The feminist and writer Beatrix Campbell – author of The Iron Ladies: Why Do Women Vote Tory? among other titles – takes exception to Phyllida Lloyd’s Oscar winning film ‘The Iron Lady’.
How did it begin? Was there a moment when Meryl Streep did a Maggie imitation and everybody laughed, or cried…? Was there a moment when director Phyllida Lloyd was searching for a marvelous role for Ms Streep and Maggie, Maggie, Maggie came to mind?
A political biography would have to position Thatcher in the world that, with such unyielding energy, she helped to re-construct, as the most determinedly divisive – rather than unifying – and pragmatic, rather than principled agent of neo-liberalism to bless the new right.
It would, therefore, have to ask the question: what was Margaret Thatcher for? Lloyd’s portrayal gives no insight, however, into the politics of Margaret Thatcher. Streep’s performance, therefore, is also doomed: it is a performance of compelling ventriloquism and political vacuity.
Let’s start at the end: the representation of Thatcher’s dementia is simultaneously compelling and unseemly. It purports to represent a living person’s senility and isolation – a person who could not have consented to this public display of her decline. The question is not only whether this is ethical – surely it wasn’t – but what purpose is served by making defeat and decline the film’s centre of gravity?
Clearly, Thatcher’s lonely dementia enlists the viewers’ sympathy. That’s sentimental and cheeky.
It exposes her indulgence of her son Mark and her lack of respect for her daughter Carol. Nothing new there.
More important, though, it becomes a metaphor for a larger argument: her isolation in old age reprises a sense of the loneliness of her rise and rise as a political figure. Her husband’s irritation towards the end of her career is mobilized, too, in the service of this representation of Thatcher as a solitary woman up against all the men.
And so Margaret Thatcher the movie makes a claim for Thatcher the Prime Minister that is more feminist than she herself would ever have ventured.
Thatcher would never have it: she resisted colleagues’ attempts to persuade her to play her gender card – always a bit of an ace in Conservative culture – to engage women. She refused to identify with women, or to address women as women like herself. She reserved greatness for herself.
She disappointed the women of her own party by failing to expand their room for manoeuvre, failing to advance their numbers, and failing to address women voters as women with issues that needed to be aired and resolved.
They admired her not because she did much for women, but because she was there, because she was the Prime Minister and because she was tough. She brought feminine endorsement to a thoroughly patriarchal political project.
Margaret Thatcher admired buccaneering merchant masculinity. Femininity was what she wore, not what she did.
Her great triumph was to do more than any man – she could wear her handbag or her chiffon evening gown and she could climb into a tank and she could go to war.
Thatcher’s ideological trajectory is traduced in the film. It has her emerging from her cocoon as a fully-fledged common sense politician who derived national accounting from the domestic budget and gave political rhetoric a womanly timbre.
Not so. Margaret Thatcher was positioned on the right of her party, not down among the women, but close to Sir Keith Joseph, an intellectual of the right. His own ambition to become Prime Minister was jinxed by his notorious ‘cycle of deprivation’ speech in 1972, in which he lamented single parenthood among poor young women as a threat to ‘our human stock.’
Echoes of eugenics in this speech attracted massive protest and certainly liquidated his prospects of taking over the Conservative Party leadership from Edward Heath.
It was in recognition of this that Joseph promoted his friend Margaret Thatcher in his place. He went on to form the influential Centre for Policy Studies, which promoted monetarism as the defining ideology of Thatcherism – indeed Joseph is described as a ‘father of Thatcherism’.
It was monetarism that gave her premiership its ideological edge, its confidence in breaking with the Conservatives’ historic compromise with welfarism that had secured its post-war success in government.
It was monetarism that powered her offensive against trade unionism, against nationalized industries and public service – and against the one-nation conservatism that steered the Tories after World War II. She and Ronald Reagan in the US triggered the neo-liberal revolution that has taken the world by the throat.
In the movie, the genealogy of her ideological project, and its consequences, is erased, and we are left instead with a misty narrative of never-explained principle.
She was, as it happened, a pragmatic politician who managed a Cabinet team that was never entirely possessed of the monetarist gleam.
All of that is re-interpreted in the characterisation of Thatcher’s enemies as suits and thugs: the svelte men on her own side and her class enemy, the workers – men who behave like football hooligans.
In the absence of political intelligence, a kind of faux feminism to creep into this film’s structural incoherence, and to represent Margaret Thatcher not as she was, an intransigent and polarizing politician of the hard right, but as a heroic woman done in by lesser men.