Tag Archives: thatcher

The Iron Lady: Tory glee and political fantasy

David Douglass reviews ‘The Iron Lady’ (director: Phyllida Lloyd, 2011), out on general release. First published in the Weekly Worker.

After huge hype – advanced publicity, huge billboard and bus adverts, gushing acquaintances of Margaret Thatcher on breakfast TV, a Jeremy Vine phone-in, Thatcher’s face haunting us everywhere again and Meryl Streep being canvassed for another Oscar basically for just taking on the role – The iron lady is crushingly disappointing. Politics has only a walk-on part in the film. As Streep herself has said, “It’s an imagined story of who she might be – probably not accurate” (Women’s hour January 6). Got it in one. In fact that could be a one-line review of the film.

Thatcher is an all too real character, but she is located in an entirely fictional world. The writer has taken the character and imagined what it must be like for Thatcher in ill health, with dementia; imagined how her memories might haunt her, how her past plays out in her mind.

This fictional reconstruction of her life starts with an old women in a mac – a traditional working class housewife, headscarf on her head – having popped out for some milk to the corner shop, ignored and unrecognised. As well she might be, for this is meant to be Margaret Thatcher. Then we see flashbacks to a lower middle class shop-owner’s daughter, hard at work delving out measures of sugar and lard in a working class community. Her dad, though the Tory leader of Grantham town council, has a distinct working class accent and talks homely home truths of thrift and enterprise.

This is in stark contrast to her adoption of aristocratic diction and haughty mannerisms at Oxford University, though the makers do not explain it. Here we see a bright, young, attractive thing, flirting and dancing, fussing with her make-up. Is any of that real? One suspects little of it relates to anything other than the writer’s attempt to invent a ‘rags to riches’, ‘I’ve come from the streets’ narrative. Indeed the film has Thatcher telling her Oxbridge colleagues in the cabinet how she came from the bottom and understands the masses because she has been one of them! Even if that were true – and it isn’t – can anyone imagine Thatcher claiming that heritage after aspiring so hard to bump the queen from the throne and take her place? I recall the comment of HRH as to why she felt uncomfortable in Maggie’s presence: “I never know which of us is supposed to curtsey,” she is said to have responded.

The upper class followers of Thatcher who have made much of her “unique fashion sense” and “style” do not see this simply as the uniform of the rich Tory women faithful – the only “unique” thing about it is that it at once identifies the lady with would-be aristocrats and petty royalty: all neatly styled hair, pearls and conservative twin sets.

Having set out her ‘struggle to the top’, the makers hope to have won the audience to the side of Thatcher when it comes to her political trajectories. Director Phyllida Lloyd admits: “The whole story is told from her point of view” – and justified accordingly. Although, to be more accurate, it is probably what she imagines her point of view might be – this film makes no claims of actual biography, and especially none of political analysis. Jeremy Vine was at pains to convince us that, while we might not like Thatcher, we ‘have to admire her principles’ and the fact she was ideologically driven – it didn’t wash and the phone-in was swamped with callers expressing their outright hatred of her and her political legacy.

The film’s attempts at humour involve, strong put-downs of ‘the men’, whether the long suffering Denis (who is much stronger and independently willed in this film that in reality), her cabinet colleagues or the US ambassador. The portrayal of her assertiveness and dry wit drew irritating laughter from a small section of the Newcastle preview audience who watched The iron lady with me. I wanted to go over and slap them for being too stupid to realise that such dialogue is totally invented. While she did in reality get her gob round some memorable phrases – “the enemy within” and “U-turn if you want to: the lady is not for turning” – these remarks were not among them. A scriptwriter wrote them and put them into the fictional mouth of the character.

So, other than this being a hard-working girl from the lower classes who makes it to the top through her own effort, what is the other conclusion the film is urging us to draw? The view is very strongly pushed that Thatcher is a feminist. Streep in her Women’s hour interview expresses the view that no other advocate of her politics attracts anything like the hatred she does, and this can only be because it was a women advancing them, not a man. It takes the female presenter to remind her that Thatcher was an anti-feminist.

All of Thatcher’s rhetoric regarding women was connected to their role as mothers, housekeepers and shoppers, not as economists, politicians or activists, and the effect of her policies has been fiercely anti-women – especially anti the aspirations of working class women and girls. Yet still the film persists in trying to paint that picture. We are shown the Thatcher-eye view of her entering parliament as a lone woman in an exclusive male club – as if a number of strong women, especially working class Labour women, had not been there before her, or were not still slogging it out in those chambers. One expects that this whole caricature is aimed at the US audience, who will not know this is sheer invention.

