The old aphorism is that all politics is local, but Meryl Streep – in a performance remarkable even for Meryl Streep – demonstrates that politics is personal, a reflection of the character of the person involved in it.
The Iron Lady begins with an elderly and frail Thatcher, unrecognized as she shops in a small grocery store, and periodically circles back to portray the career of the grocer’s daughter who changed the world, with the film always returning to Thatcher in the present, alone in the world. Perhaps the movie is intended as a slight to Thatcher – see, look at her now. Perhaps it is making a less tendentious point – power is ephemeral, we are all headed toward a lonely end. But almost in spite of itself, the film shows a deeper truth: the person may fade, but the accomplishments of character endure.
In her brilliant reflection on what Thatcher accomplished, “There is No Alternative” – Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, Claire Berlinski writes that “Margaret Thatcher often seemed like an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of Margaret Thatcher.” If so, The Iron Lady reflects an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of an exceptionally gifted actress playing the role of a lifetime. Thatcher was character in motion; Streep plays a character who exemplified character. It is an exhilarating performance. But the truth is even more amazing.
In 1979, the year Thatcher came to power, Western countries were struggling with crippling stagflation; they were burdened with oil prices that had quadrupled since 1973 and high levels of taxation; Soviet and Chinese proxies had expelled the United States from Vietnam, overthrown governments in Latin America, seized power in multiple countries in Africa and the Arabian peninsula; American diplomats were held hostage in Iran, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a possible prelude to a further move into Saudi Arabia. Jimmy Carter’s responses were a malaise speech, a warning against “our inordinate fear of Communism,” and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
In Britain, the social and economic situation was especially dire. Unemployment was high and inflation out of control; people felt society was breaking down; the economy was controlled by unions, strikes were rampant, the currency had been devalued, public services were shabby, taxes were confiscatory, per capita income was half that of the countries Britain had saved or defeated in World War II. It was, as Thatcher had said in a 1976 speech, “close to midnight.”
In 1977, two years before she became prime minister, Margaret Thatcher gave a speech titled “The New Renaissance,” which presaged the themes she would use in her campaign two years later:
In spite of our present difficulties, Britain’s future need not be at all gloomy. For the very ills which beset us seem to be creating their own antidotes. People of all backgrounds are casting off socialist illusions in the light of socialist reality, and are coming round to our viewpoint. This is the end of the trend to the Left, and the starting point of a new renaissance. …
We need a free economy not only for the renewed material prosperity it will bring, but because it is indispensable to individual freedom, human dignity and to a more just, more honest society. We want a society where people are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. This is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the State is responsible for everything …
Then Thatcher gave her view of “the fundamental change in direction which I believe is about to occur”:
I bring you optimism rooted in present-day experience. … It is becoming increasingly obvious to many people who were intellectual socialists that socialism has failed to fulfill its promises, both in its more extreme forms in the Communist world, and in its compromise versions. The tide flows away from failure. But it will not automatically float us to our desired destination. There have been tides before, which were not taken, opportunities which were lost, turning points which came and went. I do not believe that history is writ clear and unchallengeable. It doesn’t just happen. History is made by people: its movement depends on small currents as well as great tides, on ideas, perceptions, will and courage. … If we fail, the tide will be lost. But if it is taken, the last quarter of our century can initiate a new renaissance matching anything in our island’s long and outstanding history. …
[T]hough important, [material prosperity] is not the main issue. The main issues are moral. …The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice. The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior. It is superior because it starts with the individual, with his uniqueness, his responsibility, and his capacity to choose. … We have a ready audience … ready to examine our arguments on their merits. The opportunity is ours if we can grasp it instead of meeting the Socialists half-way.
During her 1979 campaign, Thatcher gave a speech that reached back to the Bible to inspire her supporters:
The Old Testament prophets didn’t go out into the highways saying, “Brothers, I want consensus.” They said, “This is my faith and my vision! This is what I passionately believe!” And they preached it. We have a message. Go out, preach it, practice it, fight for it – and the day will be ours!
