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A new film starring Meryl Streep captures the drama of Britain's most powerful leader since Churchill. Or does it?
It is the role of an artistic lifetime for Meryl Streep, who delivers arguably her greatest performance.
It is a true exploration of aging and grief.
It is a film that continues a burgeoning trend: a positive reassessment of Thatcher's life by the kind of left-wing, publicly funded artists the former British PM was reputed to hate. The BBC's "The Long Walk to Finchley," a drama worth seeing, kick-started the trend a couple of years back.
In this new-era of reassessment, Thatcher is portrayed as a feminist class-warrior, fighting the prejudices of the male, privately-educated, Oxbridge elite that ran the Conservative Party when she first joined up. The tools she fights with are different, but much of her struggle takes place in the late '40s and early '50s before the better known arsenal of feminist politics had been mooted.
Mrs. T's greatest flaws — her unyielding nature and hard-heartedness in power — suddenly seem understandable in the context of a fight for her political career. She appears to be a pioneer, like the tough women who crossed the prairies, rather than a highly educated devotee of the free-market economics of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. She was a pioneer of sorts, at least, who happened to be married to an oil company executive.
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More than anything, "The Iron Lady," is a Shakespearean tragedy, if the Bard had written tragedies built around women. This is a King Lear with a woman at the center: in her world, she was once all powerful; now, as depicted by Streep, she becomes a ruin, lost in memory and hallucination.
But for all the wonderful things it is, the film is not history. The events that marked Thatcher's politics — her economics and their effect on the people of Britain — are not really part of this film.
This is history: Thatcher's economic policies led to two recessions in her 11 years in power. The second one was only just beginning when she was deposed.
This is history: the British government is an "elective dictatorship" in the words of Quintin Hogg, Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor (who is in charge of courts and judiciary). Hogg was referring to the fact that in Britain there is no separate executive branch of government. The prime minister is a part of the legislative branch, and has a disciplined, well-whipped majority of MP's to vote through any legislation he or she wants.
Thatcher's program was radical. It amounted to nothing less than an attempt to rewrite the social contract that had existed in Britain since the end of World War II, and it was enacted with alacrity.
With inflation rampant, the new prime minister embarked on a strict anti-inflation program, raising interest rates and taxes while reducing government spending.
The result was predictable: a recession. Within 18 months the number of people out of work had doubled to 3 million, or 1 in 8 members of the work force. With her own party worrying about whether the jobless rate was too high a price to pay for her policies, she addressed them at the Conservative Party conference: "You turn if you want to; the Lady's not for turning."
That moment defined her time in office.
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This is also history: Margaret Thatcher waged two wars. The first, in 1982, was against Argentina in the Falklands. The second, in 1984-85, was in Britain against the unions. More Britons died in the former. More Britons suffered in the latter.
Of all industrial workers in Britain, the miners were the most iconic. They were the men who risked their lives underground to bring up the fuel that had fired the industrial revolution. The coal mines had been nationalized for decades and the miners' union was strong. Thatcher believed in shrinking the state and taking on the nationalized coal industry and with it the miners' union was the battle she chose. Six people would die and thousands would be arrested.
She broke the union and the coal industry, but she didn't break the need for the government to