Irony lady

Living under Mrs Thatcher

Phyllida Lloyd’s 2011 film The Iron Lady won Meryl Streep the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. Twenty-five years after she has was ousted as prime minister, Thatcher’s impact on British life continues to polarise opinion. She was leader of the Conservative Party but her policies were arguably more radical than those of any other government in the twentieth century. What did they mean for her country? And what did they represent to her?

There is a poignant moment in the film The Iron Lady when Meryl Streep, playing Margaret Thatcher (now Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven) with concrete hairdo and in her usual persuasive manner of total mimicry, is asked by her doctor (evidently private, and “very expensive” according to her daughter Carol) as he makes a cursory neurological assessment, how she is feeling. “Feelings! Feelings! That’s all people talk about today. What interests me is what people are thinking. Ideas! Now that’s something I can deal with…”

               It is an ironic moment too, since Margaret Thatcher is being assessed for mental competence. Moreover, the film itself is a product of our era of emotivism—a trend which she clearly experienced as alien, and yet it swept over the country of the Stiff Upper Lip in the years of her premiership. The Iron Lady is what used to be called a human interest film, and one, it would seem, untroubled by the ethical niceties of portraying a person with dementia while she is still alive—Thatcher can hardly have consented to its making. And that is another, deeper irony, for Thatcherism itself, bluntly put, was about reducing lives to human material, which is so much more easily managed than individuals with minds of their own.

Iron Lady

               The film offers scant insight into the origins of Thatcher’s trademark backbone (some would say rigidity and even insensitivity, although her disrespect for the Establishment won her grudging respect from people who otherwise detested her policies) other than a couple of shots of the young Margaret Roberts (as she was before marriage) listening adoringly to her grocer father dilating on the virtues of self-made men at a Conservative party meeting. Nor is there much analysis of the radical manner in which Britain changed in the 1980s under the impact of her “this-lady-is-not-for-yielding” policies (for somebody who knows nothing about that decade it might seem a succession of IRA bombings and urban riots plus a curious gunboat war over sheep on some islands in the South Atlantic)—or indeed how she presided at a distance over the last whimper of the Soviet Union. What the film shows is the decline of a grande dame as she struggles with solitude, bereavement, frailty and dementia. Perhaps only cinema could so plausibly enter the wandering mind of an old lady pining for her absent son (in South Africa), or allow her deceased spouse Denis to open the door of her mind on an even more distant order of ghostliness.

               Mrs Thatcher’s confusion about her past is also ours. It was the German philosopher Hegel who coined the phrase “the cunning of reason” to describe how individuals act in good faith while serving as the pawns of grand impersonal forces moving to another finality: there have been few political careers to which it applies more obviously than hers. She brought the bourgeois values of revolutionary France to the United Kingdom at the very point where any modernity they once possessed had been depleted. At the beginning of her mandate Thatcher’s nationalism was an embarrassment, when polls showed her to be the least popular prime minister of the century, but it proved to be of enormous value once Argentina’s junta foolishly decided to send the country’s armed forces to seize the islands known there as “Islas Malvinas”; and it was flatly in contradiction with her other aim: to apply the principles of free trade in the country of their origin more fully than ever before. Except that those principles had in the intervening two centuries expanded across the world, and the very same global market has as little nostalgia for the age of nations as it had for that of empires. F.A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty—which she is supposed to have slammed down on the cabinet table at one point with the words “This is what we believe”—makes it clear that building a market society involves the destruction of long-established ways of life. But destroying ways of life in order to “open” them to the market raises a disturbing question. If international capital rules the roost, then why should anybody feel particularly proud to be British? (Half a generation later, her political “son”, Tony Blair, saw nothing odd about branding Britain—“Cool Britannia”—as if it were possible to celebrate “the wonderfulness of us” in a mere advertising slogan.)


               So just how far did those ideas carry her? Although Thatcher claimed she wanted to slim down the state its power increased under her mandate (and beyond) to unprecedented levels: the hoary old institutions that gave British life its depth, oddity and charm began to fade away, the idea of the public good (or society) being replaced by the profit motive associated with the market economy. To enter that global market you have to be accountable, which in practice means being countable or auditable—hence the need for so many managers and functionaries. In order for the structures of social life to be refashioned according to market principles, government had to be invasive. Instead of shrinking, the state became omnipresent. This is what David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at LSE, calls “the iron law of liberalism”: any central attempt to reduce red tape and promote market forces ultimately leads to increased regulations, paperwork and personnel, and to a kind of cowed resignation on the part of those subject to them. Not only that, but Margaret Thatcher believed (like her father) that moral self-discipline and resolve of purpose were what you needed to succeed in the marketplace, when the market’s circulatory structure plainly legitimates any kind of consumptive behaviour provided it is legal—hence the need for more police and prisons.

