The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, written by Abi Morgan, starring Meryl Streep
In cinemas now
Film can be a powerful ideological tool. Truth can be manipulated, tyrannies expunged and sympathy conjured for the devil. The Iron Lady, depicting the life and times of former British Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is just such a film.
A generation after Thatcher’s unceremonious dumping by her own party as PM, and as the aging dowager struggles with dementia, the film tries to paint her as a modern-day British hero, struggling against the evils of terrorism, unionism and fascism (the Argentine junta) to deliver Britain into an age of unending prosperity and sunshine.
Iron Lady is a completely uncritical presentation of Thatcher’s legacy, a breathtaking attempt at rewriting history in favour of the Tory icon.
Thatcher is depicted as a Tory outsider, born of humble beginnings, but desperate to deliver genuine “equality of opportunity” to all. Meryl Streep’s Thatcher is a determined reformer, taking on the power of vested interests (whether the toffs of the Tory party or the unions) in the name of Britain’s shopkeepers and other hard-working folk.
The film tries to rehabilitate Thatcher’s entire political legacy, even those aspects that her own party has tried to quietly walk away from.
The sinking of the Argentinean warship General Belgrano, during the brief but brutal British war to recapture the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands in 1982, even though the ship was heading away from the British-imposed exclusion zone around the islands, was justified because the ship may have been going to change course. More than 300 people died.
The wrecking of British industry, the creation of 3 million unemployed and the destruction of entire communities in the north of England is justified by the subsequent prosperity generated for some as Britain became the financial centre of Europe.
The film even tries to justify the notorious poll tax, a deeply regressive tax under which all British residents were to pay the same tax, regardless of income or wealth. The huge popular campaign against the poll tax made it practically inoperable, and forced its withdrawal by Thatcher’s Tory successor, John Major.
Not that there’s any hint of that in the film; Streep’s Thatcher simply says that it’s necessary, because everyone must pay something for the privilege of living in Britain!
Opposition to Thatcher is caricatured. The mass protests against mine closures in England and against the poll tax are simply shown as violent riots. The only articulate opposition to Thatcher in the film is parliamentary, in the form of British Labour Party leader Michael Foot.
In the fashion of all conservative films made after 9/11, much is made of Thatcher’s opposition to terrorism - in this case the Irish struggle against British occupation. The film focuses on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing campaign within Britain - particularly the attack on the Tory Party conference at Brighton in southern England in October 1984.
Thatcher is painted as a hero standing up against the Irish bullies, rather than the principal organiser of Irish oppression. The shameful persecution of republican prisoners in the infamous H-Block prison in Ireland's north, which culminated in 10 prisoners starving themselves to death in 1981 as Thatcher refused to negotiate over their key demand for political status, barely rates a mention.
The prisoners enjoyed widespread popular support and the first prisoner to die - Bobby Sands - was dramatically elected to parliament from prison during his hunger strike. This humiliation for Thatcher doesn't feature in the film.
The Iron Lady is not content simply to whitewash Thatcher’s legacy. It also seeks to curry sympathy for the devil herself. Throughout much of the film, Thatcher is portrayed as she is now, a demented old woman, struggling to tell the difference between reality and delusion.
Her chats with her dead husband Denis, and her struggle to pack up his belongings seven years after his death, would soften the hardest heart. But Thatcher is not the nice old lady who lives next door. She is not a poor widow, struggling to make ends meet and pay for the heating in her council flat. She’s an icon of the neoliberal movement in Britain and elsewhere; a woman whose government smashed social services, destroyed communities and killed thousands of Argentinean conscripts in an unjust, if popular, war.
The Iron Lady, while well acted and snappily produced, is no more than a falsification of history, intended to rehabilitate Thatcher’s legacy as another Tory government in Britain begins to take the cudgels to whatever remnants of British society that Thatcher left standing.