Wednesday 7 December 2011

Janet Albrechtsen | The Iron Lady

Sadly no sign of Iron Lady here

Against a background of economic chaos in Europe, there is no better time for a movie about  Margaret Thatcher. With profligate, supine governments still coming to terms with the damage wrought by their high-spending, big government policies, Thatcher could teach them a thing or two about conviction, political courage and how to turn a sclerotic economy into something dynamic.

Sadly, The Iron Lady, to be released in Australia on December 26, won't kick-start that belated education. Indeed, those wanting to understand the Thatcher era should steer clear of Phyllida Lloyd's latest movie. The director of Mamma Mia! seems better suited to daft, sing-song love stories than deft, objective history-telling. Perhaps it's all that time inventing make-believe scenes and pretending to be someone you aren't that explains why the world of arts is filled with dreamy left-wing types.

If George Clooney wants to use his latest movie, The Ides of March, to espouse his progressive beliefs and disdain for modern-day politics, that's his business. If a British playwright wants to suggest on stage that Thatcher should be "draped in a burka and stoned", as T.J. Rogers does in his play Blood and Gifts, no doubt plenty of Thatcher-haters will fill the theatre. But when a filmmaker makes a movie about a real-life political figure, is it too much to ask that some semblance of history is respected? That's especially the case when taxpayers are partly funding a director's dalliance with history. The UK Film Council, an arts quango abolished by David Cameron last year, awarded the filmmakers pound stg. 1 million ($1.5m).

The director is adamant the film about Thatcher, prime minister from 1979 to 1990, is not a "biopic". It is "not a political film, it doesn't say 'this was wrong or that was right' in terms of policy. It's a human story," Lloyd says. Human, it may be, as the brilliant Meryl Streep depicts Thatcher as a doddering, demented woman, hallucinating about the past. However, by inserting real-life coverage from the Thatcher era, the filmmakers pretend that the film shows a slice of history. Alas, The Iron Lady flits between too much fantasy and too little fact. Moments of humour cannot hide the fact Thatcher caricatures abound. There's Maggie, the ambitious career woman, neglecting her husband, speeding away in her car while her distressed children run after her as she heads to the House of Commons. And Maggie, the ideologue, unbending in her beliefs, cold in her politics and hectoring and haranging, in the House of Commons or the Cabinet room.

And, of course, Maggie, the monster, slashing public spending, closing schools, creating a new generation of millionaires, ignoring the poor and unemployed and trashing workers' rights in her crusade against the trade union movement. Did we really need a blockbuster movie to tell us that Thatcher is despised by the Left?

In fact, Lloyd's The Iron Lady bears little resemblance to the prime minister so well described in the eight-part series produced by ITN in 2007, in which the more nuanced story of Thatcher's prime ministership is told. Norman Tebbit, a minister under Thatcher who worked closely with the former PM, agrees. Thatcher was tough, committed and expected high standards from herself and her colleagues. But Tebbit maintains "she was never, in my experience, the half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep".

Having described Thatcher as "the most significant female leader this country has had since Elizabeth I", it's a shame the director of The Iron Lady did not feel compelled to depict the reality of Thatcher's legacy. Instead, the movie falls back on shallowness, showing newspaper headlines decrying "Profits, profits, profits" and "Maggie's millionaires".

Some facts, please. Thatcher came to power with a clear agenda: reducing inflation, encouraging home ownership, cutting taxes and the size of the state, freeing up the labor market and reducing trade union power. Under Thatcher spending was reined back because, as Geoffrey Howe, former chancellor and Thatcher's longest serving cabinet minister, reflects in the ITN series, Britain had to borrow more money at increasingly high interest rates to fund its massive spending. Sound familiar? Europe is now paying for its failure to do as Thatcher did more than 30 years ago.

After stale state-owned industries were privatised, customer service and efficiencies soared and, yes, so did profits. Thatcher told the 1989 party conference that "five industries that together were losing over pound stg. 2m a week in the public sector (are) now making profits of over pound stg. 100m a week in the private sector". Deregulation of the economy created three million new jobs between 1983 and 1990. When Thatcher liberated the aspirational classes, the revolution was palpable: by 1989, three million people were self-employed.

Under Thatcher, workplaces were returned to the workers and management. The Western world's first female prime minister took on union leaders who almost weekly held the country to ransom, most famously during the Winter of Discontent in 1978. Thatcher outlawed secondary pickets and the closed shop rules and introduced compulsory ballots, which remain. Even after more than a decade of Labour rule, Thatcher's reforms largely remain intact. You won't learn that from the movie. Or this: in 1979, 29.5 million days were lost to industrial strife. By 1989, that had dropped to 1.9 million.

On Europe, Thatcher was ahead of history. She ruffled European feathers in Bruges in 1988 when she announced: "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels."

It is hard to avoid a wry smile listening to Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke in the 2007 ITN series on Thatcher castigate the former prime minister for her "blind spot" on Europe. Like most people, Thatcher had her flaws, both personal and policy-wise. She was a formidable, domineering foe. The poll tax was a mistake. And as Charles Moore writes in this month's Atlantic Monthly, by opposing the unification of Germany, Thatcher was on the wrong side of history. But like very few people, especially those in politics, Thatcher's legacy is she transformed the landscape for the better, dragging the Left to the sensible centre and exposing socialism as an abject failure for human progress.

The film's failure to pay credit where it's due means it ought to be relegated to the realm of pure fiction. Which is a shame because, more than any other political leader, Britain's longest serving PM has a story that ought to be studiously learned by a whole swathe of modern-day politicians.

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