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Snow finally fell last weekend in DC. Not much, but enough to cover the ground in a thin layer of white crystal. On Sunday afternoon I smoked a cigarette and watched a squirrel loop its way down the trunk of a tree, like it was riding a helter-skelter. There’s a stillness to ice that nothing else can imitate. Man’s footprint is hidden in the snow. It’s a great time for contemplating the essentials.

I was fortunate enough over the weekend to catch a screening of The Iron Lady, the recent biopic of Margaret Thatcher. As I have written before, I was anxious about watching the movie because I have issues with the Lady’s time in office. But I was pleasantly surprised. Much like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has little to do with espionage, The Iron Lady has next to nothing to do with politics. It’s about the tyranny of old age and whilst it might not be an accurate portrayal of Thatcher’s present state of health, it is an incredibly moving one.

Director Phyllida Lloyd made the controversial decision to use senility as a narrative device. The story of Thatcher’s life is told in flashbacks, while the present day plot concerns her battle against hallucinations of her long dead husband. The first time we see her, she is not the fierce vision in shoulder pads that we all knew in the 1980s. She is instead a little old lady buying a pint of milk in the local shop. Her face expresses a mix of fear and defiance. The music is too loud and the other customers too coarse; she is vulnerable. But she is also mightily pissed off that the price of milk has gone up again. We see a flash of resilience in her eyes. One can imagine her demanding more change and, when threatened with security, crying, “No, no, no!”

In some ways, the movie is a lot of fun. There’s plenty of silly departures from the written record (Thatcher did not run towards Airey Neave’s exploded car crying, “Noooo!”), plus we get some splendid impersonations of the cast of little men who dogged Margaret throughout her life. Anthony Head is splendid as Geoffrey Howe, who was the most boring yet most radical chancellor in British history. Also delightful is John Sessions as Ted Heath. He captures Heath’s strangulated Kentish twang perfectly – the flat ugly noise that I use, too. The story of Ted’s premiership has always been a personal inspiration, because he proved that you could be utterly charmless and still go far. I take comfort from that.

Meryl Streep is outstanding. Unlike Leonard Dicaprio’s recent turn as J Edgar Hoover, her performance evolves. We see Thatcher patiently learning and then owning the verbal and physical tics that are necessary to command a room. And we see her become a prisoner of them. There is one scene in which she gives Howe a dressing down in cabinet. It’s like torture porn. She humiliates him in front of his colleagues and even corrects his spelling. Furious with the incompetence of lesser mortals, she dismisses everyone from the room. Only when they are gone does she realize that she has done something wrong. She shifts uncomfortably in her chair and bites her lip. She realizes that she has taken a step closer to destruction. A good leader must be feared not loved. But while the fear commands respect for a season, it leads inexorably to usurpation – and that is what happened to the Iron Lady.

The deconstruction of Margaret Thatcher is complete by the time she is old. Like the rest of us, she shifts quietly from being hated to being a nuisance. Her daughter mothers her and her son ignores her. “We must draft a statement,” says Margaret when she hears that terrorists have attacked London. “Mummy, you’re not Prime Minister anymore,” her daughter reminds her. 

Vulnerability is the great curse of ageing. It comes harder in Britain, where work-life patterns undermine strong families. No one wants to be dependent upon their children, but that is the sad reality of physical decline. Margaret scuttles about, listening through key holes to what the others are saying about her – like an errant toddler. She is trapped in a world of memories, some accurate and others not. What is she to do with these years of physical decrepitude? Write another press release?

The Iron Lady does its eponymous hero a good deed, for it reminds her critics that she is a human being. Her condition is certainly universal. As a child I watched my grandmother grow old and die in a short space of time, the decades catching up with her in a matter of months. The gas was often left on and tea cups got broken. The keys were always in the front door. Thieves took advantage of her kindness and ransacked the apartment. She fell down the stairs and came up purple with bruises. She was terrified: every slip or smash was a shock to her. How did I feel, at eleven-years old? I was annoyed. She walked too slow, her hand drawing my progress along the pavement to a painful crawl. She repeated herself endlessly and confused her own life with bits of soap opera. She slept all the damn time. One Christmas Eve, she rang to say that she felt too tired to stay with us. I berated her on the phone: “You foolish old woman,” I said. “Don’t you know that I need you here? Don’t you know that I love you?” The next day she was dead.

