Thatcher: Neither A Lioniser Nor A Ghoulish Hater Be

 

Since the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death broke, I’ve been bouncing back and forth on Twitter trying to push back against two completely opposing attitudes – the first, and on the surface most obnoxious being the gleeful cries of ‘Ding dong!”while apparently opening magnums of champagne in spontaneous street parties while dancing to the Clash. People have plenty of reason to despise her, but such macabre delight in the death of a fellow human being reflects badly not on Margaret Thatcher, but her haters. I deliberately put a photo of the young Margaret, because as always with polarising politicians, we forget they didn’t always exist in the form in which we knew them while they were in power. We forget they’re as human as we are, and so we feel free to spew the kind of hate usually reserved for mass-murderers.

On the other hand, we have the many, many conservatives -on both sides of the pond – hailing her as the greatest PM since Churchill and possibly the greatest peacetime PM full stop. Communism’s greatest foe, scourge of the Argies, a champion for freedom and liberty, Britain’s Iron Lady and Saviour, etc, etc, etc.

Bollocks.

A particularly egregious case of this is – surprise! – Andrew Sullivan. It baffles me how a gay man can admire a woman who passed the singularly horrendous Section 28, which banned local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ in general and especially not in schools. The message to gay people was clear: your country is ashamed of you, and is going to pretend you don’t exist. This nasty, discriminatory, humiliating piece of legislation designed to keep gay people as second class citizens exposes a rather large chink in his idol’s armour, yet Sullivan (whose sense of irony seems to have been surgically removed) titles his piece “Thatcher, Liberator”. Life in Britain pre-Thatcher, he writes, was insane. She restored much needed sanity. The cruel unionists were slowly killing their members  by forcing them to work in the mines.  Never mind that for these miners this was the only way to put food on the table for them and their families,  St Maggie nobly put an end to such suffering by putting them out of work to suffer from desperate poverty instead. Sullivan was, of course, a student at Oxford for the entirety of Thatcher’s first term, followed by an almost immediate move to America to work for the New Republic. So as you can see Sullivan experienced virtually nothing of the real Thatcher’s Britain, which oddly enough seems to be a pattern among her fervent admirers.

Having been born just as her rule as PM was coming to an end, I know nothing of 80s Britain either. But I know my father, who held a degree in mathematics and was a member of a professional body as a qualified actuary, had to leave Britain for South Africa to find work. There were absolutely no jobs, or opportunities to be had. Though Thatcher’s spiritual successor Iain Duncan Smith would have called my ridiculously qualified dad a snob for refusing to stack shelves after all that hard academic work.I know my grandmother, a weaver from Dundee, saw factories close as British industries crumbled under the Iron Lady’s iron fist. She and her family moved, coincidentally, to South Africa too to escape Thatcher’s new ‘sane’ Britain.

Margaret Thatcher is an object lesson in irony, in that her policies produced results contrary to her very strident beliefs. She trumpeted the need for people to be self-reliant, and implemented policies that made millions dependent on the dole. She hailed the British spirit during the Falklands War, even as her intransigence during the strikes caused bitter divides between families, friends and communities. And what about Margaret Thatcher, champion of freedom? She deplored and fought against the oppression of Communism, and declared anti-apartheid political prisoner Nelson Mandela a terrorist. In the case of South Africa, first Thatcher not only did nothing to bring down apartheid, she actively opposed sanctions – with the laughable reasoning that it would ‘hurt the black majority most’. You can’t hurt people who’ve got less than nothing.  She was anything but a champion of liberty to an oppressed Chilean under Pinochet, Thatcher’s BFF. Or to a Cambodian living in fear of the Khmer Rouge. These aren’t small blots on an otherwise pristine copybook, but ugly, glaring contradictory holes in the carefully cultivated myth of the Iron Lady, foe of tyranny.

