John Howard has a few things to say about the “Iron Lady”…
Prime Minister John Howard with Baroness Thatcher, London, 1997. Office of the Honourable John Howard
To adopt Shakespeare, Meryl Streep came to bury Margaret Thatcher, not to praise her. This was attempted – in the filmThe Iron Lady – by the simple, but telling, device of retailing Thatcher’s story through a series of retrospectives of the retired prime minister, clearly afflicted by dementia. Streep’s best acting was the portrayal of her subject suffering that condition.
Thus the film’s deepest emotional impact is that of Thatcher in a state of personal vulnerability, with no objective yardstick available to assess the accuracy or otherwise of what is presented.
It is hard to imagine a neophyte viewer, with no real knowledge of Thatcher’s role in British and world history, leaving the cinema without the overwhelming impression that The Iron Lady was largely about an elderly lady, hallucinating about her some-years-deceased husband; who had a somewhat difficult relationship with her children and, by the way, happened to have been Britain’s longest serving prime minister of the 20th century.
The making of this film poses a moral question. How fair and right is it to produce a movie that deals in such a deeply personal and judgmental fashion with the private relationships, including family ones, of a well-known public figure, still alive, through the prism of a debilitating illness – and in circumstances where any detailed response would only increase the distress felt by those nearest and dearest to her?
On the subject of those relationships, the Denis Thatcher we knew and liked was affable, intelligent and seemingly much at ease with what he was doing. Janette found him a particularly engaging dinner table companion.
There is a broad ideological context in which the film might also be viewed. The progressive left have always had a massive problem with Thatcher. It can’t bear to acknowledge her legitimacy. She was, undeniably, the most successful female leader in the Western democratic world in recent memory. She broke the mould of British politics in several different ways. In so many respects she is a feminist role model, demonstrating that no position is beyond the reach and capacity of a woman. Yet she was a conservative, who extolled values which many from the progressive left have spent a lifetime denigrating.
Thatcher was not only Britain’s greatest prime minister since Churchill but one of the two dominant conservative political figures in the Western world in the past 50 years – the other being Ronald Reagan. She reversed Britain’s economic decline through the application of a relatively consistent free market philosophy, and helped restore her nation’s self respect and sense of purpose both domestically and internationally.
The combined efforts of Reagan and Thatcher, reinforced by the moral strength of the Polish born Pope John Paul II, helped topple Soviet imperialism, about which many sections of the Western commentariat had remained in a state of moral equivalence until virtually the eve of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. There has been no more significant world political event since the end of World War II.
One struggles hard to find more than a cursory reference to these developments in the Thatcher film. Sure there are the obligatory images of joyous Berliners taking picks to the Berlin Wall, as well as Margaret and Ronnie doing the waltz, but it is largely wallpaper and in no way is their pivotal role contextualised.
The years of the Thatcher government are presented as ones of constant conflict, endless clashes between citizens and police, and of a prime minister intent on humiliating her (male) colleagues. There was conflict, especially in the long struggle with sections of the mining unions, resulting in Thatcher’s victory over Arthur Scargill and his Yorkshire mining cohorts. Bringing the British trade union movement within the rule of law was one of the Iron Lady’s signal triumphs. Labour’s Tony Blair certainly thought so; he noisily rejected any suggestion that the Thatcher trade union reforms should be reversed.
Again, on the evidence of the film alone, one might think that the long running Northern Irish dispute was a product of the Thatcher years. Hardly, the phase dealt with by the film was begun by the Wilson Labour government in 1969, sending British troops to Northern Ireland. That was 10 years before Thatcher became prime minister.
The film in no way acknowledges the widespread British economic recovery in the mid-1980s, much of which was due to the reformist policies of the early Thatcher years. That period is depicted in the film as boom time for millionaires, with supporting footage of partying yuppies. No reference there to soaring rates of home and share ownership, sharply reduced unemployment and increased productivity in British manufacturing.
Specific inaccuracies include chronologically misplacing the Falklands War – it took place in Thatcher’s first term, not towards the end as the film implies. Thatcher was nowhere near the shadow Northern Ireland secretary Airey Neave when Irish Republican extremists killed him with a car bomb.
More seriously the film shows Margaret Thatcher snubbing her deputy Geoffrey Howe when he hands his letter of resignation to her. Howe’s own words repudiate this. On page 648 of his autobiographyConflict of Loyalty (Macmillan, 1994) he describes the meeting very differently. “She was obviously shaken by the event now that it had actually come. ‘Is there’, she asked, ‘anything we can do that would cause you to change your mind?’ . . . there followed instead a short but gracious discussion of the many things we had been able to achieve together.”
This was a crucial moment in Thatcher’s personal relations with her colleagues. Howe’s resignation speech was seen as the ultimate catalyst for the leadership challenge against Thatcher. She and Howe had been together from the beginning; and had held the line against the wets on budget and monetary policy. Howe, a very decent man, who I had got to know well when we were Chancellor of the Exchequer and Treasurer respectively in the early 1980s, and played superbly by Anthony Head, found himself at odds with his prime minister on European policy.
Given the centrality of the Howe-Thatcher falling out, this particular meeting should have been treated with scrupulous accuracy in the movie.
As an aside, Thatcher’s euro-sceptic views now seem to have had more prescience than many felt at the time.
Meryl Streep captured Thatcher’s voice brilliantly, but her determined portrayal of a domineering Thatcher, always wanting her own way, lacked nuance. It allowed no room for the natural femininity characteristic of the former prime minister.
Many underestimated Thatcher, and not only Tory grandees. Barely two months after her election as prime minister she attended a Fraser government cabinet meeting in Canberra, outlining her public expenditure and other reforms.
Quite a few of my colleagues were sceptical, with more than one observing “she will learn” after she had left. In the years that followed she would confound the doubters.
Finally on a parochial note, no British prime minister in recent memory was more personally attentive to the British/Australia relationship than Thatcher, visiting Australia three times during her prime ministership and displaying a deep interest in our political and economic affairs.
I attended the Conservative Party conference, at Blackpool, in October 1979, the first since her election. At drinks following the conference she came across to me and said “what about South Australia – a great win”. In September, the Liberals under David Tonkin, had unexpectedly won office in that state. Given that she had just come off the high of her major conference speech I was impressed with her interest in our political fortunes in Australia.
John Howard was prime minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007. The Iron Lady was directed by Phyllida Lloyd for Film4, the UK Film Council and Canal+.
The Australian Financial Review