Inside Story

Margaret Thatcher, between myth and politics

A sympathetic film portrayal of Britain’s most divisive modern prime minister fits a broader mood of reappraisal of her years in power, says David Hayes

David Hayes 12 January 2012 4534 words

Margaret Thatcher greeting curious Moscovites gathered in Moscow during her visit to the Soviet Union in March 1987. Daniel Janin/AFP

THIS is not the kind of comeback Margaret Thatcher would ever have wanted. There was a time, in the wake of her tearful departure from 10 Downing Street in November 1990, when she seemed to be holding on to the dream of recovering Britain’s prime ministership. So dominant had she been for over a decade – dominating both the country’s political scene and the psyche of millions of its citizens – that it would not have been altogether fanciful to imagine her reappearing, in the manner of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, to declaim: “I am big – it’s the politics that got small!”

But the whirligig of time has its ravages, its revenges and its rewards. Now, over two decades later, a film treatment that skilfully intertwines Thatcher’s past career glory and present fading memory, and thus depicts her as both powerful and vulnerable, offers her an unexpected late reprise. The formula – the exploits of a heroic personality shadowed by private tragedy and undone by lesser men – is reliably comforting, the central performance of Meryl Streep an impressive simulacrum. A success in its own terms, then, though any cultural trace will be (I would guess) almost imperceptible.

The baroness will not see, let alone cast any beady-eyed verdict on, The Iron Lady. In any event Margaret Thatcher always did live for politics and had little time for art in whatever form. (Her notional favourite poet was the imperial tub-thumper Rudyard Kipling – like her, a great left-hater – and she favoured Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities “with its strong political flavour.”) This always marked her as a philistine to many of her adversaries, admittedly a subsidiary item in a long charge sheet. To those with some knowledge of the public world and events the film depicts – if my own reaction is any guide – the film will appear caricatural and depoliticised to an almost unwatchable degree. But if The Iron Lady is thus a minor indication that Margaret Thatcher is becoming ever more a mythic figure, it also invites an effort to look at its subject in the perspective of politics and history.

MARGARET Thatcher’s top-rank political career spanned only twenty years, now a shorter period than the one since that red-eyed resignation. For its first decade, moreover – even after she became leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975 following a bold challenge to the managerialist Edward Heath, and arguably even after she led the party to the election victory that made her prime minister – there was little indication of the transformative role she would play.

Margaret Roberts, born in 1925, was raised in the English east midlands market town of Grantham, the daughter of a corner-shop grocer of Methodist religious beliefs and instinct for public service (he served on many local associations, and briefly as the town’s mayor). Her “practical, serious and intensely religious” childhood helped her win a scholarship to Oxford University, from where she graduated in chemistry in 1947 before working as a laboratory researcher, while pursuing her political interests. She contested the national elections of 1950 and 1951 as Conservative candidate in the safe Labour seat of Dartford, south-east of London, meeting her husband Denis on the stump. She gave birth to twins in 1953, the year she qualified as a barrister specialising in taxation law. The relationships with her father Alfred and with Denis Thatcher (a wealthy manager of a paint firm, unstintingly supportive of his wife’s career) were the vital ones of her life.

Margaret Thatcher became member of parliament for the north London seat of Finchley in 1959, a foot soldier in the Conservatives’ third successive national victory. It had been a long apprenticeship for a young, ambitious, hard-working, self-assured woman seeking advancement in a party whose higher reaches and governing ethos were overwhelmingly male and upper-class (albeit with a vast female membership and a policy orientation that accorded women’s perceived interests a crucial priority). In other respects, however, it was a conventional rise amid propitious family circumstances, in a conformist era in which a woman judged (not least by other women) to be of the right calibre could ascend some way up the greasy pole.

