It’s hard to feel compassion for someone you’ve loathed for a long time. Yet I found myself feeling sorry for Margaret Thatcher last night. I watched The Iron Lady and was riveted by Meryl Streep‘s portrayal. Yes, I know it’s a Hollywood movie and not entirely accurate but I prefer to think of these types of biopics as the film version of impressionist art.
Whatever I thought about Thatcher’s politics, her decisions, her personality, I couldn’t help but think how sad to see such a force become so diminished by dementia. The film gives us a glimpse into how Margaret became the iron lady. Growing up a grocer’s daughter, subject to the strong free market views of her father (who apparently would have preferred a son), rejected by the upper class for her modest roots. Only when she married “a moderately successful middle class businessman” did the Conservative party begin to take her seriously as a possible candidate. Yet each time she won a seat in Parliament, interviewers focused on whether the work was harder for a woman and routinely asked how she would manage to look after her family.
How aggravating that must have been! I could relate. I could admire Maggie’s determination to be judged for her intelligence rather than her gender. Her ability to crack the old boys’ club in Britain was nothing short of astonishing – a woman in the British House of Commons in 1959! A secretary of state by 1961!
Yet she was no friend to women. No friend to families. No friend to working people. Her economic policies devastated working families throughout Britain, sending unemployment to record high levels. Whole communities were destroyed while the wealthy became wealthier. Maggie believed there was no such thing as society, just individuals and their families. And it was up to individuals to pull themselves up by the bootstraps to make a go of things. If they couldn’t? Tough. Hers was a survival of the fittest mentality. She blanketed these beliefs in a fight for freedom.
Not long ago, my husband and I went to see the musical, Billy Elliot. There’s a powerful scene depicting the brutal clashes between police and Britain’s coal miners while Thatcher’s anti-union juggernaut was rolling across the land. We both shed some tears. He recalled being at a union convention in the U.S. when news of the first clashes was reported. It was a devastating time for labour around the world and set the stage for much of what we’re seeing today.
“What is true, of course, is that the seventies saw a crisis of economic power, in which the labour movement was strong enough to block attacks on workers’ interests but not politicized enough to push through an alternative to the failing corporatist model of the postwar years. That’s why the assault on trade unionism was much harsher and the lurch to neoliberalism came earlier in Britain than elsewhere in the advanced capitalist world.”
In other words, labour had failed to find its allies, to build strong communities of interest. It failed to engage working people to stop the Tory majority. It failed to find and support strong, charismatic candidates who could win against Thatcher’s Conservatives. There are lessons here for today’s labour movement.
In Canada, the link between labour and the political left has been tenuous. It’s not been uncommon for strong union towns to elect Conservatives. Only in the last federal election did we begin to see real change, thanks to a leader who was coming into his own and a populace beginning to stir against the growth of neoliberalism. With the untimely loss of Jack Layton, the New Democratic Party is struggling, doing its best to speak for working people and challenge the mean-spirited pro-business policies of the Harper government. But it needs someone to lead. And the contenders are uninspiring. Without a strong leader to pull together a true political left and all of labour, we may find ourselves in a 21st century recreation of Thatcher’s Britain.
I can’t help but wonder what Britain would be like today if Maggie had used her immense power for good. Leaned left instead of right. Danced with Bill Clinton instead of Ronald Reagan (who, incidentally, once called her the best man in England). Believed in a social safety net. In a society where people who can take care of themselves willingly take care of those who can’t. A civilized society.
The assault on labour has gained new life in the West. Neoliberalism is firmly entrenched. Even Mitt Romney has adapted Thatcher’s old campaign slogan and poster, “Labour isn’t Working”, and has parroted her statement that, “ sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money” if you live in a country where people’s taxes go to support the social policies of the left.
If Maggie wasn’t wandering through dementia, she would likely be pleased.
Perhaps I’m less compassionate than I thought.
- Thatcher shaped Labour’s left as much as its right (newstatesman.com)
- Lauren Collins: “The Iron Lady” and Margaret Thatcher’s resurgence. (newyorker.com)
- “The Iron Lady” and Margaret Thatcher’s Legacy (blog-aauw.org)