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Meryl plays Maggie

Author: Gabriel Hershman Date: Fri, Jan 13 2012 2528 Views
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The delectable Meryl Streep – somehow many shades more desirable than the real Iron Lady* – looks a shoo-in for the Oscar for her portrayal of the now ailing former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

I make the point about her appearance because Streep, in the best Hollywood tradition, is always slightly alluring with her peaches and cream complexion. The real Lady Thatcher – despite the protestations of even her most fervent admirers including the sex-crazed, late Alan Clark – was not exactly "hot". But then again the real Erin Brockovich was not as sexy as Julia Roberts, the real sister Helen Prejean not as seductive as Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, the real Gandhi not as...er...fetching as Ben Kingsley. Well, you get my gist.

Anyway, the Iron Lady has once more split British audiences, creating the same geographical divide that marked Thatcher's era in office. Cinemagoers in the south have queued up to get a nostalgic glimpse of the days when Britain had a "strong" ruler. In the north it would appear that some former acolytes of former National Union of Mineworkers president Arthur Scargill have retrieved their dusty "coal not dole" banners from 1984 and launched a picket outside cinemas.

I was a callow youth in the Thatcher era, probably self-identifying as left of centre – not socialist exactly – but certainly not Thatcherite either.

It has to be said, however, that few of Thatcher's reforms were reversed by subsequent governments or are ever likely to be.  Even "Red Ed" is unlikely to repeal trade union legislation or impose swingeing tax rises or re-nationalise privatised industries were he to defy the pundits and ever subject the Downing Street tea lady to his irritating voice.

Knockouts
Thatcher defeated all her opponents. I include former Tory leader Ted Heath who viewed Thatcher as a temporary blip in his leadership and seemed convinced that the party would, one day, return to its senses. When it didn't he proceeded to sulk for the next 30 years. Then there was Jim Callaghan (who bragged that Labour "has just won the next election" when Thatcher ousted Heath in 1975), the magnificently romantic but doomed Michael Foot who was annihilated at the 1983 election and Neil Kinnock who was totally outclassed by Thatcher in very encounter at prime minister's question time. Not to mention Scargill who was even more hated than Thatcher and far less respected.

My own opposition to Thatcher – for the record – was not that her whole ideology was the greatest evil threatening the UK since Hitler – which seemed to be Kinnock's view – but simply on certain policies. The minimum wage was a case in point. Back in 1990, for example, unskilled workers were only earning three pounds an hour. How could we defend that when millionaires were getting so many breaks and when taxpayers had to prop up those on very low wages anyway?

Chemistry
The Thatcher era, however, is now LONG gone. And yet so many people seem  to go bonkers when her name is mentioned. Streep herself has delivered the usual mink coat liberal condemnation of Thatcher's policies. Hollywood would probably have ostracised her if she had said anything else. Exactly what policies did she oppose? I bet many who profess to hate Thatcher would now be hard pressed to come up with anything at all bar the poll tax.

My hunch is that a different person implementing exactly the same policies would not have been so hated. We are influenced by a person's chemistry, by subliminal messages, even before a sentence is uttered. Thatcher's icy, penetrating stare, that emphatic, imperious manner, the cutglass, slightly precious voice, her refusal to mouth the usual pretty platitudes or meet opponents half way – all these made her a hate figure among certain vested interests. She was also too self-assured by half.

Thatcher had little interest in the arts. Crucially, this alienated the whole of Britain's "luvvie" theatrical establishment - and Streep would have cottoned on to that. She also had little sense of humour which meant that on the rare occasions she tried to emphasise her human side (on chat shows) she came across as awkward, remote and forced.  A British equivalent of Reagan, on the other hand, would probably have disarmed criticism, so making the "bitter" pills easier to swallow.

Moving on
Thatcher was also controversial simply because she got things done. Most politicians just muddle through and appease their own vested interests while peering at the opinion polls out of the corner of their eyes.

Yet she was never as right-wing as her critics made out. Their pretence that she was somehow "Attila the Hen" is just a ruse to ratchet politics back to the Left and damn social democrats like Tony Blair who refused to reverse her counter-revolution.

It's churlish to deny that Thatcher was a forceful, inspiring leader. Whether she was the titanic leader her closest allies depict her to be is another question entirely. Her opponents were all distinctly flawed - Callaghan too complacent, Foot too unworldly, Kinnock too cocky, Scargill too Stalinist. None were quite in her league.

Perhaps one particular politician was her intellectual peer, however. Recently I watched an interview with Harold Wilson dating from January 1974 at the time of what could be called the first miners strike, just before the so-called Who Governs election. What struck me was Wilson's deftness of touch and his guile. He skilfully blamed the conservatives for strengthening the hand of the extremists, so casting himself as the voice of reason between two intractable forces. It was Thatcher's luck that she never had to fight him in an election.

Old battles cannot, however, be endlessly re-fought. So my advice to those "up north" who are waiting to dance on Thatcher's grave is simply this: move on, realise that Thatcher was a product of her times – leader when Britain's economic decline was a given and painful decisions had to be taken – and get a life. I suspect that most Brits secretly know that the broad thrust of her platform is not reversible. People want to keep most of their earnings, are pleased that they do not have to join a union to secure a particular form of employment and realise that restrictive working practices and overmanning are counter-productive.

So hate Thatcher if you like. That's your prerogative. But, if you do, you must be prepared to debate the policies, not just loathe her because she's a prim lady with a funny hat and cut-glass accent.

*A review of the film itself will appear in a future issue of The Sofia Echo.

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