The upper extent of the climb began to be renegotiated as the revolutions of the 1960s – far slower at the time than in mediatised retrospect – got under way. The election of a minority Labour government under the wily Harold Wilson in 1964 ended the Conservatives’ thirteen-year hegemony, and after its consolidation in 1966 the reformist home secretary Roy Jenkins introduced liberalising reforms (on divorce, homosexuality, capital punishment and censorship) that began to unlock some damaging social rigidities.

The prospect of a woman prime minister still seemed far distant – Thatcher herself, in a starchily filmed BBC profile in 1973, speaking of what would now be called her “work-life balance”, said that this was unlikely “in my lifetime”. Even the national profile she earned as shadow education minister in Edward Heath’s government of 1970–74 proved double-edged when, in ending the obligation for schools to provide free milk to their charges, she gained notoriety as the “milk snatcher.” It was rather around Labour cabinet members Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams that, in the late 1960s and mid 1970s respectively, “who will be the first?” speculation began to cluster.

What made Thatcher the favourite to win this imaginary race was her capture of the leadership of her party in the wake of its electoral defeat in October 1974. Heath had promised that a market-led economic approach would release entrepreneur energies stifled by Labour’s corporatism. Instead, rising inflation led him to impose price and wage controls and to widespread strikes, of which the powerful coal miners’ was the most disabling. Heath called an election in February 1974, asking “Who governs Britain?”; the voters replied, albeit by a whisker, “Not you, guv.” Wilson returned as head of a Labour minority government, winning a tiny majority the following October.

If all political careers are ultimately defined by a single moment, the decision then to challenge the gruff Heath for the Conservative leadership was Margaret Thatcher’s. She was neither a senior cabinet minister nor one associated with new ideas or a fresh policy agenda. But having made her choice she gathered support from a band of fellow discontents – notably the former intelligence operative Airey Neave, whose astute campaign won her the day.

Much of Thatcher’s four years in the role of opposition leader confirms the notion that it is the most thankless job in democratic politics. She was disliked by a large swathe of her parliamentary party, less out of loyalty to Edward Heath (a brooding presence on the back benches) than because of a mix of personal antipathy, patrician disdain and doubt that she would win a national election. Labour’s contingent could be more openly hostile, and its leader James Callaghan – who became prime minister after Harold Wilson’s sudden retirement in March 1976 – developed an effective line in patronising avuncularity in their despatch-box encounters. Most important of all, the British people showed no sign of taking this evidently determined but fundamentally uncongenial character to their hearts. Shirley Williams – Labour education minister, daughter of the pacifist writer Vera Brittain, cheerfully agonised, attractively scatty – was much more the coming woman.

It seemed a poor hand, but Thatcher – a conviction politician, with “the second word… as important as the first,” says her best biographer, John Campbell – had assets beyond her self-belief. The support of party figures, often from the ideologically anti-communist and old-imperial right, who everywhere saw threats to Britain’s national interests and unity – Irish terrorists, militant trade unionists, Soviet infiltrators, Scottish nationalists – was valuable ballast in an environment where alarm over Britain’s “crisis of governability” was spreading.

Indeed, around politics there then swirled a florid atmosphere of encroachment and impending breakdown – the “pungent mélange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever” evoked by Francis Wheen in his vivid portrait of the 1970s. The bookshops displayed works with titles such as Samuel Beer’s Britain Against Itself (a fine work of political analysis), The Future That Doesn’t Work, Is Britain Dying?, and ominously, Patrick Hutber’s The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class.

A newer anti-Keynesian right, much of it concentrated in emerging think-tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs, had the answer: the development of a marketising agenda that sought to learn from the failures of the 1970–74 government and this time really change the country’s economic model. Thatcher was always impatient of those who could not translate ideas into practical nostrums that accorded with her instincts (“she has absolutely no interest in ideas for their own sake,” observed the Conservative intellectual Oliver Letwin). But she listened and learned, and, in 1979, a version of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek’s monetarist arguments became a keystone of the “household economics” that underpinned her election message.