When it comes to the actual political aspects of the film, we might be surprised to find she has the leadership of the Tory Party thrust upon her unwilling self! Not the fierce and relentless faction fight she in fact waged against Ted Heath – a fight to replace him and his ‘one nation Toryism’ with herself and naked class war. We are reliably informed that neither she nor Keith Joseph voted in the ‘Who rules Britain?’ election because they wanted to bring Heath down.

In the portrayal of the mass working class opposition, I can find no fault. It is clearly presented that her policies were being violently rammed down our throats and that they were characterised by injustice and inequality. I do not know if this part of the film was made by different folk from those who made the first part, but it certainly feels like it – the whole thing ends up as a kind of ‘push me, pull me’ weld of two conflicting measures of the woman and her policies.

The chronology of events is strangely chopped and changed, much in the style that the BBC famously cut and reversed footage of the Orgreave picket and police clashes. In that piece of historic reconstruction, a fierce police and cavalry charge into placid pickets, who then retaliate with missiles (lumps of clay actually, though they looked like half-bricks on the TV news), is reversed to show the hapless police officers coming under attack by brick-throwing pickets and forced to retaliate. In the film, we have the miners’ strike of 1984-85 taking place before the 1982 Falklands war. Why? Because otherwise we would have the Falklands ‘achievement’ and the crest of the nationalist wave first, followed by the tyranny of the state’s response to the miners, and then the mass poll tax movement and riot. This would have suggested a brief period of popularity, followed by decline, mounting opposition and state repression. It would have made the counter-image of Thatcher as a stubborn fanatic too strong. So we have the episodes jumbled up: first the miners’ strike, then the Falklands victory, then the poll tax.

Even then we would still have got a strongly repellent portrayal of a rightwing zealot if the whole film had not been dominated by all that fictional, sentimental pap. The first two-thirds of the film are meant to nail this image in our heads so deeply that it cannot be dislodged by her manic egotism. This ploy does not actually succeed – although grandees of the Tory establishment have wet themselves with glee to see Maggie’s face everywhere: this film is the greatest propaganda coup for the Conservative Party they could ever dream of. And The iron lady is supposed to cement her reputation as some super-visionary politician etched into the national character, to be honoured with a state funeral.

Margaret Thatcher’s actual legacy is not shown in this rewrite of history. That legacy can be seen in the desolation, poverty and hopelessness of working class Britain. In the end of productive manufacturing, of trade union strength, of solidarity and of visions of a fairer, socialist alternative to greed and ‘dog eat dog’. In the rise of money capital, in finance speculation and in the gradual replacement of industrial bricks and mortar with a house of cards. Those abandoned, traditional, working class communities – the north, the valleys, Scotland and the inner cities – would make a suitable final scene for this film, rather than the long dead ghost of Denis walking out on Thatcher, leaving her finally totally alone.

Depressingly tedious, The iron lady is a missed opportunity, which hopefully someone more inspired will revisit in the not too distant future.

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Weekly Worker series on miners’ strike

For the 25th anniversary of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 the Weekly Worker is running a special series. Here is the first of these articles:

Britain: before and after the election

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Miners cheer Arthur Scargill as he announces the NUM executive decision to make the strike official, April 12 1984. Photo: Peter Arkell

During this key class battle, the scenes in some pit communities came to resemble Northern Ireland, with a militarised police force confronted by miners using some of the semi-insurrectionary methods of Belfast and Derry. The National Union of Mineworkers fought a strategically important war on behalf of all workers – yet they were abandoned by the Labour and trade union bureaucracies to fight alone. Defeat followed, with dire consequences. The outcome of the Great Strike of 84-85 is a determining factor in the shape of class relations today.

Yet, for sections of our movement, the strike has become the equivalent of a commemorative mug. It is something to be put on a mantelpiece, ignored until an anniversary rolls around and it is time to mouth some platitudes. The rich lessons taught by that momentous 12 months are forgotten – to the huge detriment of our class’s combativity.

Our faction within the ‘official’ Communist Party threw itself into the strike with enthusiasm and no small degree of elán. In the course of it, we went from an isolated handful of young comrades organised around a quarterly theoretical journal – The Leninist – to a monthly newspaper that had won influence amongst a thin, but important layer of advanced miners and their supporters. Over the coming year, we will feature TL reprints from that time. We begin with extracts from a major article by James Marshall in The Leninist of August 1983, when it was still a theoretical journal. The full text is available on our website. This assessed the battle plans of the newly re-elected Thatcher government and – crucially – the state of readiness of our side as a “strategic struggle” loomed.


1. The election

Future historians might well look back upon the June 83 election as a milestone on Britain’s path to social revolution. For, while the Tories secured a massive post-1945 record majority of 144 seats, this has revealed and exacerbated the deepening crisis of reformism.

