I recently rented The Iron Lady from the Red Box. It stars Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, the only female Prime Minister in England so far and the longest serving PM who was in office from 1979 until she resigned in 1990. She was Prime Minister through some very tumultuous times: some rather violent strikes by coal miners and labor unions, some rather violent attacks on England by the IRA, a rather serious recession, and a rather small war against Argentina for the Falklands.
The movie does not begin when she is at the peak of her power. It begins as she is starting her descent into dementia. She was really in love with her husband Denis Thatcher (played by Jim Broadbent) and, although he has died, she continues to speak with him and experience him as if he is still alive, although she must know he is not because she hides her “relationship” from the assistants who live with her and from her daughter, Carol (played by Olivia Coleman) and her son Mark (who we never meet). We see Mrs. Thatcher’s romance with her husband and her rise through the Tory party in flashbacks. She is a classic conservative who espouses deregulation of the financial sector, flexible labor markets, the privatization of state-owned companies, and reducing the power and influence of the trade unions. Although the war with the Falkland Islands and perhaps the PM’s policies do bring the country out of recession, Margaret Thatcher’s government is often deeply unpopular and she does not always get along well with others. England is swept by one wave of violence after another. Finally, when Mrs. Thatcher refuses to entertain the possibility of joining the European Union and adopting a single currency (the Euro), she resigns her office (which she was about to lose anyway).
While it is sad to see a once powerful figure in decline, she remains such an Iron Lady that it is difficult to feel the poignancy of her situation, but I loved the interplay between Margaret and her dead husband, Denis, and I loved learning all that history that I paid so little attention to the first time around. Watching things unfold day-to-day on the news is not the same as the overview you get in hindsight. The flashback was the perfect film conceit for this excellent movie.
We study history so we can look to the past to inform us about the future. We in America are getting ready for an election and we are trying to decide if the path the Conservatives are recommending is a good one. Listen to what Margaret Thatcher had to say about entitlements according to Wikipedia and see if it sounds familiar. It should. We have been listening to the GOP tell us almost this exact same thing.
Thatcher defined her own political philosophy, in a major and controversial break with One Nation Conservatives like her predecessor Edward Heath, in her statement to Douglas Keay, published in Woman’s Own magazine in September 1987:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.
Was Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign good for the UK? Well she did bring the country out of recession, which I sure Brits appreciated, but the eleven years she was in office saw way too many violent demonstrations to be considered a slam dunk and in the end she was almost forced to resign. After seeing the movie, I can’t imagine why we would want to go there. Watch the movie and see what history has to say to you.