How likely was it that a female in a male-dominated political world, a lower-middle class person in a class-controlled society, someone who learned her economics from her father’s grocery business (and whose policies were thus based “not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up on”), would successfully transform a socialist country, through free markets, deregulation, lower tax rates, reduced government spending, and privatization, defeating the stranglehold on the economy held by powerful unions, ultimately serving eleven years and living to see successors in both parties continue her policies? The Iron Lady gives a hint at what caused this result: her character.
In Britain today, she is widely regarded as one of the greatest prime ministers, a “giantess of our time,” but she is also still resented by miners and other workers whose union-guaranteed jobs she destroyed (or rather allowed a free economy to eliminate). The shift from a socialist society to a capitalist one was painful, and as Berlinski notes, the “collateral damage” was considerable, often consisting of people whose jobs or industries never came back. As the title of her book indicates, Berlinski argues persuasively that there was no alternative. But this short video of a 1990 Thatcher colloquy in the House of Commons shows the issues are still with us now.
Thatcher requires no hero worship; she was an iron lady, not sort of God. She did not run with three-word, content-free slogans promising hope and change, or that oceans would recede. She would have also scorned politicians who were essentially managers (particularly if their views varied with the particular office they hoped to manage). She was Churchillian in her willingness to tell the electorate what it faced, and thus what it needed to do. Her view was that “Utopia never comes, because we know we should not like it if it did,” and she trusted in a free economy even if, by definition, she could not control or predict where it would go.
In one of her last colloquies in the House of Commons, she summarized her years as follows:
Eleven years ago, we rescued Britain from the parlous state to which socialism had brought it. I remind the House that, under socialism, this country had come to such a pass that one of our most able and distinguished ambassadors felt compelled to write in a famous dispatch, a copy of which found its way into The Economist, the following words: “We talk of ourselves without shame as being one of the less prosperous countries of Europe. The prognosis for the foreseeable future,” he said in 1979, was “discouraging.”
Conservative government has changed all that. Once again, Britain stands tall in the councils of Europe and of the world, and our policies have brought unparalleled prosperity to our citizens at home. In the past decade, we have given power back to the people on an unprecedented scale. We have given back control to people over their own lives and over their livelihood—over the decisions that matter most to them and their families. We have done it by curbing the monopoly power of trade unions to control, even to victimize, the individual worker. … We have done it by giving people choice in public services—which school is right for their children, which training course is best for the school leaver, which doctor they choose to look after their health and which hospital they want for their treatment.
A later colloquy in that same session went as follows:
The Prime Minister: … Because individuals and families have more power and more choice, they have more opportunities to succeed—2 million more jobs than in 1979, better rewards for hard work, income tax down from 33p in the pound to 25p in the pound and no surcharge on savings income. Living standards are up by a third and 400,000 new businesses have been set up since 1979—more than 700 every week. There is a better future for our children, thanks to our hard work, success and enterprise. Our people are better off than ever before. The average pensioner——
Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the right hon. Lady give way?
The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman will just listen, he might hear something that he did not know. The average pensioner now has twice as much to hand on to his children as he did 11 years ago. They are thinking about the future. This massive rise in our living standards reflects the extraordinary transformation of the private sector.
The video linked above is from this colloquy, and picks up right after the above statement by Thatcher, continuing with Mr. Simon Hughes’ response and Thatcher’s reply. If you watch it, you will appreciate how the transcript fails to convey fully her impact.
The Iron Lady, in between portrayals of Thatcher in her current condition, portrays the political challenges she faced and the courage it took to face them. In a reversal of what the filmmakers may have intended, it is the latter portrayals that will remain with viewers. The movie may or may not be a political film, but it demonstrates what politics needs above all: persons of character. Watch the video, see the movie, read the Berlinski book.