The Iron Lady

OK, I have not seen the film yet, and I am not sure if I will. I keep getting mixed signals on the new film about Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep. Of course one can assess a film in terms of artistic merits and the like. But that is not so much my concern here.

Because Thatcher is such a polarising figure, at the end of the day it is the political considerations that I am most concerned about. Will this be yet another hatchet job by leftists in Hollywood on a conservative leader? Or will it be an even-handed and balanced affair?

The film has only just opened so more reviews will be forthcoming. Already critics have sent out mixed reviews here, and I await what some politically inclined commentators will say. One early reviewer did offer this bit of reassurance for conservatives such as myself: “‘The Iron Lady:’ Wonderfully, Conservatively Subversive”.

She begins her review this way: “Conservatives have nothing to fear from the controversial and wonderfully subversive Margaret Thatcher biopic, ‘The Iron Lady.’ Because the creators, whatever their personal political beliefs, had the artistic integrity to let Thatcher be Thatcher, the film becomes a rousing call to those who believe that ‘those who can do, must get up and DO’.”

I hope that is the case, and I may yet go see the film (although my wife informs me she is not too interested in going!). But having a long-standing conservative friend staying with me at the moment, I may go with him instead (his wife can join my wife for a different film!). We are both great admirers of Thatcher and both would be interested to see how the film deals with this remarkable woman.

For those not all that familiar with her work, let me just remind you of a few basics. She led the Tories from 1975 and was the British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. She along with Ronald Reagan helped to defeat the Evil Empire abroad, and she did the tough but necessary work of turning around a stagnant and dying United Kingdom.

Rich Lowry offers us a helpful overview of her work and legacy: “The country she wanted to save was, by the late 1970s, an embarrassing wreck. After World War II, Britain’s leaders had run the ship of state aground on the shoals of socialism. The country was broke and beset by maliciously powerful unions. Humiliatingly, it had to go to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. In 1975, Henry Kissinger told President Ford, ‘Britain is a tragedy — it has sunk to begging, borrowing, stealing.’

“Claire Berlinski, author of the book-length study of Thatcher titled There Is No Alternative, quotes Michael Howard, a subsequent leader of the Tory party: ‘The air of defeatism which was the prevailing climate of the time was the economic and social equivalent of Munich.’

“It took considerable moral courage for Thatcher to insist that practically everyone else was wrong — including the accommodationists in her own party — and that Britain could take an entirely different path. In 1979 she ran on a party manifesto that excoriated declinism. ‘She had been elected to reverse Britain’s decline,’ writes John O’Sullivan, the former Thatcher aide and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, ‘not to explain it smoothly away like virtually every other political leader.’

“It wasn’t enough to rage against Britain’s fate without correctly diagnosing the source of its sickness. As Berlinski notes, Thatcher made an unsparing and comprehensive case against socialism. ‘In the end,’ she thundered, ‘the real case against socialism is not its economic inefficiency, though on all sides there is evidence of that. Much more fundamental is its basic immorality.’

“Bold but never reckless, Thatcher as prime minister undertook a comprehensive free-market program to tame inflation, restrain spending, cut taxes, privatize industries, bring unions to heel, and deregulate the financial industry. At one point, her approval rating dipped to 23 percent, but her vindication was a sustained return to dynamism and growth. Her victory in the Falklands War represented a turning point in national pride. She was Ronald Reagan’s partner in defeating the Soviets. By the end of her career, she had accomplished what Britain’s consensus had once deemed impossible.”

As important as she was as a political leader, a word about Thatcher and religion is needed. Evidently the movie makes no mention whatsoever of her Christianity. Thus this is one major omission in the film. Much can be said here, but perhaps the best move is to simply offer a few brief quotes from an important speech she gave to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988:

“I think back to many discussions in my early life when we all agreed that if you try to take the fruits of Christianity without its roots, the fruits will wither. And they will not come again unless you nurture the roots. But we must not profess the Christian faith and go to Church simply because we want social reforms and benefits or a better standard of behaviour; but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ expressed so well in the hymn: ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride’….

“The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace, in the true meaning of the word, for which we all long.

“To assert absolute moral values is not to claim perfection for ourselves. No true Christian could do that. What is more, one of the great principles of our Judaic-Christian inheritance is tolerance. People with other faiths and cultures have always been welcomed in our land, assured of equality under the law, of proper respect and of open friendship. There’s absolutely nothing incompatible between this and our desire to maintain the essence of our own identity. There is no place for racial or religious intolerance in our creed.

“When Abraham Lincoln spoke in his famous Gettysburg speech of 1863 of ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’, he gave the world a neat definition of democracy which has since been widely and enthusiastically adopted. But what he enunciated as a form of government was not in itself especially Christian, for nowhere in the Bible is the word democracy mentioned. Ideally, when Christians meet, as Christians, to take counsel together their purpose is not (or should not be) to ascertain what is the mind of the majority but what is the mind of the Holy Spirit—something which may be quite different.

“Nevertheless I am an enthusiast for democracy. And I take that position, not because I believe majority opinion is inevitably right or true—indeed no majority can take away God-given human rights—but because I believe it most effectively safeguards the value of the individual, and, more than any other system, restrains the abuse of power by the few. And that is a Christian concept.”

Finally, it should also be pointed out what a great friend of Israel Margaret Thatcher was. As Charles Johnson writes, “When asked about her most meaningful accomplishment, Margaret Thatcher, now embodied by Meryl Streep in the biopic Iron Lady, did not typically mention serving in the British government, defeating the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, taming runaway inflation, or toppling the Soviet Union. The woman who reshaped British politics and served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990 often said that her greatest accomplishment was helping save a young Austrian girl from the Nazis….

“Thatcher’s philo-Semitism went beyond the people she appointed to her government; it had clear political implications as well. She made Jewish causes her own, including by easing the restrictions on prosecuting Nazi war criminals living in Britain and pleading the cause of the Soviet Union’s refuseniks. She boasted that she once made Soviet officials ‘nervous’ by repeatedly bringing up the refuseniks’ plight during a single nine-hour meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘The Soviets had to know that every time we met their treatment of the refuseniks would be thrown back at them,’ she explained in her book The Downing Street Years.

“Thatcher also worked to end the British government’s support for the Arab boycott of Israel. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Thatcher criticized Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath’s refusal to supply Israel with military parts or even allow American planes to supply Israel from British airfields. In 1986, Thatcher became the first British prime minister to visit Israel, having previously visited twice as a member of parliament.”

Hey, I’m getting excited already about this great woman even as I type these words. Maybe I will go see the film after all. I just sure hope it does not disappoint…

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