The Conservative leader’s most potent asset was Britain’s faltering economy, at the centre of the range of crises battering the Labour governments of the second half of the 1970s. The main instrument used to contain surging inflation – voluntary wage restraint dependent on agreement between ministers and trade-union leaders – was increasingly vulnerable to localised discontent.

When this spilled over in a series of public service workers’ strikes in 1978–79 (the “winter of discontent”) – which followed James Callaghan’s fateful postponement of an election he seemed about to call – the popular mood shifted. As did the intellectual: many of those who were to count out the 1980s in the spleen they vented on Thatcher had voted her in – Harold Pinter and the theatre director Peter Hall at least admitted it, while Christopher Hitchens acknowledged that his abstention was in effect a blue choice (and “I was secretly, guiltily glad to see her terminating the long reign of mediocrity and torpor.”) On 3 May 1979, after an election in which Margaret Thatcher’s watch-the-pennies wisdom was complemented by slick and combative anti-Labour messages, she entered 10 Downing Street.

THE long march of Thatcherism had begun. But to where? As so often, reaching the summit was soon to look the easy part. Thatcher’s government was dominated for more than its first three years by a severe recession whose main ingredients – double-digit inflation (18 per cent in 1980), rising unemployment (to three million in September 1982) and interest rates (15.7 per cent in 1980), and regular industrial casualties, all in the context of increased consumer taxes and a strong currency – owed much to its own monetarist agenda. (The first Thatcher government “was something unique in modern British history,” wrote Paul Hirst: “a party led by a clique of intellectuals with a strong commitment to a radical ideology.”)

The spread of mass unemployment, especially in Britain’s manufacturing heartlands (northern England, central Scotland, south Wales – which was also where Labour support was most concentrated), caused immense social damage that the government had no strategic plan to ameliorate. A series of urban riots in 1981, in parts of London as well as other English cities, was but the most dramatic expression of many-sided opposition.

It can seem, to adapt a line from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, that rarely did anyone for all her good intentions inflict such costs. That is not how Margaret Thatcher saw it. It was all worth it (though the journalist Hugo Young’s absorbing papers do record her as saying, in 1980, both that redundancies are “inevitable” and that she is “conscious of the effects on people”). The pain, her acknowledgment of which was as partisan as everything else about her (“Oh, those poor shopkeepers!” was her instinctive reaction to the destruction in Toxteth, Liverpool), was necessary to reverse national decline and restore Britain’s greatness. There was no alternative. And those who believe in “consensus”? “I regard them as Quislings, traitors,” she had told the urbane British ambassador to Tehran, Anthony Parsons, in 1978 – admittedly in the back of a taxi.

Yet, as Frank Bongiorno noted in Inside Story in November 2009, the bark was often sharper than the bite. Moreover, at this early stage Margaret Thatcher led a government far from fully “hers,” let alone committed to “Thatcherism” (itself an elastic term, which Thatcher herself used, albeit with levity, as early as March 1975, as Richard Vinen notes in his indispensable Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era). Her ideological confrères, most prominently at this time the treasury minister Geoffrey Howe, were at the heart of economic policy, but many others in the cabinet were survivors of Edward Heath’s cabinet and/or adherents of an older form of paternalistic conservatism that the former group believed was co-responsible for Britain’s economic decline. The just-released official papers from 1981 show how acute were the intra-governmental debates over (for example) whether to pursue an active urban regeneration policy, as successfully advocated in the case of Liverpool by the party-conference favourite Michael Heseltine.

The 1979–82 years were a test of fire in which Thatcher often felt beleaguered and her reliance on key advisers, some from outside the party-political world – always a feature of her premiership – grew. Her government was immeasurably aided in the period by Labour’s slow-motion implosion after 1979, which saw the veteran leftist intellectual (and surprisingly effective government “fixer” in 1976–79) Michael Foot elected to replace Callaghan but unable to prevent a schism that saw the leaders of Labour’s right (including Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams) create a new Social Democratic Party, or SDP, and form an alliance with the Liberal Party.

