Former PM Margaret Thatcher, whose infernal glamour still captivates the Tory faithful
Mike over at Vox Political suggested that there should be a day celebrating the life of Tony Benn as a response to the suggestion by a Tory MP that there should be a national holiday celebrating former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Guardian Columnist Milne on Streep’s The Iron Lady
The Guardian’s columnist, Seumas Milne, was alarmed by the trend towards the rehabilitation of the dictator of the British bourgeoisie signalled two years ago by the release in 2012 of the Meryl Streep biopic, The Iron Lady. In his column for the fifth of January, he wrote
In opposition David Cameron tried to distance himself from her poisonous ‘nasty party’ legacy. But just as he and George Osborne embark on even deeper cuts and more far-reaching privatisation of public services than Thatcher herself managed, Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady is about to come to the rescue of the 1980s prime minister’s reputation.
As the Hollywood actor’s startling Thatcher recreation looks down from every other bus, commenters have insisted that the film is ‘not political’. True, it doesn’t explicitly take sides in the most conflagrationary decade in postwar British politics. It is made clear that Thatcher’s policies were controversial and strongly opposed. But as director Phyllida Lloyd points out, ‘the whole story is told from her point of view…
Lloyd herself is unashamed about the film’s thrust: this is ‘the story of a great leader who is both tremendous and flawed’. Naturally, some of Thatcher’s supporters and family members have balked at the depiction of her illness.
But her authorised biographer, the High Tory Charles Moore, has no doubt about The Iron Lady’s effective political message. The Oscar-bound movie is, he declares, a ‘most powerful piece of propaganda for conservatism’. And for many people under forty, their view of Thatcher and what she represents will be formed by this film.
Milne notes the narrative strategies the film uses to generate sympathy for Thatcher. Her enemies are shown – angry protestors, and striking miners, but their motives are never explained and the communities she devastated with her policies are also never shown. He notes that the concentration on the onset of her dementia is also calculated to make the audience feel sympathy for a human being struggling with such a terrible disease. The film also presents her, absurdly, as a feminist icon when she strongly rejected feminism. In another depiction of the opposite of the truth, she is presented as battling class prejudice when she launched a naked class war.
You can understand why Maggie’s life would appeal to the film industry, and to an actress of Streep’s stature. It’s a strong female role, in an industry where such roles for mature women are few. Thatcher was a pioneering female figure, the first female prime minister and one of those, who held office the longest in the last century. Crucially for a film, it also has lots of drama, as well as personal tragedy – Alzheimer’s disease, rather than the antics of her stupid, arrogant and wastrel son, ‘Thickie’ Mork. You can also see how it would be presented as a rags to riches story, as she goes from her parent’s shop in Grantham to hold the highest public office in the UK, an angle she herself spun, even though she hated and despised the working class.
Yet the film neglects the horrific harm she did to Britain, the poor and the working class. And Milne himself later points out in the article that the people who were hit hardest by her policies were women. Just as they are now, under her successor, Dave Cameron. As for the lack of context or explanation given for her enemies, Roland Barthes in his book, Mythologies, states that is one of the techniques film uses to establish the villain: you know less about them than the hero.
Milne on the Economic Devastation and Impoverishment Caused by Thatcher’s Policies
Milne was particularly shocked by Gordon Brown’s suggestion that she be given a state funeral, and in the rest of the article presents the argument why this is an iniquitous idea.
Gordon Brown absurdly floated a state funeral in a fruitless attempt to appease the Daily Mail. But the coalition would be even more foolish if it were to press ahead with what is currently planned. A state funeral for Thatcher would not be regarded as any kind of national occasion by millions of people, but as a partisan Conservative event and affront to large parts of the country.
Not only in forming mining communities and industrial areas laid waste by her government, but across Britain Thatcher is still hated for the damage she inflicted – and for her political legacy of rampant inequality and greed, privatisation and social breakdown. Now protests are taking the form of satirical e-petitions to the funeral to be privatised: if it goes ahead, there are likely to be demonstrations on the streets.
This is a politician, after all, who never won the votes of more than a third of the electorate; destroyed communities; created mass unemployment; deindustrialised Britain; redistributed from poor to rich; and, by her deregulation of the City, laid the basis for the crisis that has engulfed us twenty-five years later.