               The justification for these sweeping changes was efficiency. Unfortunately for Mrs Thatcher (and the so-called Conservative Party), the record speaks against her: in the thirty years after she came to power the UK lost two-thirds of its industrial base, the biggest decline of any western European country. Manufacturing now accounts for only 9 percent of British GDP, very low by international standards and much less than the contribution made by industry to Germany’s economy (nearly 21 %). The fall in the tax burden—often hailed as the great “achievement” of the Thatcher years—was due to a displacement of progressive taxes on income to flat fees for basic services, such as water and energy: British railways—the first in the world—are now among the most expensive in Europe. Large chunks of the UK are owned by foreigners, not to mention entire streets of prime real estate in London. Although she was an Oxford-trained chemist, her determination to apply market principles to science has brought into being dishonest exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework, which has distorted university life and given spurious prominence to metrics and rankings. Even her record in respect of those dutifully cherished family values (some of which became an ingrained aspect of British life due to the collectivist policies of the postwar Labour Party) is poor.

               Thatcherism—the fantastic truth be told—was a reverse Marxism: although her ideas helped to derail the Iron Curtain, she also inaugurated the era of no-choice politics (known as TINA or “there is no alternative”), which is what everyone seems to have now. We have entered an era of what Tariq Ali, in a nicely oxymoronic phrase, calls “extreme centrism”: since voters are unable to distinguish between either side of the political horseshoe they are consequently largely indifferent about exercising their voting rights. If Marxism constrained consumption to accord with production, Thatcherism enjoined a mass of individual workers to produce in order to enjoy the fruits of their labour in a hollowing out of the classes for which Marx coined the ugly term “proletarianisation”. (Oddly enough, some people insist, for the reasons sketched out above, in describing this phenomenon as the equally irritating “embourgeoisement”.) This reductionist view of politics also explains how it was possible for some stalwarts in the UK to go without any intermediate steps from being revolutionary socialists in the 1970s to espousing a form of radical individualism that looks askance at anything resembling a community. And having been expelled from politics “choice” became the mantra in untold other areas in which its application had hitherto been very limited: by the turn of the millennium vast numbers of the Great British Public were ready for their consumerist bedazzlement in a manner far more seductive and radical than the penny novels that turned Mme Bovary’s head.


               The French Revolution stopped the unproductive classes (nobility and clergy) from exploiting the merchants; Thatcher’s “revolution” saw the professions as a secretive patrician class that didn’t contribute directly enough to the “naked interest” exchange relations of the market; and tried to cut their professional heads off. Neither Thatcherism nor Marxism has ever been able to account for the abundance of associations that girds British life—those forums, groups and bodies that have the backing of no less than 12 million people and nothing to do with urban-planning or the market but are true expressions of the polis. It was that great liberal Edmund Burke who said they were the bulwark against the tyrannical rationalizations out of France in 1790. His idea of tradition was based on trial and error; Thatcher’s peremptory idea was something very much like divine right—not of kings but of parliament. And if you didn’t share her convictions about what had to be done, you were liable to be “handbagged”: to handbag, now acknowledged by the lexicographers of the OED, means “to verbally attack or crush a person or idea ruthlessly and forcefully.”

               At the beginning of the film, Thatcher slips her minders and shuffles out to buy a pint of milk at the local store, almost a parody of the kind of shop her father ran. She is elbowed aside at the counter by one of her unwitting, witless creations—a shouty boy with a mobile phone glued to his ear. In another scene, she proves to be the only member of the cabinet who knows the actual price of a pint of milk. Milk: the maternal stuff that used to be identified with kindness—human kindness, we used to say, as if there might be another kind.

Addendum: Margaret Thatcher’s personal effects (brooches, clothes, papers, photographs, a red dispatch box and of course some of the famous Launer handbags) were auctioned at Christie’s in December 2015. As The Economist commented, “…there is something appropriate about a free-market sale of personal effects left by a leader who did so much to pioneer privatisation.” The sale raised more than more than £3 million from buyers across the world.

© Iain Bamforth

* * *