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The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady, much promoted in the media, was released locally on Boxing Day. By and large, it has lived up to its promise. Meryl Streep, who plays the title role as Mrs. Thatcher, gives a superb performance. She acts and looks like the real person. We should pay tribute to the producers for their selection of actors, not only to play Denis Thatcher, but other leading politicians of the period such as Michael Foot, who succeeded James Callaghan as leader of the Labour Party, and other cabinet ministers.

Female Prime Ministers may remain few and far between. Yet, it seems doubtful that we will see a film about Angela Merkel twenty years’ time. At the very least, this film underscores Margaret Thatcher as one of the most consequential Prime Ministers in history, like her or hate her. In the person of the star, Meryl Streep, this film marks an interesting synthesis. Streep, a self-confessed leftist, has stated that in spite of her opposition to Mrs. Thatcher’s policies, she felt growing admiration for her character at a personal level. Hitherto, nothing aroused more fury among leftwing feminists than the sight of conservative women in leadership positions. Such was the hatred of the left that virtually none of the commentariat would deign to see Thatcher as a symbol of female emancipation. However the late Lord Shinwell, Defence Minister in the postwar Attlee Labour Government, is reputed to have said, when talking of Mrs. Thatcher her cabinets, that ‘she was the only man among them’.

The film opens with the present day Lady Thatcher, old, widowed and physically infirm, going out shopping on her own, much to the consternation of her daughter and helpers. We then share her memories through a series of flashbacks, first to her early memories in her father’s grocery shop and then her early foray into politics as Margaret Roberts. Her engagement to Denis Thatcher, in the immediate aftermath of her first unsuccessful try for parliament, is rightly depicted as the major turning point of her life. Their marriage was one of the great love stories. Denis Thatcher emerges as a loving supporter who was not afraid to offer his independent advice on crucial occasions. Margaret Thatcher is depicted as enjoying an affectionate relationship with her daughter. The feminists will doubtless observe that she felt greater empathy with her son. Indeed, she preferred the company of men. In this context, the left could never grasp that she was the ultimate meritocrat.

Her challenge to the old hierarchy of the British Conservative Party will resonate with Australian and American audiences in particular. Her cabinet colleagues are depicted as a bunch of politically opportunistic nervous nellies. In one of her final cabinet meetings, her colleagues emerge as incompetent as well.

In matters of historical perspective, I have some quibbles. In the film, Thatcher is depicted as singled mindedly determined to make changes. But from what? There is the implication that she was gratuitously ideological. The scenes of piled up garbage are dated from the period of the Heath Government, of which she was a member. There is no mention of the ‘winter of Discontent’, during the period of the Callaghan Labour Government in the late 1970’s. Government services including hospitals were on the point of collapse and even the dead were piling up in mortuaries. Britain faced intervention from the International Monetary Fund. In other words, the country was facing a far worse crisis than the miners’ strike and the sanitation strike depicted during the dying days of Edward Heath’s tenure as Prime Minister in 1974. This omission leads to contextual distortion. Faced with this crisis, drastic remedies were called for no matter who was leading the Conservative Party. What distinguished Margaret Thatcher was her clear-minded vision of the necessary changes. The role of Airey Neave as a key supporter is rightly emphasized. But that of Sir Keith Joseph was ignored. In fact it was Joseph who initially led the intellectual opposition to Edward Heath’s dirigisme and he was the putative challenger to Heath’s leadership in late 1974. It was only after he had delivered a rather impolitic speech that he effectively withdrew from the contest and Mrs. Thatcher took his place. Thereafter, he devoted his considerable talents in her support in both shadow cabinet and in government. The depiction of Margaret Thatcher as a kind of one man band is misleading. The role of opponents such as Michael Heseltine is emphasized while those of Joseph and others are ignored.

Her role in the downfall of the Soviet empire scarcely rates a mention. In particular, her close partnership with Ronald Reagan is wafted away in a brief dance scene. In the prelude to the Falklands War, we witness an antagonistic encounter between Margaret Thatcher and General Alexander Haig, then US Secretary of State. It is true that Haig and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, then US Ambassador to the UN, emphasized good relations with Argentina rather than support for Britain. However President Reagan wholeheartedly sided with the Anglophile Caspar Weinberger, US Secretary of Defense, who made vital military technology available to the British forces. In fact, American support was critical for the British victory.

Much is made of Margaret Thatcher’s sponsorship of the poll tax shortly before her downfall. It could be seen as good theory turned into bad politics. The film watcher might be left with the impression that rioting was common during the Thatcher era. No so. Not mentioned in the film was the spectacle of inner city leftwing local councils engaged in frivolous ideological pursuits at the expense of a small minority of ratepayers whilst the majority enjoyed voting privileges without any obligation to contribute financially. However, Mrs. Thatcher’s authority was diminished. Cabinet could legitimately question her political judgment.

In the light of the likely eventual collapse of both the single European currency and the European Union, it is ironic that her downfall owed so much to her opposition to both the single currency and domination by bureaucrats in Brussels. Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation was the catalyst for her downfall. The film quotes that part of his resignation speech which excoriated her leadership. A fuller rendition of his speech reads like a self-indictment in the light of current events. Margaret Thatcher can now be seen as the vindicated prophet.

The closing scenes are possibly authentic but I did not like them. Yes, old age is a shipwreck, but the dramatic license employed is an intrusion on Margaret Thatcher and her family. Do we really want to put any dementia sufferer on public display? The depiction of Margaret Thatcher’s old age was effective up to a point but somehow crossed a boundary too far.

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