The final myth that needs to be torn down is Margaret Thatcher the Feminist. “I hate feminism. It is poison,” said Maggie herself. And say what you will about her, she was never disingenuous. This hasn’t stopped people from declaring her a ‘feminist icon’. Why? Because she’s a strong woman? History is littered with equally powerful women who broke the mould, but nevertheless remained the exception rather than the rule and did nothing to raise the status of their fellow women. And that is what Thatcher did. If Emmeline Pankhurst had only fought for and won the vote for herself, would we applaud her as a feminist icon? Thatcher is worthy of women’s admiration in many ways:  she was a trailblazer, pursued her own path, won the leadership of a party in a overwhelmingly male-dominated profession, and did all this while raising a family. But those achievements did not unlock doors and shatter glass ceilings for women as a whole.

The Iron Lady

Finally went to see The Iron Lady yesterday. From a movie standpoint, I thought it was excellent; as a biopic, it was good, but distinctly lacking in vital areas.

It’s impossible to comment on this film without addressing the controversy surrounding it – namely, that should it have been made while Margaret Thatcher was still alive, and should it have portrayed her dementia? Having seen it, I must say the treatment of Thatcher’s senility has been tastefully done, and served to humanise her in a way that little else could have done. A woman known as the ‘Iron Lady’ and for being the most divisive political figure in modern British history is not likely to arouse much sympathy, but this film has managed to do just that. As to whether it should have been made while she’s alive…books that examine public figures far more intimately than any movie have been published during their subjects’ lifetimes for decades now, so it’s hard to find a convincing argument why The Iron Lady should not have been made.

Now, to the film itself. I must add another round of plaudits to the universal acclaim given to Meryl Streep for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. To call this mere impersonation is an insult to an extraordinarily talented actress and what she has achieved here. She doesn’t mimic Thatcher to a high standard, she is Thatcher. It is one of the most multi-dimensional performances I’ve ever seen on screen; as the film revolves around flashbacks, we see the contrast between the frail, lonely, dementia-stricken widow of recent years and the ferociously strong, sharply intelligent politician who blazed a trail to Downing Street for future British women to follow, and both Thatchers are brought vividly to life by Streep. I will confess, some of the scenes between the elderly Maggie and her husband Denis (another wonderful turn by the wonderful Jim Broadbent), who having been dead for several years exists only as a figment of her imagination, brought a tear to my eye. The supporting cast is also strong, if wasted; Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine is barely more than a cameo.

A lot has been said about The Iron Lady’s refusal to go into detail about Thatcher’s actual policies or offer a critique of the woman and her government either way. While on the whole I think this a wise move, it does tend to make this more of a generic  ‘woman takes on the world’ story than a true biopic. When the film focuses on Thatcher’s growing and virulent unpopularity with the public, we’re shown scenes of protests, strikes and riots being crushed by the police, usually followed by Thatcher making a tough-as-nails, never-back-down speech. The effect of this, whether intentional or not, is to make Thatcher look like an exemplar of reasonableness and tough love; a mother telling the populace to eat their vegetables, if you will, because the policies causing the uprisings are never mentioned. But the structure of the movie itself offers a possible explanation for the apolitical to rose-coloured view of key moments in Maggie’s premiership – what we are seeing is clearly Thatcher’s own memories, triggered by events/ things in the present. It could be that scriptwriter Abi Morgan deliberately invoked the unreliable narrator device here.

On a related note, the Iron Lady’s main weakness is that, unless you are a politico or know a lot about Thatcher herself, certain scenes won’t make sense. As I’ve mentioned above, her policies are unexplained; the words ‘trade unions’ and ‘mines’ each get said about once during the protest montages and that’s it. Another example is the opening scene where an elderly Maggie evades her keepers to purchase a pint of milk at her local shop. It’s clearly a reference to her infamous decision to cut free school milk while Education Secretary, leading to the popular refrain of “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher”, but how many people outside Britain or only familiar with Prime Minister Thatcher will be aware of the reference? Not many, I’d wager. And there’s the habit the film has of including key political figures without bothering to explain who they are or what position they hold. Thatcher’s Chancellor and the man who would start the avalanche leading to her downfall, Geoffrey Howe, is mentioned by first name only for the entire film and while he’s generally heard to be talking of things concerning money, it’s never explained that he is the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Overall, it’s definitely worth seeing on its merits as a drama. Just don’t go in expecting the definitive life story of a controversial, complex leader.