The DNA of a generation

What can politicians learn from Margaret Thatcher?
April 8, 2013


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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 It shows that even while still alive—albeit totally withdrawn from public view—Britain’s first and so far only female prime minister has passed into history as a mythic figure bigger than politics.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.

But there is now a whole younger generation—not so much “Thatcher’s children” but her grandchildren—who have grown up in the world she shaped and know her only as a name, an image and a legend—and sometimes scarcely even that. Some of the actresses who auditioned to play the young Margaret in The Iron Lady were reported to have had no idea that Carol Thatcher—winner of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here in 2005—had a famous mother. To this age group she is not exactly a historical figure but rather as Churchill was to the postwar generation—a canonised colossus whose legend overshadowed our childhood and was still alive up to 1965, but who fell into that twilight period between the end of school history and the beginning of our own conscious experience. We were brought up on a diet of war films—The Colditz Story, The Dam Busters and the rest—with constant references to “our finest hour” and the Dunkirk spirit; but I don’t remember Churchill himself featuring as a dramatised character until much later. Richard Attenborough’s historical film, Young Winston did not appear until 1972.

So how will young cinema audiences see Mrs Thatcher portrayed in this film? Probably the most controversial aspect of The Iron Lady will be the framing of her life story through the memory of a confused old lady suffering from dementia, which some will think in poor taste. In fact this is very compassionately handled—as well as being the most stunning part of Meryl Streep’s performance. The presentation of the once-iron lady brought down by Alzheimer’s lifts the film onto an altogether higher plane than the standard biopic and into the realm of real tragedy, with echoes of King Lear as she struggles to prove to Carol, her doctor and herself that she is not “mad.” Age, the film shows us, can reduce even an iron lady to a shadow of her former self; but conversely the most doolally old person may once have been a powerful and vital personality—an insight which should not be lost on young audiences, so many of whom will today have parents or grandparents diminished in the same way.

That present-day framing device aside, however, the core of the film portrays Mrs Thatcher in her prime sympathetically but inevitably somewhat one-dimensionally as a heroic figure—a sort of Superwoman, battling against stupid and cowardly men, sweeping all before her (selection committees, patronising MPs, the Tory “wets,” the miners, the Argies) until she almost wilfully over-reaches herself with a display of intolerable hubris and is brought down.

It says virtually nothing about her ideas, her policies (apart from the riots they are seen to produce) or her political legacy. It presents her story simply as a triumph of determination and individual willpower, without context, as though Thatcherism was nothing but the emanation of her own personality; not as it really was—the British face of a global revolution against collectivism which swept the world from Chile to China, encompassing the collapse of the Soviet Union on the way. Milton Friedman, the free market think tanks, even Keith Joseph, are entirely absent: understandably, of course—this is a feature film, not an academic lecture. Yet their absence reinforces the distortion of all biopics (perhaps of all biography?) that reduces the real world to a supporting cast of straw men who dare to oppose the hero and are duly demolished. It is magnificent, but it is not history—even though the film has made every effort to get its historical details right.

That global revolution, of which Mrs Thatcher was such a prominent champion, is now almost universally recognised as a necessary reaction against the sclerotic inefficiency of what she called “socialism”—really (in Britain at least) a combination of labourism, Keynesianism and corporatism. The liberalisation of the economy through privatisation, the end of prices and incomes policies, abolition of exchange controls, the curbing of trade union power and the deregulation of the City of London (facilitated by the phenomenal development of computers and fuelled by the temporary bonus of North Sea oil) undoubtedly released a huge surge of economic energy and wealth creation, such that all parties were carried away by it, Labour under Blair and Brown almost as uncritically as the Tories. Yet that wave broke in 2008, with consequences which we are only just beginning to feel. What have the credit crunch, the banking crisis and the rising backlash against extreme inequality done to Mrs Thatcher’s reputation?


Up until 2008 Thatcher’s legacy embodied a strange paradox. Thatcherism had comprehensively won the ideological argument, so that not only the successor Tory government of John Major but the whole “project” of “New Labour” accepted and even extended Thatcherite policies—on taxation, public services, internal markets and “light-touch” regulation; they even adopted her “so far and no further” attitude towards Europe, which in 1990 was a major cause of her downfall. Yet both parties equally shied away from acknowledging their debt. It was understandable that Labour figures like Gordon Brown, David Blunkett and Margaret Beckett, all of whom had cut their political teeth as left-wing activists denouncing the evil Thatcher in the 1980s, should have been embarrassed by their wholesale adoption of her policies. (Tony Blair was of course different, never having had any political roots in the first place).