This crisis and the consequent dangers for social stability were referred to, if in oblique fashion, even as the election campaign was in progress. Former foreign minister Francis Pym expressed his fears for parliamentary democracy if the Tory victory were to turn into a landside.1 While he concentrated on the possibility that a landslide might create divisions on the Tory backbenches, it was clear that he was referring to the ramifications which would flow from a collapse of the Labour Party as the alternative party of government ….

And Arthur Scargill and Ken Livingstone, eager to secure leadership of any future extra-parliamentary mass movement, quickly threw their hats into the ring and called for opposition to Tory attacks using mass actions rather than parliamentary rhetoric. Scargill vehemently argued that “we should undoubtedly need to take extra-parliamentary action, and that includes the possibility of political strikes” ….

1.1. The crisis of Labourism

The Falklands factor, the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the inept bunglings of Michael Foot did, of course, contribute to the parliamentary debacle suffered by the Labour Party, resulting in its lowest share of popular support since 1918.2 But if we were to concentrate on these questions alone, we would be failing to see both the deep-seated nature and fundamental cause of Labour’s crisis.

In a period of deepening economic crisis of capitalism the Labour Party goes from being a man attempting to ride two horses at once to being a man attempting to ride two horses which are determined to go in opposite directions. This analogy rests on the role played by Labour’s right and left. In ‘normal’ times the right must present to the capitalist class the acceptable face of alternative government; while the left rallies the support of the militant working class for ‘their’ government, which, despite carrying out rightist measures, is still ‘theirs’ and therefore must be supported.

Now during a period of crisis the complementary roles of these two wings of reformism become increasingly difficult to harness ….

1.3. Dangers and possibilities

The re-election of the Tory government, because it comes at a time of deepening capitalist crisis, represents the greatest post-World War II threat to the working class. The only things the Tories could offer the working class were a continuation of mass unemployment, draconian anti-trade union laws, a massive increase in arms spending and the equipping of the forces of coercion – the police and army – to deal with popular upsurges.

The Tories, being committed to the success of British capitalism, must attack the working class. This, combined with the erosion of the Labour Party’s position as the alternative party of government not only means that leading Tories, including Thatcher, confidently talk of their being in government into the 90s, but – what is more important – the period unfolding before us promises to be one of greatly heightened class struggle. While this prospect poses great dangers for the working class, it also offers great possibilities ….

Whether the Labour Party goes to the right or to the left is, for revolutionaries, only a secondary question. What is fundamental is the inevitable effect the crisis will have of weakening the hold of reformism on the working class. It will throw millions into political action for the first time and shatter previously held reformist prejudices, opening up the possibility of mass revolutionary politics. Undoubtedly this will affect the Labour Party, pushing it one way or another, but, whichever way it jumps, its hold over the working class is jeopardised – a maintenance of respectable rightism can only mean the masses will look for new organisations, new answers; and paradoxically a shift to the left likewise inevitably opens the masses up to these very same new organisations and new answers.

2. The first term

…. Because of the militant record of the late 60s and the 70s, and the ability of the working class to resist successfully measures designed to force down wages and attempts to chain the unions, whether from Barbara Castle or Robert Carr, there were many who were brimming with confidence at the prospect of a showdown with the newly elected Thatcher government.3

But such a view was soon shown to be based on a foolish misreading of the last decade, the fallacy that the miners had in 1974 swept the Heath government out of office in semi-revolutionary fashion and above all the failure to take into account the changing economic conditions. For, whereas the 60s battles took place at the end of the boom, and those of the 70s in a time of stagnation and transition, the 80s saw the emergence of the early but unmistakeable signs of a looming general crisis of capitalism. In the 60s the capitalist class could afford to placate the working class with not inconsiderable increases in living standards. This course had become impossible by the 80s, and, far from a general increase in prosperity, the needs of the day led to attacks on working class living standards, pitiless speed-ups and a staggering growth in the number unemployed ….

The miners exemplified above all others the crisis of the working class. During the 70s they had justly earned the reputation of being the most powerful, most determined and best organised section of the working class. So, with the retirement of the dearly beloved (by the bourgeoisie) Joe Gormley, and the election of Arthur Scargill with a massive 70% first-preference vote, the stage seemed set for decisive confrontation.4 But this was not to be, for the divisive productivity deal, which set pit against pit and area against area, plus the government’s refusal to be drawn into an early, and for them premature, battle, meant that not only did one strike ballot after another show that the miners had no inclination to fight, but even when the NCB closed pits in Scotland and South Wales attempts to launch solidarity actions collapsed in disarray and despondency ….

But we must note that, despite the near universally bleak last four years, the working class has only been forced to retreat – it has not suffered a defeat of a strategic nature along the lines inflicted by the Tories in 1926, when trade union organisation was decimated and thousands of militants were blacklisted ….