Into this mix of bleak economic news and emerging three-way politics irrupted Argentina’s military occupation of Britain’s half-forgotten sheep-farming colonial-era outpost in the south Atlantic, the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas). Any signals from Thatcher’s government over the longstanding diplomatic dispute with Buenos Aires had been encouraging of the ambitions of the brutal junta there, but this history was buried as the prime minister seized the armoury of a violated Britannia and – strongly backed by the passionate Foot, who had won his journalistic spurs denouncing domestic “appeasement” of Hitler in the 1930s – sent a naval force to recapture the territory.

An extended prelude followed by a concentrated campaign, with vital support from Ronald Reagan’s administration, brought victory in the Falklands in under three months. Thatcher’s men were swift to exploit the moment’s ebullient patriotism, aligning disparate forms of regeneration in a cocksure narrative that sought – via the supercharging of a classic Conservative trope – to identify the party with the nation, Labour with disloyalty, and (a new element) the female warrior-leader with something approaching Britain’s destiny.

The “iron lady” – a sobriquet first bestowed by the Soviet military mouthpiece Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) in 1976, and quickly appropriated by a delighted Thatcher – had already paraded intransigence over the costs of recession and the Irish Republican Army prisoners’ hunger strikes in Northern Ireland (though here too the 1981 papers suggest a more nuanced policy was pursued behind the scenes). In the Falklands, the name acquired a new, quasi-regal cast.

In June 1983, the Conservatives won a landslide election victory, with Labour – fighting on an unwieldy manifesto that one of its MPs called “the longest suicide note in history” – only just edging into second place ahead of the SDP–Liberal alliance. In its aftermath there were, as the increasingly martial argot of those times would have it, new battles to fight. The government had already limited the trade unions’ ability to call strikes and enforce a “closed shop.” But in 1981 it had also retreated from what it saw as inevitable confrontation with the National Union of Miners, a tactical sidestep as representative of her leadership as any ideological thrust. (The historian Robert Skidelsky describes Thatcher as “visionary in aim, cautious in method.”) By early 1984, after building up extensive coal stocks, it was readier to risk an open-ended dispute by announcing a series of mine closures.

The ensuing year-long strike, complicated by divisions among the miners (partly over the union leadership’s failure to hold a ballot to give the stoppage democratic sanction), was intensely bitter (and in a few cases fatal), and ended in the miners’ comprehensive defeat. The return to work was followed by staged closures that shrunk the once mighty industry and the miner’s union to near vanishing point. This “loss without limit” signalled the decline of many relatively isolated settlements created for and around a workplace whose inhabitants now had little or no prospect of alternative employment.

THE victories of the second term created a strong foundation for securing a third, which followed another sweeping election win in June 1987. By then the convulsions of the early 1980s had receded for a significant portion of the population as the proceeds of Conservative largesse (or merely of public goods turned into private income streams) began to filter through: a boom in house-prices (which also benefited the million-plus who had, thanks to first-term legislation, bought their rented homes from local councils), income-tax reductions, an expanding consumer-leisure economy, and the revolution in the City of London symbolised by the introduction of electronic trading in October 1986 (the “big bang”).

All well and good for those (and they were very many) who floated on the bubble of “casino capitalism.” But this was not exactly the trick that Thatcherism had sought to perform. Rather, it intended – in its originating impulse at least – to solve Britain’s macroeconomic problems of low growth, falling competitiveness and low productivity via rigorous application of monetarist policy. (“You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning” was her conference pledge in the depths of the 1980 recession.) The Thatcherite message was that the path to a solution lay in shrinking the state’s role in the economy and allowing entrepreneurial initiative to flourish, while legislating to curb the trade unions (“the free economy and the strong state,” in Andrew Gamble’s pithy summation).

