Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Thatcher's blame game


Over the holidays, many cinema goers have seen The Iron Lady, the affectionate and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the divisive British prime minister who held office between 1979 and 1990.

She was credited with turning around the economic fortunes of the United Kingdom, and giving Britons reason to be once again proud of their nation. But unemployment and poverty increased markedly during the Thatcher years, and the gap between rich and poor widened significantly.  

Thatcher always defended her social policy, and insisted it was up to the poor to help themselves. She believed the poor choose poverty, and said as much in a 1988 speech to the Church of Scotland General Assembly on the theme that Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform. 

'We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. "If a man will not work he shall not eat" wrote St Paul to the Thessalonians... Any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm. We are all responsible for our own actions. We can't blame society.'

The idea that the poor can be cast adrift to sink or swim in the market economy, and do not need any protection from the state, is consistent with the thinking that brought on the GFC and the eurozone crisis. In a recent article in Thinking Faith, the Irish Jesuit professor of philosophy William Matthews alluded to Thatcher's role in the initiation of the 'contagious ethos of the deregulation of finance from political control'.

'This school of thought was convinced that a free global market economy would make the world a much better and prosperous place for all. What resulted over time was a dysfunctional shift in power relations with the financial world gaining unprecedented control.'

Matthews suggests Thatcher and the other architects of the free market system that allowed the calamitous binge behaviour that led to the current crises, should be held responsible in the way that engineers are culpable when their misjudgments lead to injury or loss of life.

'We are now suffering from the consequences of their carelessness. You never design an air traffic control system or a nuclear power station without the highest level of built-in safety features. To ignore those features and cause public harm could result in prosecution.'

Perhaps the best comments on Thatcher and the current public adulation she is enjoying are those of Meryl Streep, the actor who plays her in the film. Speaking on the ABC's 7.30, she made it clear that she 'still disagree[s] with many, many, many of [Thatcher's] politics', but that the politics need to be put into perspective with Thatcher's humanity.

Comparing her role as Thatcher now to playing Lindy Chamberlain many years ago, Streep said:

'Maybe there's a pattern in my life that I want to sort of defend the humanity of people that we've made into emblematic figures of one sort or another, figures of hatred or saints.'

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep, Iron Lady, poverty, William Matthews



submit a comment

Existing comments

One of the paradoxes of politics and the exercise of power more broadly is that those who rise to the top do so often because of a constellation of qualities that make it so. One of those qualities is singlemindedness. An aspect of this is the failure or deliberate decision to see things and present them in black and white. That unfortunately is not a true representation of the world and so any solution based on black and white interpretations will be wrong, often harmful. She was a master of black and white presentations as was her hero Winston CHurchill. It lends itself to sloganeering and other simplistic electioneering techniques and it divides the people with one being forced to either love or hate them. In between there is much suffering often unseen and unreported.

graham patison | 16 January 2012  

The William Matthews article in 'Thinking Faith' referred to by Micheal is well worth reading.

Tony W | 16 January 2012  

One has only to read her 'The Downing Street Years' in which she stands condemned by her own words. With messianic conviction she could quote Chatham:"I know that I can save this country and no one else can. Her reputation had been 'burnished internationally by the Falklands War and she personified 'the West's system of libetry'. For Thatcher, the market and free enterprise, Chicago School of Economics style, untrammelled by any human consideration, would lead to the Holy Grail. But, as John Kenneth Galbraith observed: "To ask Milton Frieman to advise on economic planning was like asking the Pope to counsel on the operations of birth control clinics". Thatcher found Nelson Mandela 'outdated in his attitudes' and Indira Gandhi 'never grasped the importance of the free market'. "The Germans are nervous of governing themselves' she confided and she couldn't understand Kaunda telling her 'Africa is not your area'.On her own evidence Thatcher was incapable of crucial self-assessment and positive self-doubt. She was, accordingly, never able to learn. Her assessment of other leaders, other people is demeaning of herself and her lack of knowledge, understanding and appreciation of other cultures and other traditions is equalled only by her arrogance. Her legacy is one of shame.

John Nicholson | 16 January 2012  

Well said, Graham Patison! Who would be a politician in a modern democratic society with a mixed economy? I had enough problems when I was President of a small professional staff association negotiating an enterprise agreement with Senior Management. Simply put Management saw things in terms of black and white, more money or improved conditions. I argued for a combination. In the end Management insisted on a vote of all the staff. The choices were: higher wages, improved conditions, or my compromise. 80% voted for higher wages, 15% for improved conditions and 5% for my compromise. I didn't stand for re-election!

