Last Friday night, I was down in Torquay drinking with trade union colleagues going to the next day’s Regional Council of the TUC, and I was surprised that many people were opposed to seeing the Iron Lady on principle. I had already agreed to see it to take part in a chat about the film on BBC radio on Tuesday, but I was in any event already looking forward to seeing it.
Whether or not you agree with Lady Thatcher’s politics, she is still a behemoth of Twentieth Century public life. Not only did she forever change the world, but her life is a big and dramatic story, worthy of a film.
The structure of the film is built around a surprisingly intimate and sympathetic portrayal of an elderly woman, somewhat bewildered and grief stricken, sorting through the clothes of her deceased husband, and being prompted by these mementos into recollections of her political life.
This is clever for two reasons, firstly because so many of us have created a ridiculous cartoon version in our heads that subsumes the real living Thatcher into a malign gargoyle; and secondly because the flash-back structure prevents the history becoming a seemingly inevitable, progressive chain of events. What came over very clearly is that Thatcher did not respond to events, she made conscious decisions to shape what happened, and the consequences were contested and controversial.
Certainly the film does imbue Thatcher with a King Lear like grandeur; the great monarch drawn to hubris by the isolation of her destiny; and then betrayed and cast out. Anthony Head is compelling as Geoffrey Howe, the loyal advisor driven into opposition.
What the movie also does very well is capture the appalling snobbery, class division and stultifying sexism of the 1950s and 1960s. I was struck by the scene where Labour politicians mock Thatcher as Education Secretary in Heath’s government for “screeching”, because I had just read how Barbara Castle was mocked for “screeching” in Harold Wilson’s cabinet.
Yet here lies the paradox in the attempt to portray Thatcher’s rise as a triumph against that sexism; because the Conservative Party that she chose to join, and lead, was not the social force which challenged sexism. The social changes came from the left, and from liberals, not from the crusty establishment of the Tory party, nor from the nasty and conformist mediocrities who make up constituency Conservative Associations. The film does make a telling reference to this snobbery when a backbencher MP remarks about Thatcher’s humiliation of Howe, that he “wouldn’t speak to my gamekeeper like that”.
Thatcher’s assendency marked not only a generational, but also a class shift in the Conservative Party; where the middle class, mass social base of the party with its own Eurosceptic preoccupations became a political force not necessarily aligned with the interests of British capitalism, and eclipsing the traditions of patrician one-nation Toryism.
Of course, one of the great difficulties of a biography of a politician, is that it has to deal with politics; and the Iron lady is less successful here; because the revolutionary nature of Thatcherism is simply too complex a phenomenon to be captured in this format.
I do recommend this film though, if only for Meryl Streep’s fantastic performance.