This article was first published at TheNation.com on January 4, 2012.
The Iron Lady just opened in London where, let’s hope, it generates some serious critique. The critical silence in the United States has been astounding, only made worse by the praise, not just for the film but for its subject, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played in the movie by Meryl Streep.
Newsweek’s holiday double issue slapped Streep as Thatcher on its cover, hailing “The New Thatcher Era.” The feature story in summary reads: “Margaret Thatcher was the infamous Iron Lady the Brits love to hate. This month’s bio starring Meryl Streep proves she was right all along.”
Streep’s already winning awards and accolades, and Oscars are probably on the way. People are saying the film’s no whitewash because it shows the former Prime Minister in her dotage, fighting dementia—three decades after she came to power. Director Phyllida Lloyd has described the treatment as operatic. Streep’s called it revealing. The two collaborated before on the musical Mamma Mia! The truth is, in Lloyd’s hands Thatcher’s iron isn’t just rusty, it’s melted down and depoliticized, made feminist enough to root for and ultimately sad enough for some to sniffle at. The Iron Lady is Thatcher—The ABBA Version. It’s the last thing we need, ever, and especially at this point.
Think of Thatcher and I think of hungry people. Irish hunger strikers, first of all, ten of whom starved to death for status as political prisoners on her watch. Thatcher insisted anti-government rebels in Afghanistan were “resistance fighters,” not terrorists, but it was a different story for the Irish. Indeed, in Thatcher’s time, there was to be no story, no effort to understand the reasons for the conflict in Northern Ireland; certainly there was to be no discussion or consideration in public of why anyone might pick up a gun, or place a bomb or starve themselves to death.
Long before the USA Patriot Act and the 9/11 demonization of asking “why,” Britons were starved of information about the so-called “troubles.” Under an ever-expanding Prevention of Terrorism Act, British journalists were forced to report to police any contact with any “known or suspected terrorist.” Irish parties to the conflict were banned from speaking on radio and TV, yet Thatcher’s government could tell the public any lie it liked. When British secret service snipers shot and killed three unarmed IRA members (two men and a woman, Mairead Farrell) on the island of Gibraltar in 1988, Thatcher’s government released an official story about crossfire and a gun fight and a bomb planted near an old people’s home. Video footage of an impressive little military robot supposedly defusing an incendiary device played on the evening news. It was all a crock. Lloyd’s film shows the IRA’s bombings and bloodshed but not the denial and the deadly government tactics, which likely delayed peace talks for a decade.
Think of Thatcher and I think of the hungry people who started showing up in villages in Yorkshire and Scotland and Wales where work was scarce because Thatcher’s experts decided nuclear power was a better energy source than unionized coalfields. Miners went on strike—for a year. Their wives and children collected soup-kitchen money from their churches and their neighbors and when they ran out, they went down to London where they tried to tell their story of helmeted horsemen charging the ranks of union strikers and police bashing men’s heads in. But Londoners didn’t believe them. They’d heard the miners were greedy and dangerous and a threat to their jobs. After all, “trade union power is the true cause of unemployment,” said Thatcher. The 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers gets a couple of seconds on screen in Lloyd’s film, but there’s no explanation, no follow-up and no consideration: does anyone wish now that they’d listened to the miners then?
“There is no such thing as society. Only individuals,” Thatcher also said. With more spending by successive Thatcher governments on police (so-called “law and order”) and less on just about everything else, “no society” became true soon enough. The Iron Lady shows Prime Minister Thatcher overruling her “wet” male colleagues over waging war with Argentina. A few hundred far-off Falkland Islanders were worth fighting for, she famously decided. A take-control feminist? The film ignores the families in Toxteth (inner-city Liverpool) and Brixton (a largely black neighborhood in London) whom Thatcher found it quite acceptable to sacrifice. Cabinet papers released by the National Archives just now under a thirty-year rule reveal Thatcher’s closest advisers told her that the “concentration of hopelessness” on Merseyside was “very largely self-inflicted” and not worth government repair.
Thatcher didn’t—actually—evacuate Liverpool in the aftermath of the 1981 inner-city riots. She led something more insidious. With her professionally crafted “grocer’s daughter” image, Thatcher gave class-conscious Britons permission to dismiss real human difficulties with a blow-dried bourgeois smirk: Unemployed? Get on yer bike! Said her administration. Got a problem? You’re the problem! In Maggie’s world, deprivation is your own damn fault.
Nor did Thatcher give people permission only to look away. Under Thatcher and egged on by her, those who could leave troubled towns and troubled people did, and so did government. We’d “mind the gap” (between the train and the platform) on the London Underground, but we came not to mind the gap between the rich and the rest, the north and the south; the possibilities people had if they needed things to be public and the possibilities they had if they could pay for the private stuff—the private healthcare, the private school, the private house. Today, in a new time of budget wars, The Iron Lady’s depiction of draconian cuts as feminist guts is chilling. What Thatcher called “harsh medicine” meant one thing for the poor and another for the very powerful then, and it still does. In both instances, there is hell to pay in social fabric.
I don’t remember if Lloyd’s Lady quotes the real lady’s most famous phrase: “There is No Alternative.” Certainly TINA deserves star billing. Thatcher’s quip about globalized capitalism has defined our epoch. People can debate the successes and failures of “the Thatcher era” all they like. One thing’s for certain: we don’t need a new one, because the old one’s still here. The consequences of the politicies Thatcher pioneered and made respectable—deregulation, privatization and globalization—can be measured in public costs and private profits on both sides of the Atlantic. More damning, even, is the enduring cultural habit of denial (looking away) and the political practice of silence—shutting the problem people up.
Grow the gap between government and the governed and you get what we have: a burnt-out world driven by the super-super-rich where some are stealing others blind and billions are alienated or angry, sure that government has nothing to offer but a bash on the head.
Lloyd’s soft-pop version deals with none of this. Ironically, the “deeds matter” Thatcher herself would probably be the first to dislike this shrunken, personal-over-political fantasy of her inner life. Lucky for us, we don’t need to worry about her. We need to worry about us. We are not demented. There are alternatives. There always have been. What we need (among other things) are more movies about the women—and maybe a few of the men—bringing those to life.
Margaret Thatcher inspired a generation of musicians. Read Peter Rothberg's take.