December 19, 2011


Meryl Streep Film and EU Debates Bring Maggie Thatcher's Moment (Amanda Foreman, December 19, 2011, Daily  Beast)

Victory over Argentina took 72 days. A total of 649 Argentine servicemen and 255 British soldiers were killed. When the war ended, Thatcher delivered one of her most memorable utterances: "Just rejoice at that news ... rejoice!" For this she was pilloried by her critics, who thought her tone was too triumphalist, too unseemly. But to most Britons the war had made a heroine of her, and she was celebrated as a modern-day incarnation of Boadicea, an ancient British warrior-queen. In the general election of 1983 she romped home with a landslide majority of 144 seats.

There was nothing to celebrate in another war, the one at home with the Irish Republican Army. On Oct. 12, 1984, the IRA nearly succeeded in killing her. She was in her suite in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, polishing her speech for the party conference. The bombs that tore apart the hotel killed five, two of them her ministers. She and Denis narrowly escaped injury. She went straight out to the party conference and denounced "an attempt to cripple Her Majesty's democratically elected government."

But there were also tentative signs that at least some of her government's economic policies were working. Inflation had fallen to 5 percent, interest rates went down to 9 percent, and the tiniest shoot of economic growth appeared. Her second term was a juggernaut. Singlehandedly she forced the European Commissioners to return a billion pounds sterling, in effect just by fixing them with her steely blue eyes and banging her handbag on the table. The last of the Heathites were booted out of the cabinet. State monopolies were broken up and privatized. The sale of a million council properties (government-owned subsidized housing) created a new class of homeowners. The so-called Big Bang legislation opened up London's financial sector to competition. The top tax rate was lowered from 60 percent to 40 percent, while average incomes rose by 25 percent. Perhaps most important of all were new laws curtailing the power of the trade unions. She was ready for the showdown with the coal miners that Heath had lost. She piled up coal stocks and went toe to toe with the left-wing miners; their leader hadn't taken a poll of his members, but he had taken money from Libya's Gaddafi. A yearlong strike by the miners' union, dramatized in the film and play Billy Elliot, brought violence and misery to many mining communities. But in contrast to its successful strikes in 1973 and 1978, the lights stayed on and the rest of Britain continued working.

Early on, Thatcher often got her way through the skillful manipulation of sexual assumptions. "Lots of politicians I talked to said how attractive and flirtatious she was in the beginning," says Streep. "She recognized the power of femininity, and she really loved being the only woman in the room." At London dinner parties it was customary for the ladies to depart at coffee, leaving the men to smoke and talk politics and sports. But when ladies retreated, Maggie made a point of staying, and, to the intense irritation of other wives, not asking for them to be included.

She never showed a scrap of deference to the men. If you agreed with her on one thing, she expected you to agree on everything. Her energy minister, Lord Howell, and others complained that instead of discussions, there were often confrontations. "She could be very shrill, partly as a tactic," concedes her foreign adviser Lord Powell. "She used being a woman pretty skillfully in many sorts of situations, for instance in getting her way with her political and cabinet colleagues. She knew that public-school-educated British men weren't brought up to argue with women." Thatcher's bossy-boots routine could have a disconcerting effect on some of the younger M.P.s. "I once made a sort of modest intervention," says Francis Maude, paymaster general in the current Conservative government. "Her eyes blazed, and she leaned across the table at me as if she was about to crawl over the table and wallop me with her handbag." Britain's current prime minister had a similar encounter. "I'll never forget my first meeting with Lady Thatcher," recalls David Cameron. "It was at the Conservative Research Department Christmas party. I was a young staffer on the trade and industry desk. Word went round the prime minister had arrived to talk to us all. I was standing there nervously, clutching a glass of warm wine, when the P.M. stopped right in front of me, looked me in the eyes, and asked: 'Have you seen the trade figures out today? What did you think of them?' It felt like the music had suddenly stopped. Unfortunately, I had not seen the figures. Needless to say, I never made the same mistake again."

