This is not the kind of comeback Margaret Thatcher would ever have wanted. There was a time, in the wake of her tearful departure from 10 Downing Street in November 1990, when she seemed to be holding on to the dream of recovering Britain’s prime ministership. So dominant had she been for over a decade — dominating both the country’s political scene and the psyche of millions of its citizens — that it would not have been altogether fanciful to imagine her reappearing, in the manner of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, to declaim: “I am big — it’s the politics that got small!”
But the whirligig of time has its ravages, its revenges and its rewards. Now, over two decades later, a film treatment that skilfully intertwines Thatcher’s past career glory and present fading memory, and thus depicts her as both powerful and vulnerable, offers her an unexpected late reprise. The formula — the exploits of a heroic personality shadowed by private tragedy and undone by lesser men — is reliably comforting, the central performance of Meryl Streep an impressive simulacrum. A success in its own terms, then, though any cultural trace will be (I would guess) almost imperceptible.
The baroness will not see, let alone cast any beady-eyed verdict on, The Iron Lady. In any event Margaret Thatcher always did live for politics and had little time for art in whatever form (though her notional favourite poet was the imperial tub-thumper Rudyard Kipling — like her, a great left-hater — and she favoured Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities “with its strong political flavour”). This always marked her as a philistine to many of her adversaries, admittedly a subsidiary item in a long charge sheet. To those with some knowledge of the public world and events the film depicts — if my own reaction is any guide — the film will appear caricatural and depoliticised to an almost unwatchable degree. But if The Iron Lady is thus a minor indication that Margaret Thatcher is becoming ever more a mythic figure, it also invites an effort to look at its subject in the perspective of politics and history.
Margaret Thatcher’s top-rank political career spanned only 20 years, now a shorter period than the one since that red-eyed resignation. For its first decade, moreover — even after she became leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975 following a bold challenge to the managerialist Edward Heath, and arguably even after she led the party to the election victory in May 1979 that made her prime minister — there was little indication of the transformative role she would play.
Margaret Roberts, born in 1925, was raised in the English east midlands market town of Grantham, the daughter of a corner-shop grocer of Methodist religious beliefs and instinct for public service (he served on many local associations, and briefly as the town’s mayor). Her “practical, serious and intensely religious” childhood helped her win a scholarship to Oxford University, from where she graduated in chemistry in 1947 before working as a laboratory researcher, while pursuing her political interests. She contested the national elections of 1950 and 1951 as Conservative candidate in the safe Labour seat of Dartford, south-east of London, meeting her husband Denis on the stump. She gave birth to twins in 1953, the year she also qualified as a barrister specialising in taxation law. The relationships with her father Alfred and with Denis Thatcher (a wealthy manager of a paint firm, unstintingly supportive of his wife’s career) were the vital ones of her life.
Margaret Thatcher became member of parliament for the north London seat of Finchley in 1959, a foot soldier in the Conservatives’ third successive national victory. It had been a long apprenticeship for a young, ambitious, hard-working, self-assured woman seeking advancement in a party whose higher reaches and governing ethos were overwhelmingly male and upper-class (albeit with a vast female membership and a policy orientation that accorded women’s perceived interests a crucial priority). In other respects, however, it was a conventional rise amid propitious family circumstances, in a conformist era in which a woman judged (not least by other women) to be of the right calibre could ascend some way up the greasy pole.
The upper extent of the climb began to be renegotiated as the revolutions of the 1960s — far slower at the time than in mediatised retrospect — got under way. The election of a minority Labour government under the wily Harold Wilson in 1964 ended the Conservatives’ 13-year hegemony, and after its consolidation in 1966 the reformist home secretary Roy Jenkins introduced liberalising reforms (on divorce, homos-xuality, capital punishment and censorship) that began to unlock some damaging social rigidities.