The more that the 1980s wore on, the more elusive was this particular white rabbit. The plunge in share prices on “black Monday” in October 1987 was a premonition that even the boom that Thatcherism had finessed might be unsustainable. As inflation climbed, businesses were squeezed and unemployment again rose, the question of Britain’s entry into the European Union’s mechanism to coordinate and stabilise currency exchange rates became a faultline dividing the government’s most senior figures.

The dependency of Thatcher herself on her trusted economic adviser Alan Walters caused an irreparable breach with her (post-1983) chancellor Nigel Lawson, leading the latter to resign in October 1989. He was followed a year later by the deputy prime minister Geoffrey Howe, as Thatcher’s intransigence over Europe reduced government policy to a cabal of one.

An unobtrusively scintillating speech in the House of Commons by the lawyerly Howe – whose mode of attack in the chamber had once memorably been compared by the Labour heavyweight Denis Healey to “being savaged by a dead sheep” – proved a turning point. The flamboyant Michael Heseltine, self-exiled from the cabinet since his resignation in 1986, challenged Thatcher for the party leadership. In an ill-managed campaign she marshalled enough support among Conservative MPs to defeat Heseltine, though by an inconclusive margin; following consultations with cabinet colleagues, she decided to resign, paving the way for her favoured successor John Major to win the prize. After a last bravura parliamentary performance, she left Downing Street on 27 November 1990.

Within days, the inflamed reaction to her implied suggestion that she would be the colourless Major’s “back-seat driver” confirmed what all outside the circle of her most faithful acolytes already knew: that after eleven-and-a-half years at the summit, it really was over.

What lay ahead was a local (and this being the United Kingdom, somewhat baroque) version of the now familiar afterlife of the world statesman: that is, not just a two-volume autobiography (heavily crafted by her adviser Robin Harris), a foundation in her name, an official website and archive, and a place on the A-list international speechmaking circuit, but also elevation to the House of Lords, state honours (including membership of the Order of the Garter and the Order of Merit) and a prominent statue – brass not iron – outside parliament.

It was never going to be an easy transition for a leader so intoxicated by the daily realities of executive governance and for so long commanding of the political scene. But Margaret Thatcher played gamely along, while gradually receding from public view – a process accelerated by the death of the stalwart Denis in 2003 and the diminishing of her own mental faculties that was quietly acknowledged by the time of her eightieth birthday in 2005.

ANOTHER provincial and controversial Tory who had a profound influence on Thatcher, Enoch Powell, famously wrote that “[all] political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” Of few political leaders is the judgement more open to challenge than Margaret Thatcher, given the number and scale of the contests she won, the way she changed Britain’s political landscape and language, her impact in much of the Soviet bloc and the United States, and her influence on the thinking and policy of her domestic successors, not least Tony Blair.

Yet in so many of these achievements Thatcher also enjoyed quite extraordinary good fortune. There was luck in the character of her adversaries: Edward Heath, and the ineffectual Tory cabinet “wets” whom she demoted or vanquished; the Argentinean tyrant Leopoldo Galtieri; the doomed romantic Michael Foot; the conceited miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. And there was luck in the unfolding political arena in the 1980s: the election of Ronald Reagan, an ideological soulmate; a split centre-left in Britain, which made untrammelled governance possible; the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader she famously “could do business with.”

True, effective leaders also make the weather and seize opportunities, as in several of these cases. Moreover, they respond to and in turn help shape the zeitgeist, as Thatcher surely did over privatisation and globalisation, consumerism and the market. For all the enabling circumstances, she won three elections, and at the end of her decade one poll by a respected agency reported 47 per cent saying her governments had been “good” for the country (against 35 per cent “bad”) – though the “good for you” answers were 39 versus 41 per cent.

