An old woman stumbles into the shop of an Asian grocer and peers quizzically at the price of milk. Indian music blares from the speakers as a large African smirks with the usual blend of contempt and hostility at the white slag fumbling with her pence at the counter. She shuffles home through the dirty streets, passing dull-eyed denizens of the metropolis, and complains to her husband about rising prices as they sit to a modest breakfast. Only after another woman enters the kitchen do we discover that Lady Thatcher is talking to herself, a prisoner in her own home and of her own memories. Like Britain herself, she has been buried alive.
The Iron Lady is a film about the ghosts of people, issues, and a nation long since vanished. It has little to do with Margaret Thatcher's accomplishments, beliefs, or time in office. Instead, most of the movie is spent watching an old demented woman scurry about her modest quarters in conversation with the shade of her dead husband. Occasionally, it shifts from clumsily executed biopic to outright horror. In one particularly disturbing scene, Lady Thatcher frantically turns on all the appliances in her house to drown out the hectoring of her dead husband. Denis Thatcher stares at his wife's back from within a mirror, as Lady Thatcher desperately pleads with herself to turn away from madness. The camera zooms in and out with one wild cut after another. Such a mood fits The Exorcism of Emily Rose or Paranormal Activity. So much for those who came to the theater to see a movie about the Conservative Party.
As a portrayal of a living woman, it is sickening and without excuse. Obviously, this kind of treatment is limited only to someone who is right of center. Can anyone imagine a biopic focusing on a senile Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks? To ask the question is to answer it. Even as the issues Thatcher championed have faded, as "New Labour" and other left-wing parties reconciled themselves to a diminished role for the unions, the rage against the Iron Lady is constant and enduring and the controversy about her continues. Websites have been set up to commemorate her death with a party, the comment boards on videos and articles about her are filled with furious vulgarity and loathing directed at woman who hasn't been in power for 20 years, and even the Conservative Party has backed away from “Thatcherism,” as much as they can, even to the point of changing the Party's logo from a flaming torch to a tree seemingly drawn by a child.
Out with the old, in with the green.
The result is that in some way, the portrait of a defeated and dying woman is the only kind of tribute the Kali Yuga can pay to a figure of importance who came from the wrong side. Meryl Streep (whose mimicry is skilled, but what of it?) sets the tone with the usual comment along the lines of "of course, I don't agree with her evil politics, but this portrayal makes her sympathetic." Similarly, the chattering class of Britain in the press and online have come to terms with this portrayal of Thatcher precisely because it shows the Iron Lady at her lowest point. Thatcher is, of course, racist, a traitor to woman, an enemy of workers, a woman who made people starve and completely destroyed Britain. As a human being, however, she is sympathetic because she is dying. In a culture where the highest value is self-loathing, this is perhaps the most a conservative can hope for.
The movie also does its best to turn Thatcher into a symbol of identity politics. The young Thatcher lectures her husband (just after he has proposed no less) that "one's life must matter...beyond the cooking and the cleaning and the children, one's life must mean more than that." A young Thatcher dressed in bright blue and heels enters Parliament for the first time and is contrasted with the stereotypically stern aristocratic British men in dark suits who just strolled over from being evil in The King's Speech. All gaze at her in astonishment, although the first woman in Parliament had already taken her seat 30 years before. Ominously, the "Members" room has urinals, while the "Lady Members" room contains an iron. Obviously, we are supposed to think Lady Thatcher should have forgotten all this silliness about the collapsing economy and championed the sitzpinkler movement. As Steep herself observes, what is important about Thatcher is not anything she did (which was all evil) but that a woman was elected in "gender biased, homophobic, class-ridden England." Movement conservatives, of course, don't believe the movie is feminist enough.
What did Margaret Thatcher do? Well, we really never really find out. She confronted the unions...but why this matters or what was the outcome is never really explained. We know it is incredibly controversial but the military-style planning Thatcher used to humble the trade unions is ignored and the entire subject simply peters out. Then we jump straight into the Falklands War, which gives Thatcher the popularity needed to carry out the rest of her program. However, again, why the decision was difficult, why there was opposition, and why Thatcher made the difference as opposed to anyone else being in charge is not explained.