Thatcher was a prime minister who denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, defended the Chilean fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet, ratcheted up the cold war, and unleashed militarised police on trade unionists and black communities alike. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister, but her policies hit women hardest, like Cameron’s today.
A common British establishment view – and the implicit position of The Iron Lady – is that while Thatcher took harsh measures and ‘went too far’, it was necessary medicine to restore the sick economy of the 1970s to healthy growth.
It did nothing of the sort. Average growth in the Thatcherite ’80s, at 2.4 per cent, was exactly the same as in the sick ’70s – and considerabl6y lower than during the corporatist ’60s. Her government’s savage deflation destroyed a fifth of Britain’s industrial base in two years, hollowed out manufacturing, and delivered a ‘productivity miracle’ that never was, and we’re living with the consequences today.
What she did succeed in doing was to restore class privilege, boosting profitability while slashing employees’ share of national income from 65 per cent to 53 per cent through her assault on the unions. Britain faced a structural crisis in the 1970s, but there were multiple routes out of it. Thatcher imposed a neoliberal model now seen to have failed across the world.
He concludes by suggesting that Thatcher’s rehabilitation is connected to the Coalition’s need to shore up support now that they are implementing the same policies, and experiencing the same opposition.
It’s hardly surprising that some might want to put a benign gloss on Thatcher’s record when another Tory-led government is forcing through Thatcher-like policies – and riots, mounting unemployment and swingeing benefits cuts echo her years in power. The rehabilitation isn’t so much about then as now, which is one reason it can’t go unchallenged. Thatcher wasn’t a ‘great leader’. She was the most socially destructive prime minister of modern times.
‘Thatcher’s Rehabilitation Must Be Resisted to the End’, in Seumas Milne,The Revenge of History: The Battle for the 21st Century (London: Verso 2013) 245-8.
Thatcher, Churchill and the Tories View Organised Working Class as Nazi-like Threat
Milne is absolutely right about the destructive effect Thatcher and her policies have had on British society. He also in the above article criticises the attempt to present Thatcher as possessing the same stature as Winston Churchill. This show very strongly the Tory attitude to the working class and organised labour – a mighty force for evil on a par with Nazi Germany, which should be resolutely destroyed no matter what the cost. Not that she didn’t share some of Churchill’s views. He too hated the working class and was fully prepared to use military force against them. He is still bitterly hated in parts of Wales for his use of the army to put down striking workers in Newport. Martin Pugh in his book on Fascism in Britain between the Wars argues that one reason why the 1926 General Strike ended without much bloodshed was because the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, removed Churchill from any direct responsibility. When the strike broke out, Churchill announced that the army would stand ready to do their duty if called upon by the civilian authorities. A cabinet aide suggested to Baldwin that perhaps a post in the Telegraph office would suit the future minister. ‘Yes’, replied Baldwin, ‘he can do no harm there’.
Left and Liberal Parties Should Not Court Tory Press
It also shows the folly of any Labour or left-wing party expecting support from the Tory press. Any support given by Messrs Dacre, Murdoch and Desmond is contingent on following a series of policies that will punish and harm the poor in support of the rich. Labour, or any other party, such as the Lib Dems, will automatically act against the interests of their own constituencies if they do so. Moreover, the same press barons will automatically move back to their default position of supporting the Tories, as has been shown by Murdoch’s move back to the Conservatives from supporting Blair.
Thatcher and Mugabe: Both Politicians Destroyed their Nations for Sectional Gain
As for Thatcher’s destruction of British manufacturing industry, and the massive growth in poverty, what actually struck me there was not the parallel with Churchill, but with another politician entirely: Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has, after all, comprehensively wrecked what was one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. Before Mugabe unleashed his reign of terror, Zimbabwe actually exported food. Now he’s reduced it to absolute poverty, while, like so many dictators around the world, enriching himself and his coterie.
And just in case anyone disputes how divisive Thatcher was, remember the mass celebrations that broke out at the news of her death.
Milne is quite right: Thatcher was not great politician. She was a disastrous one, and her rehabilitation by the political elite needs to be strongly resisted at every turn.