6.1. The class war

… A fierce clash is therefore well on the cards, and it is to meet such an eventuality that the Tories have not only passed through parliament anti-trade union measures, under both the ‘wet’ Prior and the ‘dry’ Tebbit, but have also assiduously prepared the forces of coercion to ensure that the law can be imposed.

For, while the Tories have exploited many of the undemocratic procedures in the trade union movement, using them as a cover to introduce anti-trade union legislation, the key question at the end of the day is the ability of the state to enforce its will. The Tories have not forgotten the fiasco of Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, and the humiliating reversal they suffered at the hands of the working class, organised in defence of the Pentonville Five. The fact that they were forced to release the imprisoned dockers from jail, using the shadowy figure of the official solicitor in the face of a growing general strike threat, made a deep impression on the ruling class.

This and the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, especially the failure to keep the Saltley Gates power station open despite a massive police presence, not only led to near hysterical editorials in the bourgeois press about Britain becoming ungovernable, but years later, under the Thatcher government, to the measures which would, they hoped, ensure that there could be no repetition ….

The fact that during Thatcher’s first term the mailed fist was reserved for the nationalist population of the Six Counties, rioting youth and Argentineans should in no way make us complacent, for this was unquestionably not the result of Tory concern for the sensibilities of British workers, but a reflection of the fact that at no point did British workers raise the struggle to a stage which required either extensive or significant use of the new-style forces of coercion against them ….

6.2. Organising the offensive

…. It is because many old organisations of the working class are incapable of meeting the offensive against working class living standards and rights, let alone the tasks of revolution, that we must seek changes in them, and create new ones.

The first term of Thatcher’s government, and even the last Labour government, showed all too clearly that the trade union movement had great difficulty in even maintaining the living standards of their members in work, but what about fighting unemployment, women’s oppression and racism? Thatcher’s second term will undoubtedly expose the weaknesses of the existing trade union structure, its inability to defend wages, and most certainly democratic rights ….

Paradoxically, in order to have a vision of the future, we must look at the past. In the light of this communists today should not only learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution, but study the history of our own party, with particular emphasis on the struggle to build the National Minority Movement, the National Unemployed Workers’ Union, councils of action and factory councils. It is not a question of re-inventing the past, imposing alien forms, for new organisations will emerge out of the class struggle itself. As this struggle grows more widespread and intense, the new will be ushered in at the call of necessity – the mother of invention.

Surely to expect the TUC and the Labour Party to put up a serious fight against Thatcher would be, on past performance, naive. Most leaders of the official labour movement are content with petitions, protests that are securely confined within ‘moderate’ shackles; for these ‘leaders’, cosy chats with government ministers and schoolboy catcalls and hoots on the floor of the House of Commons are to be preferred to mass political strikes, occupations and other forms of direct militant action which might lead to a challenge to ‘parliament and the rule of law’. It is because such leaders are in the overwhelming majority in the official labour movement – and even most of the left Labourites show great determination not to go beyond rhetoric – that we must seek to construct forms that circumvent the deadly bureaucratic grip ….

We have already referred to the undeniable truth that a strategic struggle is on the cards. The ability of the working class to resist the onslaught, to turn the defence of their interests into an offensive against capitalism, rests ultimately on the state of their revolutionary party – the Communist Party. While it is dominated by Eurocommunist revisionism, there is no chance of the working class acting independently, charting its course to socialism.

Opportunism disarms the workers, delivers us bound and gagged to the altar of capitalist profit. The period ahead demands a relentless struggle against all forms of opportunism, for unless the Communist Party ends its tailism to the official trade union movement, ends its servile attitude to the Labour Party and its infatuation with the reformist, myopic Alternative Economic Strategy, the working class will be like an army with no general staff.5

Resistance can be heroic, but any offensive will prove to be nothing more than a desperate gesture.

Notes

1. Francis Pym was a leading ‘wet’ Tory who held several cabinet positions.
2. The Falklands war was launched in April 1982 by prime minister Margaret Thatcher after Argentina had invaded the British south Atlantic territory. The SDP was a substantial rightwing split from the Labour Party in 1981, later to merge with the Liberal Party to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.
3. Barbara Castle was secretary of state for employment when the unions rebelled against her proposals to reduce their powers in her 1969 white paper, ‘In place of strife’. Robert Carr was the Tory secretary of state for employment in Edward Heath’s government responsible for the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. This severely curbed the right to strike and banned closed shop agreements.
4. Gormley was the rightwing NUM president from 1971 to 1982.
5. The AES was a nationalist reformist programme of demands championed by the reformist trends in the CPGB and sections of the Labour left.