There were also lasting failures. Her dogmatic opposition to any devolution of power to Scotland led to the Conservatives’ gradual electoral meltdown there and fuelled nationalist sentiment. (The artful Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond once said that a statue of Thatcher should be erected outside the Scottish parliament established in 1999.) In the IRA she found an adamantine enmity to match her own. (Her narrow escape from its hotel-bomb at her party’s conference in 1984 could count among her luck, though it killed five others, as another Irish republican group had killed Airey Neave in 1979.) Her wilful inflexibility in Europe (over German unification, for example) and the Commonwealth (especially over South Africa) – again, a sort of internationalisation of the esoteric British notion of absolute sovereignty – lost friends and uninfluenced people by the truckload.

On the core of what Thatcher’s governments tried to achieve – a renovation of Britain’s economic fundamentals – there is on most measures little evidence of success. On balance, “a great deal of economic dislocation for a very modest amount of renewal,” was Paul Hirst’s judicious verdict. And all this despite, and because of, the most egregious good fortune of all: the fact that the oil resources discovered in and extracted from the North Sea, between Scotland and Norway, in the 1970s began to affect Britain’s economy and balance of payments in the year after her government came to power. (The country became a net exporter in June 1980; a trade deficit of 110.5 million tons in 1979 by 1988 turned into a surplus of 31 million tons, and oil provided 8 per cent of tax returns at its peak.) The revenues, rather than being applied to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for wholesale modernisation – backed by the equivalent of Norway’s state investment fund, for example – were in effect recycled as welfare payments for the millions Thatcher’s policies discarded. Christopher Harvie’s Fool’s Gold (1994) is a brilliant telling of a near-forgotten national epic.

“DIE before your death,” goes the Sufi maxim. Margaret Thatcher’s evident personal decline, the publicity surrounding the new biopic, and now, a controversy over reported preparations to award her a state funeral, are naturally producing a slew of quasi-obituaries and career assessments. The reflections are fuelled by the current political echoes of her decade in power – a right-wing government imposing deep austerity during a recession, a north–south English divide, urban riots, divisions over Europe, a Scottish nationalist challenge.

The journalist Charles Moore, Thatcher’s official biographer, is among the Conservative voices identifying a “cultural change” beyond the “Thatcher – for or against” pattern that has long framed British public debate. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, sees The Iron Lady as “the most important political film in years” which works to “rehabilitate” its subject; he extracts from it the message that “what really actuated Thatcher was a feminine impatience with the cosy, clubby, complacent politics of the postwar consensus – a consensus that was held overwhelmingly between men of a certain age and class.”

The right’s subtle repositioning of Thatcher as personalised national icon, somewhat above the partisan fray, is a familiar and effective device of conservative “heritagisation.” The left has a different problem: how to prevent its instinctive, rooted excoriation of her memory and legacy from becoming a comforting evasion of the need to think through and beyond it.

The signs here are not good. Much of the left, the metropolitan Guardian left especially, remains deeply in love with its hatred of Thatcher, unaware that thirty years on this is the most conservative of emotions. The widespread, vicarious – and alarmingly cross-generational – nostalgia for a time of “real battles” is another melancholy ingredient of this pathology (part of what in the 1990s I called the “socialist heritage industry”). The outcome is a form of self-entrapment that corrodes the capacity to begin to understand the political experience of the last four decades in all its many-sidedness, contingency and complexity.

(An example of the last: former neighbours in the Scottish council-house “scheme” where I was brought up bought their home under the right-to-buy legislation. They sold it for a cosy retirement flat, and had enough left over to enjoy comfortable late years. They loathe Thatcher, and thank her.)

Moreover, as Richard Vinen writes in a perceptive Financial Times column: “The demonisation of Lady Thatcher reveals an extraordinary lack of context”; she “has become a kind of voodoo doll for a left that talks as though sticking pins in the image of its enemy will be a substitute for thinking about its own problems.”

“Hatred must make a person productive. Otherwise, you might as well love.” The great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus spoke a hard and necessary truth. If the left can learn to see Margaret Thatcher’s years in terms of their full political texture, rather than through the prism of its luxuriating abhorrence, their history may yet be retrieved from myth. The acceptance of complexity would be a good starting point. •