After Thatcher's electoral victory in 1987--she was the first prime minister in 160 years to win three successive elections--she turned the bulk of her attention to the international stage, where her impact was considerable. She gave the Poles hope, and the Afghans Stinger missiles. Having decided that Mikhail Gorbachev was "a man I can do business with," she formed an extraordinary troika with him and Reagan that led to the collapse of communism in Europe, though she had grave misgivings about the reunification of Germany.

"She bestrode the world like a colossus," says Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Thatcher's handbag, at first a symbol of weakness, had become a thing of unparalleled power. "The men I talked to about Thatcher," says Streep, "claimed when she reached for the bag, you just never knew what was going to come out. Your heart went into your feet." At one cabinet meeting the ministers arrived to find her absent but the iconic article sitting on the table. "Why don't we start," suggested the environment secretary. "The handbag is here." The handbag became her leitmotif, marking her out as a prime minister who was part Lady Bracknell and part Winston Churchill. Politicians who fell foul of her were often described in the press as having been "handbagged"--a cross, in effect, between a mugging and an evisceration. In 1988 U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz presented her with the Grand Order of the Handbag--an Asprey bag stuffed with her one-liners.

In the end, Maggie was, herself, mugged by the men who had once cowered before her. In 1989, the Conservative Party was splitting over whether to join the euro. Thatcher was adamantly opposed, but two of her longest-serving allies, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, broke with her. "Many Tory M.P.s had come to the view that in order for the party to win the next election, and, more importantly, for them to hold onto their seats, they just had to get rid of her," says Osborne. A secret assessment of the situation by party chiefs concluded that Thatcher herself was the problem.

In mid-November 1990, Howe announced his resignation to a hushed assembly of M.P.s, daring them to act. Thatcher's former defense secretary Michael Heseltine answered by initiating a leadership challenge. Thatcher, who believed she was invulnerable, refused to solicit support. Nor would she change her line on Europe. In her last interview as prime minister she warned against the danger of relinquishing fiscal sovereignty: "Are we going to ... have one single currency which we can have no control over, which we cannot determine our own interest rate or anything?" Fatally, Thatcher insisted on scheduling the ballot when she would be in Paris at a summit to celebrate the end of the Cold War. "I called her office," recalls Kissinger. "I said she should not go to Paris because I thought that forces were building up against her."

Just over a month later, she was deposed as party leader. Her final speech before the House of Commons is the stuff of legend. "It was one of the bravest things I've ever seen," says Thatcher's close friend Romilly McAlpine. "She was going into a baying mob." Thatcher gave the greatest performance of her career. By the end of her speech M.P.s were cheering and waving their papers; a few were even crying. Outside, crowds sang "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead."

After she left office, Thatcher's chief occupation became giving speeches, lots and lots of speeches, for lots and lots of money. Streep happened to stumble on one such event while visiting her daughter at Northwestern University: "She delivered the lecture, which was smooth and very controlled. And then she started to take questions. She continued for over an hour and a half, gaining in animation and zeal as she went on. I thought, oh my God, she's absolutely formidable."

Nothing, though, could heal the wounds inflicted on Thatcher by her own party. In a documentary interview made to accompany her memoirs, she stares straight at the camera and asserts, "It was treachery with a smile on its face." Some would have called it necessity: "But for years afterwards there was the question," says Osborne: "'How did you vote as an M.P. in the vote of confidence on her?'" The question as to who wielded the dagger played into a shared feeling of guilt among M.P.s that they had participated in a Shakespearean tragedy. But which one?

For Ronald Miller, Thatcher's speechwriter, the answer was obvious as he watched her receive an ecstatic reception from the Tory faithful at the first party conference after her ousting. He joined her for lunch later that day. "By the time we reached the coffee stage the Iron Lady had returned, cannonballs raking the political spectrum from end to end. I was reminded of Coriolanus telling the Romans who had banished him, 'I banish you.'"
Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at December 19, 2011 12:35 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus