New Film Reminds Us We Could Use a Dose of Margaret Thatcher Today
Take pride in being British, the Iron Lady said with vehemence. What a tonic it would be for Americans to believe that today about ourselves. But we are led by a febrile hologram, not a person of character like Margaret Thatcher, who prevented the once-mighty British from sliding into third-world status by ascending to 10 Downing Street in 1979. She served until 1990 -- becoming the longest-serving prime minister since the office was created 300 years ago.
As if a cosmic strand of DNA entwined Helen Mirren to replicate Elizabeth II in the convincing and informative film The Queen, Meryl Streep -- though American -- slides into the fiery persona of Maggie Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady as if she had been predestined to play the role. The movie has some annoying aspects. Scenes are arranged in the present day that include the ghost of husband Dennis, who died in 2003. But in the flashbacks, Baroness Thatcher's indomitable personality shines through the muddle in some quite good enactments of her career.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, with a little help from Mikhail Gorbachev, actually saved the world by applying qualities both cultures once admired -- and appeared to have forgotten after the cultural chaos of the 1960s and the ensuing disintegration of the values that made both nations great. The two leaders resurrected the word "principle," manifested in action by doing what is "right" when confronted with wrong.
Reagan said "tear down this Wall," and Thatcher was his key ally in the successful strategy that ended the existence of the USSR in 1991, causing the Soviet press to name her the Iron Lady. What is sadly not known is the role of KGB Colonel Oleg Gordeivsky, who began working as a double-agent on behalf of Britain in 1968. No one knew then that Gordeivsky was supplying Thatcher -- who shared the data with Reagan -- information on Soviet weakness and internal strife that pushed Gorbachev to close down the communist regime in Russia. (For reference, read KGB: The Inside Story by Gordeivsky and Cambridge intelligence scholar Christopher Andrew.)
But it was a much smaller global confrontation that saved Thatcher's position and elevated her to superstar status: the attack by Argentina to capture the miniscule Falkland Islands in 1982. When asked by the decadent and defeatist press how the U.K., diminished since the loss of empire and sinking into socialist atrophy, could dare to stand up to the Argentines, Thatcher replied that "it is a matter of honor." She called the aggressors a "fascist gang" who stole what belonged to Britain. "I want them back," she added in her best schoolmarm majesty.
As the only columnist and editor in the U.S. who backed Britain and Thatcher in their determination to fight ("a matter of principle," said Thatcher), it amazes me today that the U.S. did not support its greatest ally in this moment of need. Even U.S. Senator Jesse Helms,Thatcher's great friend and fellow conservative, publicly backed the Argentine junta, motivated by his role as chairman of the subcommittee on Latin America of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The film leaves out this insult by America, but there is a scene depicting an emergency meeting with Thatcher and U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who flew to London to attempt to bring Maggie to her senses. He failed when she calmly stared him down and said, "Hawaii was thousands of miles from the U.S. when it was attacked by the Japanese, and yet you declared war. So have I."
Another side story, one of the dozens omitted from the film, involves the actions of Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who used back-channel methods to supply Britain with Sidewinder missiles to attach to their Harrier jump-jets that were proving ineffective against Argentine French-made Mirage jets armed with Exocets. Weinberger was later honored with a knighthood for his crucial contributions to the British victory. (Read Weinberger's Fighting For Peace for more.)
The Falklands win saved Thatcher's job, endangered during her first three years by overpowering opposition, especially the particularly virulent British Trades Unions. The arrogant labor leaders called for strike after strike to counter Thatcher's philosophy of small business virtues and the need for workers to stand on their own initiative rather than rely on organized labor's insistence on higher wages for less work.
The Labour Party in U.K. was exactly that back then, a trades union affair that lost influence at the polls by insisting on Article 4 of the Party constitution that called for the ownership of goods and services to be placed in their hands -- what we call communism, or at least the "syndicalist" variety. (Tony Blair was able to have Clause 4 deleted, creating the New Labour Party that won a majority in Parliament in 1997 by defeating Thatcher's successor, John Major.)
But in the early 1980s, the unions held the U.K. hostage with a series of violent strikes. Trash bins lined the streets, coal miners tried to freeze out homes, and businesses and public transportation were regularly closed down. Thatcher refused to budge in her insistence that inflated wages must come to ground as a key dimension in her policy to place a tourniquet on public spending.
Labour governments -- back as far as 1945, at war's end, when Winston Churchill was replaced with the socialist Clement Atlee -- created the welfare state, the National Health Service, and devastating policies allowing immigrants from former British colonies and dominions to enter the country. Government deficits swelled, and capitalist initiative was nearly terminated by high taxes and government regulation. Before Thatcher, the "Great" was fading from the term Great Britain -- as Maggie so well put it.
Compounding the battles with unions, during the 1979 election, Lord Mountbatten -- a member of the royal family, a revered naval hero, and the last Viceroy of India before partition in 1947 -- was killed with five others (including 14-year-old twin boys of the family and a 15-year-old local boy) by the Irish Republican Army in a bomb-attack on his cabin cruiser, the Shadow 5, running off the West coast of the Republic of Ireland. Thatcher's close associate and MP Airy Neave was the victim of an IRA car bomb in London later in the year. The carnage by the IRA was intended to take down the Thatcher government. In 1984, Thatcher herself and her husband Dennis nearly died when an IRA bomb was set off at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton.
The IRA and its various mutant terrorist cadres ceased their violent bombing campaigns only in 2005, in reaction to the 9-11 attacks on the U.S. News reports said they saw themselves in the mirror when gazing at Muslim terrorism. In 2010, the book Defend The Realm was published, drawing on access to all the secret files of MI5, the British security service (again, written by Christopher Andrew) revealing that the IRA had been financed from the 1960s by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Moammar Gaddafi, and Irish-Americans.
Thatcher, the grocer's daughter, grasped her iconic pocketbook and stood up to the unions and the IRA. And with the Falklands wind at her back, she led Great Britain into a new era of self-confidence and economic health. She also had the foresight to keep distance from European Union monetary policy, a decision that should be receiving praise today in Britain. But praise for Thatcher came rarely. The medicine she made the country swallow was hard to take, even if it cured the maladies and revived the patient.
Even during her time as PM, she was continually the victim of backbiting and condescending innuendo by the press, the opposition benches, and members of her own party and cabinet. The gravest insult came from Oxford, her own university, which refused her an honorary degree -- the first time a prime minister had been denied the accolade.
She called her enemies within her own party the "wets," announcing at a Cabinet meeting that if they didn't agree with her spending and tax cuts, they could move across the Channel to Calais and pay the French government 85% of their earnings. When asked by the press what she did when her close advisers thwarted her policies, she answered simply: "I withdraw my love."
And today, at age 86 -- styled Baroness Thatcher and a member of the House of Lords -- controversy has arisen over plans to provide the Iron Lady with a state funeral. As if to regenerate the controversy she caused within her own party, the Conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper objects to the honor. The paper states that only royal family members (above politics, you know), military heroes, and a scant four PMs have been so elevated, including Churchill as leader during World War 2. But did not Thatcher play a key role in winning the Cold War? Did she not defeat the Argentines in the Falklands? Save Britain from certain economic decline? Restore national pride?
Ah, say her detractors, she was divisive and irritated union thugs and Tory toffs and so should not receive a state funeral. But she is more deserving than anyone since Churchill because she did what she thought was right for Britain -- and succeeded, no matter if people disagreed with her decisions.
But the Baroness realizes that people "spend too much time feeling and not thinking." And as for political leaders, too many "want to be something rather than do something." She thought hard about how to save her nation -- and she did it.