Iron Lady, shattered nation

Posted on: 05 January 2012 by Alexander Hay

Margaret Thatcher's legacy of bad blood, division and utilitarian ugliness undermines any claims to her being a great leader

Perhaps you're only truly famous when someone makes a film of your life. Margaret Thatcher's ascension to such giddying heights had its premier last night in London, with biopic 'The Iron Lady' starring an alarmingly convincing Meryl Streep and inciting any number of left and right wing commentators to line up and argue over whether it is either a whitewash or a travesty.

But was it a life worth celebrating? Perhaps that is the wrong word. One can be both famed and filmed and be completely loathsome, as Downfall suggests. Or be both light and dark, as I, Claudius so sumptuously revealed.

What is meant, though, is whether the legend/cult of Thatcher - the woman who, it is claimed, handbagged Britain back to financial health and dignity on the world stage - manages to eclipse the dark fable her career is also seen to embody, the price of power and success bought at the cost of much suffering and bad blood.

If anything, the Iron Lady must surely fail as a film as it does not address this fundamental rift in British society, much in the same way that it seems to almost entirely ignore the antics of Mark Thatcher. In so doing, it soft-soaps history in a most harmful fashion. Arguably, you cannot discuss Thatcher without mentioning the fever pitch of controversy that she left in her wake and which continues to this day.

And it is this polarisation that must, surely, mean Thatcher's political legacy be seen as a failure. Debating the economic impact of her policies is always going to rage, but the intense hatred and resentment she invokes in others cannot simply be attributed to Old Labour sour grapes.

Thatcherism did immense harm to industrial and mining communities, often turning friends and relatives against each other, ruining the job opportunities for whole generations of young people and freely squashing anyone who either got in the way or who represented an 'otherness' that the then-strident Conservativism of the 80s could not tolerate.

There are plenty of words to describe a political legacy that included Section 28, mass unemployment, the decimation of our industrial base, laying the foundations for two major recessions and over-priced property, an overly cosy relationship with Rupert Murdoch, unending conflict with Europe and a sort of ruthless, 'ends justify the means' approach to politics that has contaminated both parliament and public life. But it's not complimentary.

Thatcher's defenders may argue at this point that Britain modernised during her term, cast aside the conflicts of the 70s and allowed upward mobility, epitomised by being allowed to buy your own council house. Sadly, this only provides half a picture as inequality skyrocketed, ethnic tensions were unresolved and few council houses were replaced by new-builds, leading to today's chronic housing shortage.

Her defenders may also add, with some accuracy, that she was - in the short term at least - politically successful. And certainly, she was a conviction politician, but then so was Blair and Anthony Eden, and neither man left 10 Downing Street on any happier terms.

A cynical but brutally compelling defence might also include the argument that Britain needed harsh measures to shake it out of its malaise. Indeed, even Orwell once agreed with the maxim that you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. But then, it wasn't his eggs getting broken, or Thatcher's, for that matter.

That it was old enemies of the Tories and monetarists who often paid the highest price during the Thatcher years was not coincidental either.

Thatcher was an angel to some, and a demon to others, precisely because she saw no problem in taking the divisions of the 70s to their logical conclusion in the decade she in turn dominated. She was the ultimate 'them and us' politician, and such division can only lead to dysfunction - if you're lucky - and utter ruin, if you're called David Cameron or decided to follow George W Bush into Iraq.

And it is here that the Thatcher legacy must be seen for what it is. Great politicians may make enemies, slaughter sacred cows and be lampooned, but in hindsight, that seems to be all Thatcher ever achieved. Her crowning successes - the Falklands War and the final showdown with the NUM - were crises brought about by bad politics and resolved by brute force. When that iron fist was shown to no longer work, when the public at large rejected the infamous Poll Tax, Thatcher was left powerless.

Her whole appeal was that, as a politician, she not only saw the need to beat her foes into submission, but she had nothing else to offer. Much as Blair was undone when his saintly patina was peeled off, so Thatcher fell when the appearance of power was taken away.

The problem with shrill, face-punching politics, after all, is that eventually you'll get hit back too. Ironically, it is this bereft, raw vulnerability that The Iron Lady focuses on, rather than the less edifying reality of derelict northern cities, institutionalised homophobia, state-sanctioned thuggery and the best PR campaign the Scottish National Party could ever hope for.

The truth of the matter was that Thatcher promised to unify but brought only discord, and a distilled bitterness that is with us to this day. But then, that doesn't make for compelling cinema.

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Alexander Hay

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