But the Tories equally felt the need to distance themselves from their former heroine. She made Major’s life a misery. William Hague was patently embarrassed by her endorsement, and Labour in 2001 thought to scare the electorate by portraying him with her hair. Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard failed partly because they could not shake off their association with her; while David Cameron’s only partially successful mission since 2005 has been to “detoxify” the Tory party by distancing himself from her legacy—by acknowledging, for instance, that “there is such a thing as society.” More recently there has been some softening of attitudes towards her, due partly to compassion for her Alzheimer’s but also to nostalgia for a time when politics was more exciting and more clear-cut, a real clash of passionately-held beliefs rather than the trivialised focus group and soundbite-driven mush we suffer today.

Now suddenly, just as The Iron Lady has brought her back into the news, or at least onto film posters, the Tories can’t decide whether to blame her as the malign godmother of the present crisis whose policies, carried further than she took them, have landed us where we are today; or as the strong leader whose example we should follow to get ourselves out of it. “What would Maggie do?” they ask? And the answer is not clear. The ambiguity derives from the two sides of her character, which were reflected in the two conflicting aspects of Thatcherism.

On the one hand she was the grocer’s daughter, the apostle of thrift, hard work and good housekeeping, who never really approved of the stock exchange, never owned a credit card and refused to be a member of Lloyd’s of London. That moralistic side of her disapproved of the casino capitalism which her free market philosophy unleashed. Yet the apostle of thrift presided over the “big bang,” the “loadsamoney” culture of the late 1980s and the biggest credit boom in history which carried on right up to 2008, leaving both the nation and individual households drowning in debt. The paradox of Thatcherism was played out in her own family; she took us from the thrifty world of her father to that of her spoiled playboy son in 30 years—from Alfred Roberts to Mark Thatcher in three generations.

So which Maggie would she be today, if she could give us her doubtless trenchant views? One must assume that she would deplore the unintended consequences of her own later policies and revert to the Thatcher of 1981. At that time she and Geoffrey Howe defied the Keynesian orthodoxy of the 364 economists who wrote to TheTimes urging her to reflate. Instead she insisted on raising taxes and cutting expenditure even in a recession, in order to cut inflation and balance the budget. Heartily as Thatcher disliked Germans, she would probably applaud the refusal of Angela Merkel to print money to bail out the improvident Mediterranean nations—a hard-nosed stance which has earned Merkel her own claim to the title “Iron Lady.” But then does one judge a politician on what she says or what she does?

Cameron’s Tory critics are already using the film to berate him and George Osborne as coalitionist wimps who need an injection of Thatcherite backbone. (There is a slyly topical line when Streep’s Thatcher declares pointedly “I don’t like coalitions.”) But it would be a mistake for Cameron to counter this criticism by trying to imitate her heroic approach. To do so would be like Anthony Eden trying to emulate Churchill by standing up to Nasser in 1956, which only led to national and personal humiliation. Mrs Thatcher herself only got away with it in her early years by a combination of her particular personality and favourable circumstances.

She was able to boast that she was “not for turning” only because Conservative dissenters and a fragmented opposition could muster no convincing alternative, and because there was a widespread public acceptance that some nasty medicine was needed. She succeeded in getting “her” money back from Europe because there was a genuine imbalance in the European Economic Community budget which needed to be addressed. The Argentinian dictator General Galtieri and then the president of the mineworkers union Arthur Scargill could have represented serious threats to her authority, but instead gave her a pair of pantomime villains to defeat; while on the world stage she was blessed with a uniquely self-confident American president who allowed her to share the international limelight with him and posture as the leader of a great power. For a brief moment she almost seemed to recreate with Reagan and Gorbachev the sort of world-shaping triumvirate that Churchill had formed with Roosevelt and Stalin and share in the glory of having ended the cold war. But this grandstanding style did not work so well when it came to dealing with the President of the European Commission Jacques Delors and questions of European integration, nor with the first President Bush who simply ignored her atavistic opposition to German reunification. Both at home and abroad the “Iron Lady” style became increasingly counterproductive; and it is not an option for Cameron faced with Merkel, Sarkozy and Obama.

