CINEMA: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Britain's first woman PM
, February 18, 2012
The Iron Lady (rated M), starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent
Reviewed by John Ballantyne
The producers of the film, The Iron Lady, have failed to do justice to the life of one of the most remarkable political leaders of the past 100 years.
Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) was Britain’s first woman prime minister, and the country’s longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century. She was without doubt one of the most controversial, even divisive, public figures of her time.
There is ample material in her life story for the production of a true epic. However, the producers of The Iron Lady have preferred to devote an inordinate amount of their film’s one hour, 45 minutes, to Baroness Thatcher’s twilight years and her tragic decline into senile dementia.
The all-too-brief scenes of her career highlights are a welcome respite from the long drawn-out scenes of the former PM struggling with her memory or imagining she is conversing with her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent).
The film’s historical flashbacks, interesting though they are, nevertheless skip some incredibly important events in her life, both public and personal.
Meryl Streep as British PM Margaret Thatcher
We see something of her struggling early years as a studious grocer’s daughter growing up in Grantham, and how she won a place at Oxford. After training first as a chemist, then as a barrister, she met her future husband Denis who would thenceforth be a pillar of support for her during her eventful political career.
She was first elected to the House of Commons in 1959, served as secretary of education in Edward Heath’s Conservative Government (1970-74), which was ingloriously brought down by militant trade union action. A year later, Thatcher replaced Heath as party leader and leader of the Opposition.
Insufficiently covered in the film is how much Thatcher shook up Britain’s public life with her uncompromising views on foreign affairs and economics.
She disagreed with the many figures on both sides of politics who generally supported détente with the Soviet Union. In her speeches she often quoted the exiled Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn who lambasted Western statesmen for their spineless appeasement of Moscow.
Russia’s communists slammed the uncompromising Thatcher as the Iron Lady (from which the film gets its title) — a label which did her image no harm.
Thatcher famously overturned the postwar British political consensus of the mixed economy and the welfare state and started preaching the tough-minded free-market policies of Nobel Prize-winning economists F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman.
Her Conservative Party was elected to power in 1979 just after militant unions had once again, through nationwide industrial action, brought down a democratically-elected government, this time James Callaghan’s Labour Government, during Britain’s so-called Winter of Discontent.
On coming to power, Thatcher immediately sought to curb union power, slash public spending and reduce inflation. She succeeded in doing so eventually, but at a terrible social cost. The credit squeeze that her government engineered (in order to limit the amount of money in the economy) plunged Britain into a severe slump which saw mass factory closures and unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1930s Depression. It irreversibly weakened organised labour.
How then did Mrs Thatcher manage to win three consecutive elections? One would never know from watching The Iron Lady that, early in her prime ministership, the opposition Labour Party, under its leader Michael Foot, lurched to the extreme left. This split his party, with the more moderate leaders breaking away to form the Social Democratic Party.
That political development, plus Britain’s victory over Argentina in the 1982 Falklands War (which is shown in the film), greatly enhanced Thatcher’s public standing. In the 1983 election the Conservatives easily defeated the divided Opposition parties.
Then, miracle of miracles, the economy started recovering. The long era of uncompetitiveness and stagnation was over. Britain was back in business.
It wasn’t economic nirvana, however. Mrs Thatcher braced herself for an inevitable industrial showdown with the militant National Union of Miners. Over four years, her government granted moderate pay rises to the miners while stockpiling coal in secret locations around the UK. In 1984 she announced the closure of loss-making coal-mines. The NUM promptly went on strike. However, the coal-fired power stations would be adequately supplied by the government with fuel so that they could function during the winter of 1984-85.
The coalminers’ strike collapsed (instead of Britain’s elected government collapsing in the face of industrial action, as had occurred in 1973-74 and 1978-79). Again, the film neglects to depict this important exercise in government survival.
In 1990, at the end of the Cold War, Mrs Thatcher, admittedly increasingly autocratic and losing her political touch, was dumped by her colleagues.
Margaret Thatcher’s incident-filled life contained abundant material that the makers of The Iron Lady could have drawn on instead of focussing so much on her tragic later years over which a polite veil should have been drawn.