The new Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady, is arguably the most divisive Best Picture and Best Actress Oscar favorite for next year’s awards. Meryl Streep is predictably excellent in the title role, the dialog is crisp, and nowhere is the film better than delineating a complex and powerful woman from one succumbing to the ravages of age. And therein is what some have taken issue with: the stark portrayal of a diminished Thatcher suffering from advanced dementia.
Though The Iron Lady is presented through the lens of Thatcher’s failing health and there are certainly moments when the script needles her for supposed vanity and her ruthless ambition, it also gives an even-handed portrayal of some of her finest political moments.
One of these is her strong and decisive response to Argentina’s seizure of the British-held Falkland Islands in April 1982. After an America-brokered negotiation fell apart, Thatcher ordered British forces to the remote area, 400 miles from the southeastern tip of South America. A swift and incisive joint operation by the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and British Army (most notably the Parachute Regiment) followed, and the Argentine general Mario Menéndez surrendered on June 14.
Some have dismissed the Falklands conflict as an unnecessary war and, given the strategic unimportance of the islands and the limited ambitions of Argentina’s military, they may have something of a point. However, the rapid British response was extremely significant as a symbol that Britain would be neither rolled over nor intimidated – a message that needed to be communicated above all to Moscow (and, in the case of David Cameron's assertion today that Britain will never abandon the Falklands in the face of renewed Argentinian saber rattling, needed reiterating to the many non-traditional enemies of liberty these 30 years later).
Thatcher’s words and actions followed the blueprint laid out by Winston Churchill in his “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, when he stated, “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” The ‘Iron Lady’ realized, with the iron curtain now embodied by the Berlin Wall, the same principles held true 36 years later, and acted accordingly.
Echoing resoundingly in the policies of the Thatcher government is another phrase Churchill coined in his speech at Fulton: the “special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” Though the first two words of this phrase are among the most overused in our geopolitical lexicon, they remain, nevertheless, rich in meaning. Thatcher, like Churchill, understood that the only way to successfully resolve the Cold War without direct conflict with the Soviet Union was to strengthen ties between London and Washington. She believed, too, in the inherent freedoms that Churchill and his American counterparts risked everything to protect.
For Churchill, mounting a strong stance in defense of such values involved courting the support of first Roosevelt during World War II, and afterward, Truman and Eisenhower. Certainly, he overestimated his ability to facilitate what he later called a “parley at the summit” between Britain, the U.S. and Soviet Russia. Still, Churchill was farsighted in predicting that the Cold War would be ended by top-level, personal diplomacy, albeit with Britain being the junior partner in the Anglo-American alliance. In Thatcher’s case, as director Phyllidia Lloyd shows, the nexus of this was the Prime Minister’s relationship with Ronald Reagan, which writer Nicholas Wapshott correctly termed “a political marriage” between two principled and determined conservatives. Economic hardship, the inability to keep up in the arms race with the U.S. and the Polish uprising led by Lech Wałęsa all contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union, but the unified stance of Thatcher and Reagan cannot be underestimated.
Even in her downfall, Thatcher was acting as the natural heir to Churchill’s mantle. While Euro-integrationists often misrepresent Churchill’s position on the Continent due to speeches such as “The United States of Europe” (delivered at the University of Zurich on September 9, 1946), they conveniently gloss over his true sentiments on the subject, which he revealed during two telling exchanges. In a Saturday Evening Post article published on February 15, 1930, Churchill argued that whatever steps Europe may take toward greater integration, Britain must remain on the periphery: “We are with Europe, not of it. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.” In 1941, he shared similar sentiments with his parliamentary assistant, Jock Colville, telling him that “while Britain might be the builder and Britain might live in the house, she would always preserve her liberty of choice and would be the natural, undisputed link with the Americas and the Commonwealth.”
As (all too) briefly conveyed in The Iron Lady, it was the continuation of such beliefs (once she realized the full extent of European technocrats’ ambitions and hardened her position) that led to Thatcher’s downfall, as she ousted by a political coup hatched by Europhiles within her Cabinet. For whatever flaws there were in her character and policies – all of which would seem to me exaggerated in this film –Thatcher followed her (and Churchill’s) convictions on Britain’s limited role in the European community until her bitter political end. With the EU house of cards now ablaze, there is little doubt that history, if not cinema, will judge her kindly for this.