THIS isn’t a review of The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and on general release in cinemas this week [For this, see p. 18]. I’m sure it’s a fine film and I’ll see it once I can scrape together the money from my dwindling pension for a pair of tickets and some wax earplugs to counter the loud volume in our local cineplex. I’m sure Maggie would understand.
The advance marketing for the film has been aggressive, featuring special screenings a couple of months ago for select commentators who then had an excuse to vent old spleens about the Iron Lady’s rule. Over 21 years after her departure, the embers of hate still glow red beneath accumulated layers of cold ash. Round my local, there’s one old geezer promising the biggest street party upon her death.
What is it about Thatcher that still polarises the entire nation into one extreme camp or the other? For her haters, did she destroy a golden age of peace, harmony and prosperity? That’s not how I remember the 1970s. For her acolytes, did she build a new Jerusalem of limited government? At best, she slowed its growth but it was still bigger than when she started and has grown ever larger since.
Twenty years from now, will Tony Blair or Barack Obama still be vilified as devils or worshipped as saints? Interestingly, her contemporary Ronald Reagan at the time was pretty divisive over similar policies but it didn’t take long after his departure for airports, schools, highways and aircraft carriers to be named after him. Maybe he was just a nicer guy.
Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher posed a real problem for her self-professed loathers granted that sneak preview of the film. They reluctantly conceded Thatcher’s struggle as a middle class female against an entrenched establishment of privileged old men, but quickly dismissed her accomplishments in office and reiterated their rejection of everything she stood for.
Everything? This is where the Thatcher-as-Satan camp is vulnerable. If it was all so bad why haven’t four succeeding prime ministers even begun to reverse her legacy? Let’s take a look at some of her accomplishments.
The top tax rate was 83 per cent when Thatcher came in and 40 per cent when she left. The dying Brown administration did hike it to 50 per cent in a last ditch political ploy that the current regime hasn’t the courage of its convictions to rectify. Still, I don’t see the Thatcher rejectionists clamouring for 83 per cent again, probably because it would hit them as well and they really don’t want The Rolling Stones decamping to foreign climes again.
Thatcher led the world on privatisations from airlines to gas to oil to telecoms to electricity to you name it. Yes, the rail network has been renationalised but that botched privatisation wasn’t one of hers. Again, the rejectionists aren’t clamouring for more nationalisations. Perhaps, Northern Rock, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds are giving pause for more thought on this.
Then there was Thatcher’s faith in competition and innovation to deliver better quality and lower prices. I remember our local Presto supermarket back in the 80s was a grim place with stodgy fare until Tesco opened up the road. And how many charming little corners of Europe are easily accessible now thanks to easyJet and Ryanair? Indeed, how many Thatcher rejectionists have a quaint retreat in Provence or Tuscany and a local Waitrose stocked with olives, sun dried tomatoes and decent bread?
Speaking of foreign travel, do we really need the freedom to buy whatever foreign currency we want in whatever amount? Let’s reimpose currency controls so our rejectionists can once again don hanky sunhats while figuring out how to stretch £100 a week. It would certainly help distinguish Britons from other pink-skinned northern Europeans down in the Costas, since binge drinking will no longer be affordable.
There’s much lamenting the lack of British-owned manufacturers, yet the car industry in Britain today is on the verge of producing record numbers and exports of cars. A bona-fide rejectionist would toss out those evil foreigners at Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Ford and Tata so we could get behind the wheel (and under the bonnet) of a British Leyland clunker once again.
Then there’s all that council housing Thatcher sold off. A true rejectionist would forcibly buy them back, but at the original selling price, to teach those aspiring lower classes that there is such a thing as society in which they have their allotted place.
And since we’re coming up to the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands war, what better way to undo a Thatcher triumph then by simply handing the islands over to Argentina? As additional compensation, we could toss in a couple of aircraft carriers we’re building but have no plans for.
Finally, let’s not forget the coal miners. Everybody, back down the pits for an early death from accident or disease or sheer exhaustion. The air is getting too clean and I miss the pea soupers of Sherlock Holmes fame, three-day work weeks and candle-lit shops.
Jan Boucek, a former financial journalist, blogs for The Adam Smith Institute.