The Rusting Lady and my insignificant part in her downfall

The Meryl Streep film of Margaret Thatcher gets an OurKingdom editor reflecting on his own brief encounter with her.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
19 January 2012

I am writing an introduction for a new edition of Iron Britannia, the 1982 book I wrote about the politics of the Falklands War, for its 30th anniversary. This took me to see The Iron Lady yesterday. Then - talk about blast from the past! - I was asked to go on the Tony Livesey show on BBC Radio 5 Live, to debate the future of the Falklands. This I did with Mike Summers, a member of the islands' tiny 'legislative council', 8,000 miles away. The immediate cause was David Cameron’s sad and absurd, over-the-top accusation that Argentina was being “colonialist”, while proclaiming perpetual British defence of the islands so long as the islanders want this. You can hear the exchange for a week (it is 40 minutes in).

The Iron Lady is a very odd and unsatisfactory movie – an ill-conceived montage of flash-backs wrapped around Meryl Streep’s outstanding performance. In one of the better sequences, Thatcher tells her doctor that these days people go on and on about “feelings” and how they “feel” when we should be concerned about what people “think” and what they “do”. This is the formal line that The Iron Lady takes: what matters is that you have to “do something”.

Yet, the entire film itself is about feelings. It is all about what it feels like to be Thatcher and particularly what it feels like to be an old Thatcher struggling with the onset of dementia and ‘letting go’ of her beloved husband, which in a final triumphant fit of ‘doing’ she achieves – “there is nothing wrong with me”. As a well-observed study of what it is like to be a proud woman in the late twentieth century and an ailing one in the twenty-first, the performance may bring Streep a deserved Oscar. But Thatcher could be strategic - she learnt, developed often shrewdly and was not just attitude and 'conviction'. This was not shown in the flim. Instead her role as a politician is sensationalised by a mish-mash of discordant and inaccurately portrayed confrontations.

And even though she released positive energy after the negativity of the Seventies - a real achievement - strategically, Margaret Thatcher was largely mistaken: she should not have shut down so much of British manufacturing; she should not have wasted the enormous windfall of North Sea Oil; she should have concluded a peace agreement on the Falkland Islands that demilitarised them; she should not have broken the public service ethic of the civil service; she should not have imposed such a reckless ‘big bang’ on the city or permitted the Lawson bubble. I won’t discuss the trade unions and the miners - this issue is more complicated, not least because the miner’s leader Arthur Scargill bears most responsibility for their destruction.

In terms of power Thatcher exploited our lack of a proper constitution. She swept away the decaying wood of the old order along with its wisdom, only to create an undead version of imperial command that was picked up by Blair and continues to damage the culture of our democracy.

I had two direct encounters with her over this. In May 1989 I organised for Charter 88 to send her a letter demanding a written constitution. Her reply was confident and elegantly argued with a flash of steel, including:

The Government consider that our present constitutional arrangements continue to serve us well and that the citizen in this country enjoys the greatest degree of liberty that is compatible with the rights of others and the vital interests of the state.

Citizen, know your place!

By the time of the second exchange she was not so confident. One of the film’s ridiculous tropes is having Thatcher marching around followed by a large platoon of men all trying to keep up with her. It’s an unnecessary caricature even if it has a touch of truth. The most unlikely of these episodes is in Paris at the end of her premiership. She went there to push for a charter of rights at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in November 1990. It institutionalised the formal end of the Cold War (and coincided with the start of the new Middle East war as Saddam Hussein had just invaded and occupied Kuwait). Thatcher declared that they should draw up a “Magna Carta” for the countries of Eastern Europe.

At the time British Prime Ministers never gave press conferences except when they went abroad. I was coordinating Charter 88 and decided we would follow her to Paris. I was tipped off by Edmund Fawcett of the Economist that there would be a press conference in the British Embassy on Monday 19 November. The first ballot for the leadership of the Conservative Party was scheduled for Tuesday, the next day.

The sight was extraordinary. At the top end of a long, grand ballroom with sweeping 18th century windows looking out into the Embassy garden, there was a narrow table. Four of them came in and squeezed closely together, from left to right: the Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, the Ambassador, the Prime Minister herself and finally Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s famous press secretary, who chaired. All three men had the look of healthy, tanned, well-heeled figures of the world. In contrast, Thatcher was white and rigid with self-control.

She opened by talking about disarmament and the historic ending of the threat of a surprise attack from the Soviet Union. The questions went immediately to the leadership contest. You can read them here on the Thatcher Foundation’s excellent website. I was astonished when in reply to the Daily Mail she said she would still be in power for a week. “Only a week!”, I thought to myself in amazement, “what does she know that I don’t?" I had to get in my blow as soon as possible and caught Ingham’s eye, then stood:

Anthony Barnett (New Statesman)

Prime Minister, why, when you called upon this Summit to entrench rights across Europe, do you not agree with Charter 88 that we should have entrenched rights in the United Kingdom?

Prime Minister

We are in this Summit to get rights way across the European Divide. We were the first, I think, to call for the Community to extend democracy to other countries, into Eastern Europe. I think that is absolutely vital, that if they wish to join us they should and also that they will probably be able to have some of the Eastern European countries joining the Council of Europe before they join the EEC.

When I uttered the words "Charter 88" Douglas Hurd visibly shuddered. Thatcher was motionless and went straight into question-evasion mode as you can see - at which she was well practiced. I felt that if ever challenged I could tell my grandchildren I'd landed a well-aimed blow. A questioner from Sky was quickly invited to follow - and Thatcher said she was not writing her memoirs yet. Three days later she was.

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