Meryl Streep impersonates Margaret Thatcher wonderfully in The Iron Lady . (For so doing she received her 17th Oscar nomination.) A good deal of the film has Thatcher in her dressing-gown, mildly demented and remembering or misremembering her middle years, when, from 1979 to 1990, she was prime minister of Britain, the only woman to hold that job, which she occupied for longer than anyone else in the 20th century. She was much liked and much disliked, and she still is. While the film settles for comedy rather than excoriation, the discomfort one feels watching Thatcher going mad is mitigated by the suggested possibility that she was never entirely sane. Her “I will not go mad” echoes King Lear – and calls into question her right to imagine herself in such grandly tragic company.
Alexandra Roach plays the young Thatcher, who adores her father, despises her mother and marries a kindly duffer she comes to rely on. By the time she is leading the Tory Party, she and Meryl Streep are one. Laughed at by her almost solidly male and snobbish party colleagues as the shrill daughter of a provincial grocer, she becomes their leader, providing them with exactly the homilies her father offered her; and the scenes in which these gray-suited men do her bidding like boys hoping to please Nanny, and not altogether averse to her smacks, are among the film’s funniest.
The “Thatcher Years,” as they are sometimes called, are not by and large remembered warmly, nor were they funny. Ian Gilmour, a patrician Tory whom Thatcher sacked from her first government in 1981, wrote of the “devastation” caused by her fervent adoption of Friedmanite monetarist policies. His book Dancing With Dogma records some achievements, but reminds us that child poverty doubled during those years, that the tax burden was shifted from the rich to the poor (where it has remained), and that “British society became coarser and more selfish. Attitudes were encouraged which would even have undermined the well-being of a much more prosperous society.” If that is the verdict of a high Tory, imagine the feelings she inspired in many of the rest of us.
Thatcher pronounced herself from the beginning a “conviction” politician who had absolutely no time for consensus, and this was Gilmour’s principal objection to her. Agreement, he wrote, “effectively meant a one-woman consensus, a state of affairs which rendered debate superfluous.” Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister from 1997 to 2007, never hid his admiration for her. From her he learned the language that denies debate: “I passionately believe that…,” “I only know what I believe,” and “It is the right thing to do” have come to be offered as a rationale or clinching argument. The 33 years since her rise to power have seen a damaging diminution of parliamentary and cabinet debate in Britain.
Some surprisingly claim Thatcher as a proto-feminist, an inspiration to later generations of young women for whom the sky’s the limit. One Sunday paper recently suggested that there is currently a clutch of right-wing feminists in parliament, which I hope is a contradiction in terms. And there has certainly been a move among some women who describe themselves as feminist to insist that there is no inconsistency in women pursuing their ambitions just as she did, while concerning themselves not at all with other women or, indeed, with whether particular policies affect women for good or ill. Femininity is seen in the film simply as an unavoidable fate, which can at times be turned to a woman’s advantage, and that was probably Thatcher’s view of the matter. Her promise to herself that she at least would never waste time washing teacups, as her mother had done – “one’s life must matter” – is echoed in the last scene of the film, in which that is exactly what she is doing. The woman who believed that “there is no such thing as society” ends her film life alone and outside the world she influenced so disastrously, against a soundtrack that mingles the ghostly cheers of the multitude with her own equally ghostly sighs.