What can politicians learn from Margaret Thatcher?by John Campbell / April 8, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
This article was originally published in December 2011 to mark the release of The Iron Lady
Ten years after she left office Margaret Thatcher descended on the Tory party’s spring conference in Plymouth to support the then leader, William Hague. Noticing that a local cinema was showing a film entitled The Mummy Returns she unwisely made a joke of it, not realising that it was a horror film and nothing to do with a cuddly mother figure. By applying it to herself she unwittingly evoked all the cartoons that had been portraying her for years as a vampire, Frankenstein’s monster, or ghost still haunting the Tory party.
Now the mummy has returned with a vengeance to haunt David Cameron. The much-trailed new film The Iron Lady, released on 6th January and starring Meryl Streep, is on a different scale from previous representations of Mrs Thatcher, which have mainly been more or less satirical. Ian Curteis’s The Falklands Play, starring Patricia Hodge (written in 1987 but suppressed by the BBC—allegedly because it was too favourable—and not shown until 2002), and Margaret (2009), with Lindsay Duncan in the title role, were the first attempts to portray her sympathetically; but these were both made for television. The Iron Lady dwarfs them both as a full-scale film featuring a global superstar, openly targeted at the Oscars and inviting comparison with other big screen biopics like Gandhi and Cry Freedom. It shows that even while still alive—albeit totally withdrawn from public view—Britain’s first and so far only female prime minister has passed into history as a mythic figure bigger than politics.
The writer (Abi Morgan), director (Phyllida Lloyd) and star (Streep) were none of them natural Thatcherites when she was prime minister, yet they have tried to get beyond the polarised attitudes of the 1980s and see her afresh, both as a human being—perhaps specifically as a woman—and as an icon.They have not exactly grown fonder of her with the passing years, but they recognise her as the dominant public figure who has shaped their lives, to the extent that she is almost a part of themselves. Some years ago there was a brilliant stage show, Thatcher: The Musical, which toured the country but sadly never made it to London. It began with the first of nine actresses who played the Lady in the course of the evening—all in the same rigid blonde helmet—stepping out of a giant handbag; and ended with the last of them almost taunting the audience with the spooky refrain: “I’m in your DNA.” Like her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher is in the DNA of everyone in Britain over the age of 35.