Why did the Left (including myself, back in the 1970s) so dislike Margaret Thatcher? She and I share the same birthday: October 13. That should have counted for something.
There are many reasons, some of which I will address further down, but the most perplexing one is why so many women opposed her when she seemed to embody everything that feminism aspired to. Jonathan S. Tobin wrote in the Federalist:
Thatcher is arguably the most consequential British leader since Winston Churchill and easily one of the most important women of the 20th century. Yet despite the endless chatter from the entertainment industry about the way women are shortchanged and the obligation of art to combat sexism, Thatcher has never gotten her due from popular culture.
Rather, to the extent the life of this remarkable woman has been noted in the arts, it has been to demonize her as an evil, heartless conservative. Thatcher’s treatment shows that feminists in the arts are primarily interested in leftist politics, not the advancement of women.
Her widely publicised reply to a question about women’s liberation at her first press conference as a Conservative leader—“What’s it ever done for me?”— certainly didn’t help.
Joe Dolce’s reviews appear in every Quadrant.
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In the sense of true equality, it could be said that she was blindly hated in the same way that just about every important male politician has been blindly hated. But, to be fair, most Conservatives also didn’t think very much of her in her first years in politics.
Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley (2008) is a feature film directed by Niall MacCormick and produced for BBC Four. It focuses on the early political career of Margaret Roberts, from 1949, her relationship and marriage to Denis Thatcher, and up to and including her first win of a parliamentary seat, in 1959, in the Finchley district of North London, in the Borough of Barnet.
The film is filled with upbeat humour and lightness and is a welcome relief from the other serious portrayals of Thatcher such as The Iron Lady (2011), starring Meryl Streep. Thatcher is played by Andrea Louise Riseborough as a savvy, highly attractive woman. For a few, it will seem strange to see the “Iron Lady”, as she was nicknamed by the Soviet News Agency, depicted in this youthful sexy way, but there are many accounts of her charisma and allure. President Mitterrand of France, for example, famously said she had “the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula”.
Jane R. Eisner, former editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer, called her “the most powerful woman in the world”. Everyone understands the magnetic force that kind of power brings.
Gail Sheehy, who interviewed Thatcher for Vanity Fair, described her presence in Parliament:
She is starkly smart in her black silk suit with its sparkling white tuxedo collar, almost a parody of a gentleman’s garb. Then she sits back and crosses her legs, confidently displaying her slender knees and slim ankles in their sheer black stockings. “She has sexy legs” is a comment heard from both devotees and detractors.
The film begins in 1949, with twenty-three-year-old Margaret Roberts attending an interview for a job as a research chemist on a project to pump air into ice-cream to make it go further. When asked what her hobbies are—“perhaps choral singing or needlepoint?”—she replies, “Politics. That’s all.” With her father Alfred Roberts’s support, she continues to pursue her political interests. He tells her, “Politics is about people. Always look them in the eye.” She meets Denis Thatcher (played by Rory Kinnear), a highly successful paint and preservative manufacturer, ten years older than her, who drives a stylish Jaguar. Her father is concerned about Thatcher taking advantage of his daughter but she reassures him, “I suspect we’ll spend the whole day talking about synthetic latex.”
She runs as the Conservative candidate for Dartford in the 1949 election, but most members of her party feel she has no chance of winning. She meets Edward Heath, who is running for Bexley. She is defeated at Dartford by Labour but her challenge strategically enables Heath to win Bexley.
A woman, even a brilliant woman, must have two qualities in order to fulfil her promise: more energy than mere mortals, and the ability to outwit her culture.
—Margaret Mead, anthropologist
She makes a decision to give up work in chemistry and study law. She accepts Denis Thatcher’s proposal of marriage and he financially supports her while she is preparing for the Bar. She becomes pregnant, giving birth to twins, Mark and Carol, but successfully completes her Bar exam.
