On Friday night I joined several of my more virulently radical comrades at a showing of Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady. The film split opinions amongst my our little gang of leftists. Perhaps this is predictable - any film about the perennial hate pin-up and sometime Prime-Minister was always going to be controversial. Yet I ended the night wondering why so many of my friends so disliked what was, at worst, a fairly harmless film.
The occasionally unseemly battle for Thatcher’s legacy has been in full swing since she left office, but undoubtedly found new legs when Gordon Brown tried to forestall allegations of sense by suggesting the old brute be treated to a state funeral. Since then the tug of war over how Thatcher should be remembered has become rather ill mannered on both sides. This film, by contrast, seeks to explore Thatcher as though this fierce contest did not exist: portraying her primarily as a frail old woman, her mind leaving her, consumed by visions of the past. The response has been predictable. Miners wives have formed pickets outside cinemas showing the flick, while the Prime-Minister himself has said that he believes that “this film is wrong at a time when Thatcher is still going on” (or something like that).*
Shortly after seeing it, I described the Iron Lady as “Downfall without the happy ending”. I wasn’t just doing this to wave an anti-Thatcher flag (though my anti-Thatcher flag is lovely and ripples beautifully when unfurled in the current political winds). While Thatcher is a more controversial and divisive figure than Adolf Hitler, both films seek to paint their protagonists as human, contrary to the instincts of the audience. Whether she is lionized or demonized, Thatcher is almost never seen as just a person, making flawed choices at the centre of a corrupt and compromised system.
A lot of us on the left would have enjoyed watching Thatcher portrayed as a bloody-fanged tyrant, warped with un-earned power. Such a portrayal would have reinforced our historic assumptions about her, but it would not have done much good beyond that. Thatcher the monster may be how we’d like her to be portrayed, but the sense of the superhuman that invokes serves our opponents, too. Great leaders (in either sense) must appear larger than their subjects. By robbing her of this quality, the film robs her of that which would excuse her more criminal behavior – from sinking the Belgrano, to letting Irish dissidents starve to death in her care.
In her life and career, Thatcher always sought to portray herself as above conventional criticism. This may be one of the factors that has allowed our rhetoric (in, for example, wishing death on an old woman) to surpass what is normally acceptable. If the person you are attacking is not truly human, what you say about them does not need to conform to human standards of decency. I have said abhorrent things about Thatcher (not more abhorrent than, say, threatening a nuclear strike on Argentina, but still) and felt entitled to do so, for this very reason. After watching this film, I wonder if that this natural approach is the right one.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should feel one iota of sympathy for the vile old bat. Indeed, seeing her losing her mind to one of the most unpleasant diseases imaginable only made me yearn even more for the moment she’ll be put out of her misery. Yet I’m reminded of the time, a little way into George Bush’s junior's second term, when a startling and terrifying revelation hit me. Of the two caricatures we had made of this reprehensible man – of a malevolent despot and a buffoon – only one was close to the truth. We truly had an idiot in charge of the free world. The moral judgment we were making of him were not relevant, as he did not have the capacity to be otherwise. Perhaps we should come to see Thatcher as the same – not evil, just catastrophically wrong – and save our energy for undoing the damage she’s done.