Uncle Pat | 16 January 2012  

I was dragged to see this film. It is nothing more than a vehicle for Streep to earn one of those film industry self-congratulatory prizes while insisting that 'others deserve this more than me'. I thought it a particularly shallow and frankly wasted opportunity to examine Thatcher's role in the steady decline of the UK, carried on very ably by Blair after Thatcher departed the scene, and now by the capitalists latest shill, David Cameron. However, anyone who has been to England and suffered the unending idleness of the native understands that it is not just their deranged political leaders who are responsible for their decline, to do the worst possible has become an art form in England. These days it is hard to find any English(wo)men at work in many areas, as the new European citizens flood over there, eager to work for 3-6 quid an hour. Charity shops are the UK main domestic industry, taking over from manufacturing, as the 'miracle of the free market' has exported even the most basic factory task to China, as with here in Australia. Thatcher was no actor, in the sense that Streep is, but she certainly was a major actor in the transfer of Western employment and domestic security to China, and should be seen for the fifth columnist she was.

Andy Fitzharry | 16 January 2012  

Autobiography it is said, is the highest form of fiction. Bio-Pics like Iron Lady come a close second. Many viewers of this film are outraged that it is not a damning documentary, and many confuse the fine performance of Ms Streep with adulation. I loved the film as a fiction, for me it was a clever and modern retelling of Shakespeare's masterpiece King Lear. It did nothing to alter my opinion of Thatcher who with Regan changed western politics so fundamentally that our current Prime Minister cannot be distinguished from them. And it is those of us who vote who are to blame.

Shane Carmody | 16 January 2012  

Thank you very much for these comments -- which make complete sense. Britain had a proud record of working -- from compassion to strikes -- towards caring for those who do not function well in their economy. This article is a reminder of how thoroughly most of this was dismantled. And the video showing Thatcher on socialism....almost too hard to watch the Alice in Wonderland lack of logic that devastated so many lives and human social supports. Now we watch relentless free trade/globalisation continue -- yes, some chickens are coming home to roost in parts of the world. But Thatcher-like thinking continues on: interlinking of greed, cruelty (direct or indirect), environmental destruction/global warming, mindless accumulation of unthinkable military might.

Jane | 16 January 2012  

Then there is the alternative view that the GFC is the product of too much government intervention which, inter alia, has distorted the price signals that enable a free market to properly co-ordinate decisions between actors. Mrs Thatcher's brave but failed attempt to turn the UK into a capitalist nation once more should not be analysed as the the epitome of what goes wrong in a free market. Why don't leftists choose authentic examples of capitalism before pointing the finger? Answer this: if the free market is the cause of our current economic ills, why is it that by far and away the most free market economy in the world for the past sixty - Hong Kong - is not a chronic basket case of poverty and misery? How come, to the contrary, she has outperformed all other economies - including other so-called "capitalist" economies such as Australia, and also social democracies every year in terms of GDP and low unemployment, etc? How, eschewing all Keynesian stimulus programs, is she able to shrug off international recessions, and the GFC within a few months, while all the other massively stimulated economies are still reeling and tottering years later?

HH | 16 January 2012  

In Nov 1981 Thatcher's government wrote out the Falkland Islands inhabitants as UK entitled citizens in the Overseas territories Act. Argentina interpreted this as relinguishing the Falklands from British ownership which had been established in the previous century simply by the British landing and placing their flag in the ground defying anyone to disagree through the power of their dominant navy. In 1982 Argentina re-occupied its stolen islands which had always been disputed without firing a shot in anger. At the time Thatcher was so far behind in the opinion polls ( to the SDP - Liberal coalition) that electoral oblivion in the coming election late in 1982 seemed unavoidable. She attacked the Falklands and killed 600-odd Argentinians and lost 255 or so young British service men and women. The sabre rattling won the election in a land slide. In 1983, after the war, her re-elected government restored UK citizenship to the Falkland Islanders in justification of the killigs for which she was responsible for no reason other than her own political survival.What one of our god-children, a Commander in the RN involved in this war, can tell you but what Thatcher's England has never admitted, is that large numbers of service men and women (500 or so) have returned their Falklands Service medals and a number have also committed suicide after the light dawned as to why they were sent on this re-election killing campaign.Such is politics!

john frawley | 16 January 2012  

Similar Articles

Long road to the Indigenous referendum

  • John Warhurst
  • 27 January 2012

The proposed referendum follows the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations and provides an opportunity for this Labor era to be remembered whenever the Indigenous story is told. Passing a referendum is exceptionally difficult and there is no fool-proof recipe for success.


Beyond Australia's adolescent identity crisis

  • Fatima Measham
  • 26 January 2012

While Australia's early history is marked by violence, the Fraser Government's decision to accept nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, the Mabo decision, and Paul Keating's Redfern speech provide positive narrative touchstones that can help lead Australia to maturity.