Prince Philip will attend, Buckingham Palace said. The monarch does not usually attend funerals or memorial services of non-royals.

Thatcher's coffin will rest in the Houses of Parliament the night before the funeral and will be taken through the London streets on a gun carriage to the cathedral with full military honours.

Several Conservative lawmakers have called for her to receive a full state funeral but her spokesman Lord Tim Bell said Thatcher had specifically said such an observance was "not appropriate".

A private ambulance accompanied by police motorcycle outriders removed Thatcher's body early Tuesday from the luxury Ritz hotel in central London where she had spent the last days of her life, an AFP photographer reported.

But her legacy - encompassing brutal clashes with miners, the crushing of the trade unions, violent poll tax riots and the Falklands War with Argentina - remains as divisive in 2013 as it was during her premiership from 1979 to 1990.

Even in her home town of Grantham, eastern England, where she was born to a humble grocer and his wife, opinion was sharply split.

"I am glad she is dead. ... She closed down the mines and bought the coal from communist countries, our enemies," said 39-year-old Michael Blocksidge outside the town's guildhall, where the flag flew at half mast as it does over the parliament and Buckingham Palace.

Trouble erupted at several parties to celebrate her death in south London, Bristol in southwest England and Glasgow in Scotland, reminiscent of the sometimes violent protests during her time in office in the 1980s.

In Bristol six police officers were injured, one seriously, bottles and cans were thrown at officers and fires were started in bins.

Britain's newspapers were similarly divided even if they were unanimous on the extent of Mrs Thatcher's impact.

Right-wing titles carried effusive praise, with the Daily Telegraph calling her a "champion of freedom for workers, nations and the world." But the left-wing Guardian said she promoted a "cult of greed".

Outside Mrs Thatcher's plush central London townhouse a slow but steady stream of mourners laid flowers in tribute.

"I'm very sad. She is a big icon," said Martin Wolf, 37, a Czech national who works at the London hotel where Thatcher staged her 80th birthday party.

Mrs Thatcher's twin son and daughter were both out of the country when she died. Her husband Denis passed away in 2003.