She is defeated in her bid to win the candidacy for the seat of Orpington, and also tries and fails at Beckenham, Hemel Hempstead and Maidstone. Frustrated at being “strangled by the Old School Tie”, she refuses to give up and runs for the seat of Finchley, held by Sir John Crowder, who detests her and is embarrassed that a woman might succeed him. In a conversation between them outside the Finchley hall she absolutely shreds him, drawing on her extensive research into his career. “Preparation is everything,” she tells him. “Which achievement do you consider your greatest? Your demand of the Postmaster General for large square stamped envelopes? Or your inquiry into the minutiae of the acute rheumatism regulation?” He’s speechless before her well-informed onslaught. She enters the hall and gives a stirring talk to party members:
The Socialists stand for equality! What that means is if you have any brains, you mustn’t show it because it will put people off … it’s the Conservatives who offer real equality of opportunity, irrespective of who you are, irrespective of your background, irrespective of your class, irrespective of your sex. There have been troubled times but always fresh challenges lie in wait. The stirrings of resurgence can be felt everywhere in halls like this one up and down our nation. We Conservatives are planing through the spray of a lifting wave rising upwards and onwards into the sunlight of tomorrow.
She wins Finchley in the 1959 election and the film ends with a note over the end credits indicating that, sixteen years later, she defeated Edward Heath for the Conservative Party leadership.
Niall MacCormick is a Scottish director who won a BAFTA for the Channel 4 film Complicit (2014) and directed the acclaimed BBC mini-series, The Victim (2019). Andrea Louise Riseborough is an English actress who played the role of Wallis Simpson in W.E. (2011) and starred with Tom Cruise in the brilliant sci-fi film Oblivion (2013). She received a BAFTA nomination for her portrayal of Thatcher. Rory Kinnear (Denis Thatcher) is an English actor who won the Olivier Award for Best Actor for his Iago in the National Theatre production of Othello. He has appeared in several recent James Bond films. Quentin Letts wrote in MailOnLine:
The real Denis Thatcher, ten years older than Margaret, was a strongly political creature who read every current affairs and banking periodical going … Mr Kinnear catches his charm but he could have given Denis more intellectual oomph.
There have been other films about Thatcher but nothing as upbeat as this one. Thatcher: The Final Days (1991), with Sylvia Syms in the lead role, concerned the events surrounding the final few days of her time as Prime Minister. Margaret (2009) was made by the same production company as The Long Walk to Finchley, and starred Lindsay Duncan as Thatcher. Margaret segues between the time of Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in 1979, and the final year leading to her resignation in 1990. It’s a very political drama, focusing mostly on Conservative party infighting, and does not address external issues such as industrial relations or the Falklands War.
The Iron Lady (2011) was based on John Campbell’s biography, The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister and starred Meryl Streep, who won her third Best Actress Academy Award for her performance. The most recent portrayal of Thatcher was in Season Four of The Crown (2020), where she was played by Gillian Anderson. The season explored the relationship between Thatcher and the Queen, as well as touching on the Falklands War and Thatcher’s resignation.
Margaret Hilda Baroness Thatcher, LG, DStJ, PC, FRS, HonFRSC (1925–2013) was the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the twentieth century and the first woman to hold the office. Sir Denis Thatcher, 1st Baronet, MBE, TD, CStJ (1915–2003) was the first male prime ministerial spouse. He was running his family business, Atlas Preservatives, when he met Margaret Roberts in 1949 at a Paints Trades Federation function in Dartford. She had been working as an industrial chemist and they obviously had the Periodic Table in common—they married two years later. Thatcher’s firm employed hundreds of people and, in 1965, he sold Atlas to Castrol for the equivalent of £10 million in today’s money.
Their twins, Mark and Carol, were born six weeks prematurely by C-section. Denis Thatcher was watching the deciding Test of the 1953 Ashes series, on August 15, at the time of their birth. On first seeing the newborns, he said to his wife: “My God, they look like rabbits. Put them back!”
Their daughter Carol has never married or had children but lives with a ski instructor in Switzerland. She worked as a journalist in Australia, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald and reporting for Channel Seven. Her fitness and love of the outdoors enabled her to win the 2005 fifth series of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! in Australia, becoming the second “Queen of the Jungle”. One of her challenges was to eat kangaroo testicles, which she had no problem with, but later said, “I won’t be coming back for seconds.” She has written biographies of her mother and father and produced a documentary, Married to Maggie (2003), including the only public interview of her father.
Their son, Mark, now Sir Mark Thatcher, 2nd Baronet, has had a more controversial life. He flunked accountancy exams three times, raced in Le Mans and entered a Peugeot 504 in the Paris-to-Dakar Rally, but became lost for six days in the Sahara. His father launched a rescue mission involving military aircraft from three countries. In 2005, Mark Thatcher was convicted and given a four-year suspended sentence in South Africa for supplying funds to the failed coup in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 (the Wonga Coup). Many of the documents concerning his controversial business dealings in the Middle East have been “retained” and will not be released to the public until 2053. He is married to his second wife, Sarah Jane Russell, Viscountess, with two children from his first marriage.
