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Sunday 13 November 2016

Backgrounder: The (unattractive) Iron Lady

Posted in: Movies, Features
By Craig Young - 5th January 2012

I'm in two minds about this film. Meryl Streep's performance is flawless, but the subject matter is not particularly attractive. For those too young to remind Margaret Thatcher herself, here's a brief recap.

Born in 1926, Margaret Roberts married Denis Thatcher in 1951. She became Conservative MP for Finchley in 1959. In the early seventies, she served as Minister of Education in the single-term Heath administration, before becoming Leader of the Opposition in 1976. The United Kingdom was caught in a mire of unemployment and economic stagnation, and Thatcher proved a ruthless populist, exploiting right-wing fears about immigration and law and order to win government in 1979 as the first female British Prime Minister. She disavowed feminism and feminists loathed her.

For a while, it seemed as if she would only last a single term herself, in the face of riots and escalating unemployment, but fortuitously, Thatcher was inadvertantly assisted by the Argentine military junta of General Galtieri, which invaded the Falkland Islands in 1983. She exploited that as a nationalist set piece and won the 1984 General Election in a landslide, which she used to launch her privatisation agenda, as well as crushing the Miners Strike in 1984-5. At this point, the film ends, although with a framing flashforward to Thatcher's contemporary life.

Next, it was the turn of the lesbian and gay communities. The Thatcher administration did finance mainstream HIV/AIDS prevention initiatives, but they had to combat draconian censorship policies and a grossly unequal gay male age of consent at twenty-one. The Labour-led Greater London Council was supportive of lesbian and gay rights and some of its boroughs provided inclusive secondary school curricular content. Thatcher abolished the GLC and introduced Clause 28 into the Local Government Act 1988. Clause 28 was never invoked, but it banned the 'promotion of homosexuality' through secondary school curricula and social service provision bans.

Shortly thereafter, though, the stock market crashed and Thatcher's brand of accquisitive greed and obliviousness to social justice began to falter. In the late eighties, she introduced a highly unpopular poll tax and began to turn on her colleagues. The latter engineered a palace coup in 1990 and Thatcher resigned. Elevated to the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher, she encouraged Tory rebels out of resentment against John Major, her successor. With financial and sexual scandals aplenty, renewed economic stagnation and rancorous European policy dissent, the Major administration won re-election in 1992 with a razor-thin majority, which was successively eroded. In 1997, the curtain fell.

Clause 28 had some beneficial results, prompting the formation of the Stonewall lobby group. Major was slightly more sympathetic to LGBT concerns and wanted to appear more centrist, so he supported a gay age of consent reduction to eighteen. However, it was the subsequent Labour Blair administration that undid almost all the immediate inequalities that beset the lives of British lesbians and gay men, equalising the age of consent at sixteen at last, abolishing Clause 28, introducing anti-discrimination laws, civil partnerships and inclusive adoption reform. Ironically, delayed age of consent equality may have led to the rise of greater exposure of that age cohort of gay men to HIV/AIDS in later life.

Thatcher's regime had other consequences. After 1997, the Conservatives were still engaged in interminable schisms over European policy, and populist initiatives over criminal justice, immigration and exploitation of religious social conservatism all came to nothing. The party elected a string of lacklustre leaders and its internal troubles kept it out of office until it finally embraced modernisation under David Cameron in 2008.

In 2010, it became the largest parliamentary party but was deprived of an absolute majority even despite incumbency fatigue within the Brown administration. It was forced into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but Labour usually leads it in the polls. Scotland has only one Conservative MP left and its devolved Scottish Nationalist-led Parliament is planning an independence referendum after the ordeal of economic stagnation and the demise of Scottish heavy industry under Thatcher.

As for Thatcher herself, she lost Denis in 2005 and is currently suffering from Alzheimers. While that would otherwise add an element of pathos, one then remembers what havoc she wrought during her three terms of office, especially Clause 28. It is difficult to raise much compassion for such a subject, and that is my only quibble about this otherwise brilliant big screen biography of one of the most malignant right-wing figures of the eighties.

Craig Young - 5th January 2012

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