I went to see this biopic at the weekend. Joan was keen and, although I had some reservations about humanising my image of Mrs. T, she was one of the most influential figures in recent British history and it is time for reinterpretation – distance lends a new perspective. The film works at a number of levels. The first, and probably most important level, is that it is a respectful, moving and insightful portrayal of old age and, to some extent, dementia. If it were a work of fiction, based on a novel about an ageing woman whose compass and range of influence has shrunk down to the confines of her house, it would be widely acclaimed. As it is, Meryl Streep, as so many have already said, demonstrates yet again what a great actress she is, as much in her portrayal of Thatcher in her 80s as Thatcher in her 50s.
The second major level is to do with Margaret Thatcher as a politician. Here it is really only a stimulus for reflection and what you make of it will be to do with what you bring to it. Some key messages in the portrayal are, I think, right:
- It was not easy for a young woman to make her way in the Conservative Party of the 50s and 60s;
- She came to a view in the 70s that her male colleagues in the Party were too weak;
- She was motivated equally by strong values she took from her father and by her own political ambition;
- Her default style was confrontation – a politics of battles, of winners and losers;
- She became increasingly convinced by her own story (a strong woman among weak men) and impervious to influence / advice from others.
A third level is the portrayal of Britain in the 70s and 80s as a place of conflict – the IRA bombings, massive strikes, public protests and riots, foreign war in the South Atlantic.
There isn’t a lot of engagement with the underlying philosophical differences. A strong theme in the film is Thatcher’s belief that what matters is what you do, not what you say. Actions are of course important, but they are motivated by and interpreted in words, words which work together to give voice to a philosophy of life, an understanding of the world and our role in it. For Thatcher, ‘private enterprise was better than public service’ and ‘freedom should always take priority over equality’. The policies that went along with these views destroyed our old manufacturing and mining industries (though globalisation was already putting great strains on the way Britain worked and might have done the job anyway since workers in other countries were prepared to work harder for less money), broke up state monopolies in telecoms, utilities and transport and made all forms of work a ‘service’ for ‘consumers of services’ whose primary motivation was deemed to be ‘efficiency’. This fragmenting, individualising vision of society as a network of individual consumers, motivated by a quest for the best service, has a lot of power. Although ‘market thinking’ swept through all the English speaking democracies in the 80s, Thatcher’s strong emotional attachment to these ideas may owe more to her experience in her father’s shop – the film certainly gives those early experiences due credit.
People develop a picture of their social world through words. The Thatcher years saw big changes in what British people thought was desirable and what they thought was possible, changes in thinking which are still with us today and may be her most significant ‘legacy’. A small example from my own working life: across Scotland, local authorities redesignated school education in the language of individualistic consumerism as a ‘service’. For me, this is a misleading designation. School education is a partnership in which teachers, children, parents and the wider community participate, even if not always pulling in the same direction. The language we use makes a difference.
None of this deeper engagement between language, ideas, values, politics, policies, society and community is reflected in the film, but then again it is only 11/2 hours long! As I said above, what you take out of it will depend on what you bring to it. … For the vast majority of today’s British consumers, what they bring may be an apathetic disinterest. It certainly wasn’t the most popular film in Stirling – most of the crowds seemed to be going into the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Sherlock Holmes. That’s a reminder to me that Thatcher didn’t create the consumer society, but her words and her actions helped deliver its cultural dominance.