Thatcherism is a form of British conservative ideology named after Margaret Thatcher—but she never used the term herself. It was described by Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor of the Exchequer, as “a political platform emphasising free markets with restrained government spending and tax cuts, coupled with British nationalism, both at home and abroad”.
Thatcher was highly criticised during her political career for her support of capital punishment, abolishing free milk for school children and the Poll Tax, to mention just a few controversial issues. But the British army officer and journalist Josh Archer wrote, “Some say she merely highlighted the divisions already present in society at the time.” About capital punishment, she once said:
I personally have always voted for the death penalty because I believe that people who go out prepared to take the lives of other people forfeit their own right to live. I believe that the death penalty should be used only very rarely, but I believe that no one should go out certain that no matter how cruel, how vicious, how hideous their murder, they themselves will not suffer the death penalty.
Abolishing free milk for children came about during the Heath government in the early 1970s when she was Secretary of State for Education. She was ordered to make spending cuts. It was nothing radically new—three years earlier, free milk had been removed from secondary schools by the Labour Education Secretary, Edward Short. Still, Thatcher became the butt of jokes and jingles, such as “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.
The Poll Tax was a fixed sum on every adult, regardless of income or assets. Also known as the “Community Charge” or “Head Tax”, it was last levied by Charles II in the seventeenth century. Archer said: “The changes generated seething public anger, mass protests, public disobedience, mass refusal to pay, legal challenges and some of the worst rioting ever seen in England.” Archer believes it was the single most significant reason for her resignation in 1990. When John Major took over, he immediately abolished it. Archer remarked:
During war, leaders must take decisions that can lead to people losing their lives. Similarly, during an economic crisis leaders must take decisions that can lead to people being made unemployed or losing their homes. The key point here is that leaders must make decisions.
Judging those decisions is, for the most part, subjective and depends on whether you lost or gained as a result … that is the real reason why Thatcher is divisive—some people lost and some people gained. There was no middle ground. There was almost no sense of “degree”.
Mark Cunliffe, on Letterboxd, suggests Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley is largely tongue-in-cheek:
It’s the script that’s the key. Clearly there’s tomfoolery at work … an incensed young Margaret [Roberts] declares her intention of providing free milk for children if she were in power (at odds with the decision she did take), whilst her daughter Carol is asked as a child would she ever go to the jungle? and Mark fares no better getting lost in the sand dunes on a family holiday—references to Carol’s participation in I’m A Celebrity and Mark’s mishap in the Dakar Rally.
Sam Wollaston wrote in the Guardian:
The performance that not just saves the day but also totally makes it is Andrea Riseborough in the lead. When she first appears, my first reaction is: nah, that’s never Maggie, looks nothing like her. That and phwoar, which is a word that you don’t normally associate with Margaret Thatcher … but then she speaks—“Not at all” is her first utterance, each word beautifully and individually wrapped—and suddenly there is something of the Iron Lady about her. And, as we go along, she grows into the role, not just in the ways she speaks but in everything—her gestures and mannerisms, her purposefulness of movement, the way she handles a handbag, how she leans her head to one side before saying something important. She must have spent hours studying old footage, but it pays off. After a while you don’t notice that she doesn’t look like Margaret Thatcher because she has become Margaret Thatcher.
Letts said Riseborough “gives Margaret humanity, drive and spectacular sex appeal. She catches Maggie’s purposeful waddle, her burning detachment from peripheral matters, her acquired voice.” Clive James once compared Margaret Thatcher’s voice to a “cat sliding down a blackboard”—a shrill, strident scream—but obviously he did not comprehend her true range. She had been coached by professionals at the National Theatre and, when required, could employ many vocal personae.
Gail Sheehy, in her interview with Thatcher, describes “[the] initial warmed milk voice turn[ing] instantly to a scald”, “the soft, breathy coquette’s voice … the soul of feminine gentility: Rhhhaaaly, how very ungentlemanly of the honourable gentleman … the nanny voice, all knowing, simply telling you what is best for you”, and “the silky, slurred, sophisticated woman of the world voice … [with] the smell of several whiskeys on her breath”.
Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley is wonderful British period-piece entertainment with evocative cinematography and stunning costume design and enough historical accuracy to make quite believable the film’s claim in the opening credits: “How Margaret might have done it”.