After the Falklands, prosperity magically comes to Britain (again, no explanation why) and Thatcher rules for a lengthy period of time—during which nothing apparently happens. There is a shot of perhaps three seconds of Margaret Thatcher dancing with a tuxedoed Ronald Reagan, but that's all the mention the "second most important man in my life" will get. Just them dancing around somehow causes the Berlin Wall to crumble. Rather than a tour through history, we are a treated to a montage out of Rocky IV...or maybe even Team America: World Police. Even Thatcher's collapse is reduced to the petty and the personal, as her colleagues seemingly betray her because she yelled at them, not because of any policy differences. Thatcher's warnings about increasing European centralization and fiscal union, a subject as timely as ever, is all but ignored aside from a brief comment about the UK not being "ready for it."
Such a treatment is perhaps inevitable because the issues that motivated Thatcher have become all but irrelevant. The best that can be said of Thatcher is that she confronted, and to some extent defeated, the primary challenge of her time by frustrating the British Left's attempt to turn the sceptered isle into a grim Airstrip One of Brezhnev bureaucracy and overwhelming state ownership of the economy. The Iron Lady contains one notable scene of an enraptured Thatcher watching her father speak of the virtue of a "nation of shopkeepers"; later, Thatcher speaks of the small businessman's proud rejection of noblesse oblige. Of course, Thatcher's libertarian rhetoric about there being “no such thing as society" belied her electoral dependence on a British traditionalism she did not identify with. Despite the fact that she in large partowed her rise to power to a thinly veiled critique of non-White immigration (and spoke even more frankly about the subject in private), Thatcher did precious little to stop the demographic transformation of the United Kingdom, the transformation of the British Empire into a mere satrap of the United States (or even worse, the European Union), and the eradication of the culture and identity of the British people.
Just as American conservatism of even the Russell Kirk variety was gradually replaced with a deracinated defense of "values," so did Thatcher ground her politics in abstractions rather than in a sense of British identity. When Enoch Powell commented to her that he would fight for Britain even if it were under a Communist government and that values "can not be fought for, nor destroyed" because they exist beyond space and time, Thatcher was literally rendered speechless. Thatcher represented the “Americanization” not just of the British economy but of conservative politics, and the result was inevitable retreat and failure on cultural issues, as in the United States.
Even her economic reforms can be seen with the advantage of hindsight as, at best, a rearguard action. While outright state control over the economy may have been blunted, the fall of trade-union power may have been inevitable. The larger concern is that as with the "Reagan Revolution" and later "Republican Revolution" within the United States, Thatcher's Conservatives failed to cut the growth of government or the ever increasing share of government spending that went to the welfare state. By saving British socialism from itself but ceding to the hard Left control of the commanding heights of the culture by defining conservatism purely as economic, Thatcher made "Cool Britannia" and its all encompassing political correctness possible.
Even victory in the Falklands may have simply postponed the inevitable, as Britain's military position has seriously declined and Argentina is simply biding its time to reclaim the Malvinas. Viewing contemporary debates over a national army for an independent Scotland and the Union Jack condemned as controversial because Blacks think it's racist, Thatcher's call to make "Great Britain great again" seems almost tragic. As London is no longer an English city and the governments of the West are girded for seemingly permanent economic decline, it is hard not to view Thatcher's story as irrelevant.
One can imagine an alternate British history with Enoch Powell as Prime Minister laying the foundation for a sustainable traditionalist Right that would preserve the long-term existence of British identity, culture, and economic power. Instead, we had the transformation of Toryism to American classical liberalism, and therefore its inevitable (and perhaps intended) defeat. With Thatcher's accomplishments alternatively co-opted or undone with the passage of time, what is left? To the emerging post-Britain, she'll be linked to the evil racist past, a bump on the road to Equality, her policies bluntly summarized as supporting the "rich people."
To the official conservatism of the rump Britain, she'll be a symbol of the Good Old Days of Conservative victories against unsympathetic statist enemies, with troubling questions about immigration, culture, and the long-term impact of her policies abstracted away and easily avoided. Of course, to official opinion, even harmless nostalgia can not be tolerated. Would that there was a real British Right to come to the same conclusion!
Tuesday, 31 January 2012
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