Reel Lessons

The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, gets the Hollywood biopic treatment.
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Meryl Streep as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher
<div style="text-align: left;"> Meryl Streep as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher </div>

Is this a movie about maids?
No, it's a movie about Margaret Thatcher, British prime minister during the 1980s. She's the only woman to have held the position and is lovingly remembered by City types of a certain vintage.
I thought the City was a bit of an old boys' club.

Why did they like her?
She was a fan of Nobel-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, whose defence of classical liberalism in The Road to Serfdom paved the way for market reforms in the UK and the US (Ronald Reagan had a thing for both Thatcher and Hayek). The deregulation that Hayek inspired kick-started a boom in financial services jobs and, of course, banker bonuses.

No wonder they dug her. Is that what the movie's about?
Not at all. Thatcher's achievements, if that's the right word, are legion. Her policies inflicted one of the worst recessions in British history, as well as the worst rioting (twice). She sent in the SAS to quash a siege of the Iranian embassy in London and deployed a naval taskforce to the Falkland Isles to repel an invasion by Argentina. And that was just in her first term. But the movie focuses most of all on how she has become a bit dotty in her old age.

How the mighty have fallen...?
That might as well have been the subtitle, except for the fact that it would make the movie seem like a somewhat trite account of one of the world's most influential and enduring political leaders.

Are you saying it's a bit superficial?
Part of the problem is that Maggie stayed in power for so long, and during such a defining period in both British and world history, that there's a lot to cover. At the start of her first term, Britain's economy was a moribund relic of central planning, the Cold War was at its coolest and British influence in world affairs was at a low ebb. By the time she was kicked out of office, Britain had transformed itself into a burgeoning free-market economy and had emerged once again as a world power thanks to the strengthening of its "special relationship" with the US and the vanquishing of the Soviet Union. The world had changed, and Britain was at the fore.

I hear that Meryl Streep is wonderful.
Yes, sure. She's very good. And the movie certainly has its moments as a piece of entertainment, but it surely missed a zeitgeist opportunity by failing to draw the parallels between Thatcher's policies and today's financial and economic challenges.

Did Thatcher cause the global financial crisis?
She helped shape the modern world through the way her government tackled Britain's problems in the 1980s, inspiring a wave of deregulation and privatisation from Europe to Latin America and Asia. And her tough response to recession was a lesson for many world leaders today. Despite calls for her to step down as growth sputtered and unemployment soared, the lady was not for turning. She focused on addressing the structural problems and held her course.

Is that a reference to Greece?
It's a reference to almost everywhere these days.
Thatcher's austerity led to riots and created a disaffected generation of former public sector workers, just like in Greece. She was probably too harsh, but the structural reforms did produce longterm gains for Britain.

But instead we get the portrayal of a mad old woman?
Yes. A mad old woman who lives in the past and thinks her husband is nagging her from beyond the grave.

A bit like a Hollywood portrayal of Reagan focusing on his Alzheimer's?

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