What the film does not convey is that behind the bold rhetoric and the gleeful handbagging of feeble opponents, Mrs Thatcher was actually quite cautious. She did not come into power with a clear programme which she then proceeded ruthlessly to implement, but felt her way carefully and changed tack where necessary. She quickly abandoned strict monetarism when it clearly was not working; she backed away from an early trial of strength with the miners when she was not yet ready to win it; and she approached trade union reform not in one big bill—as Prime Minister Heath had tried in 1971—but by a series of small steps. Privatisation was not in the 1979 manifesto at all, but was stumbled into as a way of raising private capital for the Post Office—it became the ideological symbol of Thatcherism almost by accident.

Margaret Thatcher called herself a “conviction politician,” and of course she was; but the second word was as important as the first. Behind the uncompromising image she was a shrewd and prudent politician who rode the tide of evolving public opinion, creating acceptance of controversial measures like privatisation and the sale of council houses as she went along. She was careful never to get too far ahead of the electorate until after 1987, when she became impatient—sensing time was running out—and increasingly autocratic, attempting to reform everything in sight, from education and the NHS to football crowds and absent fathers, and impaling herself fatally on the poll tax.

What she did have in her early years was an essential clarity of purpose. She did not know exactly how, or whether, she was going to get there, but she knew the direction in which she wanted to advance and was increasingly able to do so as opposition fell away after the Falklands. It is this clarity of purpose which differentiates her most strikingly from Tony Blair—who came into office with no idea of what he wanted to do beyond getting re-elected—and, one suspects, David Cameron. In the film the elderly Lady Thatcher complains that politicians today seem just to want to “be someone” rather than to “do something.” In another scene, irritated by her doctor asking how she feels, she launches into an extraordinary tirade about how people nowadays always talk about “feeling,” never about “thinking.” This, I believe, is an invention of Abi Morgan—I have never heard of the real Thatcher making that distinction—but it is a brilliant piece of scriptwriting and entirely in character.

The best lesson Cameron could draw from her example is probably Polonius’s advice to Laertes in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” One of the most remarkable things about Thatcher—which the film brings out—was that she was extraordinarily true to herself. Everyone who worked with her said that you always knew where you were with her; there was no dissembling, no saying one thing to one person and something different to another, no allowing an interlocutor to think she agreed with him when she didn’t. This basic honesty was a large part of her political strength, which contrasts with most of her predecessors and successors up to the present. Her faithful bulldog Bernard Ingham called her the most tactless person he had ever known. It got her into trouble in the end, when she became too openly contemptuous of her senior colleagues—above all poor old Geoffrey Howe, to whose resolution as chancellor she owed a good deal of her early success, before in her view he went soft as foreign secretary. Eventually his patience snapped and he bit back. But it was a huge strength in the beginning that she had the self-confidence not to mind being disliked, even hated, so long as she was doing what she considered right. The film is so moving partly because it shows the dissolution of that powerful sense of self.

But what is Cameron’s real self? So far we have little idea. The impression is beginning to take hold that he is not as nice as he seemed—which may be what the situation demands—but maybe also not so competent as he initially appeared. Like Blair he wants to be liked; he also has the problem which neither Blair nor Thatcher had of having to lead a coalition. But he gives out no clear sense of purpose beyond the immediate priority of cutting the deficit and seems to have no ideological roots or political compass: just an embarrassingly privileged background which he has to try to deny. Perhaps this is not his fault. Mrs Thatcher had dragons to slay and an ideological wind behind her. After two decades of failed corporatism the country was ready in 1979 for an unashamedly Tory approach. We live in messier times. The present crisis derives from the implosion of casino capitalism in 2008; but in Britain it was a Labour government which presided over it, conveniently allowing the coalition to blame Labour for the inherited debt. There are rumbles of discontent with bankers’ bonuses, reflected across all parties and even in the Tory press; but little sign of a serious backlash against market economics such as would support a return to socialism. Ed Miliband is as afraid to condemn capitalism as Cameron is wholly to endorse it. Both simply want to moderate its indefensible excesses. In these circumstances there is no clear Thatcherite agenda for Cameron to embrace. Facing huge and intractable problems in relation to both the economy and Europe, it will not help him to have Mrs Thatcher’s image looming at him from the billboards over the coming months.