Margaret Thatcher, in fashion at last

‘The Iron Lady’ succeeds despite the acknowledged political gap between its star and its subject

Margaret Thatcher, in fashion at last

Peter Turnley/Corbis

When a left-wing Hollywood star deigns to play a right-wing heroine, odds are the result will irritate everyone. Surprisingly, The Iron Lady is far better than expected, particularly given that virtually the entire entertainment community from Hollywood to the eastern seaboard is liberal, a bias gaily acknowledged by Meryl Streep, who gives us the anticipated brilliant performance as three-term British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. “I’m an actor,” she said, talking about the film, “and, you know, politically we’re all on the other side.”

Fashion mags are doing kip-ups on this Thatcher resurrection, or rather the Streep reincarnation. January’s Vogue has Ms. Streep on the cover with a caption tying her to Thatcher. I suppose there is no reason why Mrs. Thatcher herself should ever have been on the cover of Vogue, though it’s nice to see her there, even if in someone else’s body. She was occasionally in its inside pages and actually made it to the world’s best-dressed list after Aquascutum created a knockout wardrobe for her 1987 trip to Moscow to counter the über-dressed Raisa Gorbachev, who favoured YSL. A friend of mine who visited Lady Thatcher a couple of weeks ago said a coat from that trip, camel-coloured with a sable collar, was hanging 25 years later in the hallway.

Harper’s Bazaar couldn’t get Meryl Streep, so their big September issue came up with Mick Jagger’s daughter as Lady T in blond helmet-hair, and a seven-page fashion spread with quotes from Thatcher’s speeches matched to the clothes. Sadly, they didn’t have my favourite quote on consensus, which Thatcher defined as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects . . . what great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ‘I stand for consensus’?” Difficult to feature the matching blah outfit.

When Margaret Thatcher was first elected to Parliament in 1959, she entered a House of Commons that had 630 members, of whom 25 were female, which is about 24 more women than you would think were ever in any House of Commons during her political life should you see The Iron Lady. The filmmakers have resolved whatever psycho-dilemma they had with Mrs. T as heroine by presenting her life as a feminist struggle. In this rendition there are no other visible female members of Parliament, only a sea of men, a tad irritating to such as Barbara Castle, Judith Hart or Harriet Slater, to mention just a few contemporaneous female MPs.

Being female was a liability, although class was the greater obstacle for Thatcher: she was so very lower middle class—a grocer’s daughter who never quite lost her regional accent, never mind her chemistry degree from Oxford and her successful studies as a tax lawyer. My sole memory of conversations with the late prime minister Edward Heath, from a modest background himself, is his plummy drawl speaking of both Israel and “that woman from Finchley” in upper-class tones of condescension and hatred.

The framework of the film is Mrs. Thatcher in her declining years. She appears to have multi-infarct dementia, a decline of memory and intellectual faculties caused by tiny strokes, and believes her husband Denis to be alive. One of history’s ironic gifts to the left is that their greatest opponents, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both suffered from a mental disease. Nothing in the film tries to derive any advantage from this, but the choice to play out her extraordinary life over three days of this decline, after she had ceased to be a public player, is telling when you consider other legitimate angles that might have been chosen.

Maclean’s sent me to the U.K. in 1978, the year before Thatcher became prime minister, to write about “the British disease.” The country was in chaos, the dead unburied, doctors on strike, no bread one day, no newspapers the next. Thatcher reshaped society with secret strike votes for unions, privatized industry (except for the health service and the BBC) and lower taxes—which under Labour could be as high as 98 per cent. She never flinched. Thus her great quote that doesn’t make the film: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only this to say, ‘You turn if you want; the lady’s not for turning.’ ”

Meryl did her research, but she missed not just nitpicking things, like wearing a brooch on her right lapel when Margaret favoured her left shoulder, but the larger ones. For Meryl it came as a huge surprise that Thatcher had homosexuals and Jews in her cabinet. Her mindset wouldn’t grasp that the point is not to have or not have them but rather not bothering about such matters—unlike liberals toting their diversity abacuses.

The film gives a very moving glimpse of Thatcher’s middle-England pillow-plumping kindness as she worries about Denis. She was the Iron Lady in power suits, with her Asprey handbag, Tomasz Starzewski evening dresses, even as she played her role in defeating Communism, but she remains more: a kind woman who forever overlooked the cruelty of her own children toward her and the cruelty of the world’s caricatures. Now in her final years, her Aquascutum wardrobe comfortingly immaculate, she concentrates on small acts of kindness real or imaginary and hands Denis his scarf and makes him soup.

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