After watching The Iron Lady, I have revised my opinion. I think Margaret Thatcher should be given a state funeral. Not because she was special, but because she was an ordinary woman who did remarkable things. She was us and we are she – and we owe this fragile human being a little of the dignity that old age robs from us all.

 

The Iron Lady

11/27/2011

 
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__When I was a boy, “Thatcher” was a curse word. My family loathed Mrs. T with a passion that burned hotter than the sun. They weren’t particularly political: my father was a lapsed trades-unionist and my mother was too well bred to vote. It was simply axiomatic that “she” was the enemy and “she” had to go. They drank a toast when she resigned from office.

I carried that burning faith well into my twenties, before I discovered history and retired from politics. Now it is with mixed feelings that I discover that a Hollywood movie has been made about Mrs. Thatcher’s life. For starters, it’s too early to make a film like this. Emotions are too raw for it to be watched objectively, and the lady is too advanced in years to offer a fair rebuttal. The kind of sordid details that make a biopic worth watching can only offend her family. The inevitable absence of the stories of ordinary people caught up in the Thatcher Revolution will equally offend the rest of us. Margaret Thatcher did not single handedly drag Britain into the postmodern era. We got there ourselves by putting pins through our noses and marrying the servants. (At least, that’s how mummy did it).

But the movie does offer those of us who are the “children of Thatcher” an opportunity to reflect on her legacy, especially now that the Credit Crunch has called so much of it into question. Since leaving the world of my parents far behind, I’ve settled into an idiosyncratic brand of conservatism that allies me more comfortably with the Right. Yet, I'm still uncomfortable with what happened to Britain in the 1980s and I lack the enthusiasm that many of my peers feel for Mrs. Thatcher. My critique of her is a Tory one, but it is critical nonetheless.

Margaret Thatcher’s analysis of what was wrong with Britain in 1979 was spot on. Militant unions, spiraling costs, outdated infrastructure, punishing tax rates – all these things crippled our industrial base and prevented growth. Then, as now, we were spending too much and taking too little in. A restive Left complicated matters. The Seventies breed of trades-unionist had less interest in a good deal for their workers than they did in replacing Parliament with a Supreme Soviet. In this climate, the medicine that Thatcher applied was correct: tax cuts, regulations on union power, privatization. Her measures were sensible enough for most other Western governments to copy them. Even social democratic parties in Germany, Sweden, and Australia cut and privatized their way out of recession.

But the sense of social dislocation that resulted from these policies was far bigger in Britain than anywhere else. Reaganomics could be equally as harsh, but Reagan’s approval rating was consistently high and he died a father figure appropriated by both Left and Right. So why does Mrs. T get such bad press?

The answer partly lies in the severity of the early Eighties recession, which still looms large in the public imagination. As the government cut off subsidies to failing businesses, the fall in productivity was the largest since the Great Depression and unemployment tripled to three million. Rioting in major cities became ubiquitous and crime soared. Thatcher’s policies tore up a “postwar settlement” that had promised an ever increasing standard of living through full employment. Right-wing ideologues saw that settlement as a shameful sell-out to socialism that swapped empire for welfare state. But the settlement had endured for so long because it was supported by consecutive Conservative governments. Those Tory grandees felt a sense of duty to the men they had fought and died alongside in the trenches, so they accepted the consensus regardless of its financial cost.

By dismantling the postwar settlement in the name of rescuing Britain from decline, Margaret Thatcher became a more revolutionary figure than her Labour Party opponents. In an excellent piece in the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore writes that she redefined conservatism as “insurrection”. By so doing, she created a paradox. The point of conservatism is to preserve as much as possible of the social order that we inherit. It can be necessary sometimes to throw out the bad to preserve the good – which is why previous Conservative governments emancipated the Catholics or expanded the franchise. But the idea of purposefully uprooting the social order – even to return to a pre-Lapsarian, pre-socialist past – contradicts the conservative instinct for cohesion and order. A more traditional Conservative leader might have responded to the crisis of 1979 by trying to build a new consensus for piecemeal reform – to defend what was best about the postwar settlement by discarding what was worst.

Instead, the Thatcher government regarded its task as starting the world over again, and they approached it with the unbending fervor of the ideologue. As much was recently acknowledged by Norman Tebbit, the former “enforcer” of Thatcherism. In 1981, in response to the suggestion that rioting was the natural response to unemployment, the then Employment Secretary said, “I grew up in the 30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ‘til he found it.” The paraphrase “on yer bike” became shorthand for the government’s firmness in the face of social protest. In 2009, Tebbit admitted that Thatcherism, particularly its conflict with the miners, had resurrected the British economy at a terrible price: “Black-hearted old Tory that I am, I recognize that in those mining towns and villages crime was very low, as was school truancy and yobbish behavior, because here there was a close-knit social structure in which there was a great deal of social stability. The rapid collapse of the coal mining industry did break up those communities in a terrible manner. I think it was a contributory factor to what was going on in society and the change in a lot of our old inner cities, where once, even if you were Norman Tebbit, you could walk safely through the streets.”

It should be stressed that the decline of the mining and industrial sectors was inevitable and germane to the Western world: Thatcher didn’t start it and she couldn’t have stopped it. But something about her government gave the impression that she didn’t really care about it, that her policies were class war masquerading as public policy. It wasn’t just the brutalism of her manifesto, or the fact that she was (inaccurately) quoted as saying there was “no such thing as society”. It was the lady herself. Her terrifying, patiently rehearsed vowels rang with the fiery anger of the Puritan. Her frightening stare barely contained the rage of the overtaxed haves against the indolence of the have nots. She was the silent majority personified, on the phone yet again to complain about the late delivery of the post or the foul language of the garbage men. Such a Conservative woman is infinitely more chilling than their male counterparts. She could not be mellowed by Rotary Bridge or public school frolics. She was the revolutionary vanguard of a late-to-liberation, female bourgeoisie.

Since 1945, Socialism and the welfare state have been responsible for the deaths of many great British characteristics, particularly frugality and chivalry. But Capitalism has done a lot of damage, too. The deregulated marketplace has brought competition, but also ugly chain stores, a taste for drugs, pornography, violent television, avarice, and materialism. Post-Thatcher, the Conservative Party seemed to lose sight of the fact that the freedom to make money isn’t the only pillar of the Good Society (although it’s a strong one). Ask a Conservative what kind of society they’d like to live in and they’ll generally identify the 1950s. This is highly ironic, because the faithful, decent national community that we imagine the 1950s to have been was also economically highly regulated and strongly wedded to the postwar consensus that Margaret Thatcher tore up.

If there is a psychological problem with the post-Thatcher generation of Conservatives, it is that they lack the emotional condition that forged the postwar settlement. I don’t expect them to endorse it or revive it, but the kind of Tories who signed up to it in the 1950s were men and women who had greater sympathy for the Britain of yesterday and today. They took pride in Church and Empire and they loved the people who had stood by them at Ypres and Dunkirk. They governed Britain because they felt they owed it something. They were burdened, even blinded, by duty. Mrs. Thatcher had her own faith, and it was strong enough to pull Britain out of the abyss. But I see little such passion or compassion in George Obsorne or David Cameron. These are ambitious young men with little experience of the world beyond Westminster. Their forebears might have called them vulgar. At least Margaret Thatcher had conviction and wit, and the withering tone of voice that gets things done.