A Point of View: The many faces of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher smiling in Downing St at the start of her third term as PM, 1987

Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a decisive and divisive figure, loved and hated in equal measure. Is the complex character behind the Iron Lady facade obscured behind reminiscences fond and hostile, asks historian Lisa Jardine.

Just before Christmas, The National Archives (of which I recently became a director) released its annual set of documents under the 30-year rule, to the year 1981.

This is when hitherto-restricted government papers disclose secret detail about recent historical events.

Among those published this time were several giving intriguing behind-the-scenes insights into Margaret Thatcher's thinking and decision-making shortly after she became Conservative prime minister in 1979.

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Lisa Jardine
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  • Lisa Jardine is Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London

On 16 May 1979 - less than two weeks after the election - Peter Walker, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, wrote to Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, urging him to raise the then state-controlled retail price of milk by 1.5p to 15p a pint - a more than 10% increase.

"I find we have inherited from the Labour government a difficult situation in relation to the retail and wholesale prices of milk," Walker wrote.

"If we do not act quickly, I fear the whole industry will begin to doubt the strength of our commitment to ensuring the health of farming."

The Prime Minister disagreed strongly.

Across the bottom of Walker's typed letter to Howe, she scrawled in her highly recognisable handwriting: "I do not believe such a large increase is possible politically. 1.5p is a great addition to the housewife's budget. 1p is all she will bear.

"Moreover there is the other political point - I abolished school milk in schools!"

1979 letter on milk prices Margaret Thatcher's hand-written note about milk prices

Here, we surely detect the woman rather than the prime minister speaking, alert to imputations of lack of housewifely concern.

In April 1971, when she was Education Secretary in the Edward Heath government, she had indeed been responsible for abolishing free school milk for the over seven-year-olds - earning her the enduring derogatory nickname "Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher".

Children enjoying a milk break Daily free milk was once a schoolyard staple

In 1979, in spite of her qualms, the new government did increase the price of milk by 1.5p, and again the following December.

On both occasions the press, as Thatcher had anticipated, made much of what they regarded as the mismatch between the fact that, as a woman, she could be expected to show concern for children, nutrition and the housekeeping budget, and the fact that her public statements on both occasions firmly defended the policy.

Last Tuesday, following the announcement of the 2012 Academy Awards nominations, Meryl Streep became the bookies' favourite to win this year's best actress award for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd and Abi Morgan's acclaimed biopic, The Iron Lady.

Critics are agreed that Streep's is an impressive performance, with (some have even maintained) the tragic intensity of King Lear.

As in Lear, the action is focused on old age - three days in 2005, when, aged 80, Thatcher's faculties are failing and she struggles to come to terms with the life she has lost - vividly recalled in flashback - including the lost companionship of her husband Denis, who died in 2003.

Meryl Streep on playing the Iron Lady

I found The Iron Lady a compelling watch. I was on the edge of my seat emotionally throughout.

Meryl Streep's portrayal of Britain's first woman prime minister is a tour de force, and not simply as an impersonation. Thatcher in old age is unknown to most of us, so Streep's representation of the former prime minister is largely her creation. Streep's Mrs Thatcher is a figure almost shockingly available for our scrutiny - for much of the time in close-up, tempting us to try to read from the intensity of her screen presence the paradox of the passionate woman behind the iron mask.

Morgan's screenplay and Lloyd's direction embed Streep's performance in a beautifully observed collage of public and private moments from Thatcher's life, captured with deft, subtle cinematographic touches.

When the young Denis Thatcher proposes in 1950, just after Margaret has failed to win her first parliamentary seat at Dartford, she tearfully insists that she will "never be one of those women remote and alone in the kitchen doing the washing up".

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

She has to make a difference to the world: "I cannot die washing up a tea cup". The film's final scene shows her, frail and confused, slowly washing the teacup from which she has just drunk her mid-morning cup of tea.

And the first words she speaks as the film opens - returning from an excursion to the local convenience store, evading her carer and minders, to buy a pint of milk - studiedly recall her two unpopular political brushes with the nation's milk supply.

"Milk's gone up. 49p a pint," she observes across the breakfast table. "Good grief!" retorts husband Denis (actually deceased, and a figment of her imagination). "We'll have to economise."

And yet I found the film troubling.

The 11 years of Margaret Thatcher's premiership were some of the most turbulent I and my like-minded contemporaries lived through. At the time we were opposed to almost every political decision she ever took.

Opinion in the country was sharply divided, of course, hence her victory in three general elections.

Margaret Thatcher smiling in Downing St at the start of her third term as PM, 1987 She served three terms as prime minister

But we supported the miners in the miners' strike, we were opposed to the Falklands War, horrified by the sinking of the Belgrano. We could hardly believe the unfairness of the proposed per capita poll tax. ("In order to live in this country you must pay for the privilege. If you pay nothing, you care nothing," is Thatcher's characteristically blunt justification in the film.)

What am I to do now with an insightful portrait of the complex personality with its hopes and fears, self-doubts and uncertainties, behind the decisive and politically robust facade? Nothing is thereby altered in the consequences of her sometimes inflexible policies.

My ambivalence about The Iron Lady returned me to a thought I have been turning over in my mind for some time. In the course of my Points of View, I have several times revisited the subject of my beloved paternal grandmother.

Start Quote

Whether we supported or opposed her during her years in power, Margaret Thatcher's legacy continues to shape the society in which we live today”

End Quote

Here is how I recalled her in 2007 when speaking about the important example she set me in my life: "I remember my paternal grandmother - a formidable woman, with a razor-sharp intellect and an iron will - as permanently exasperated at the absence of any real role for her outside the domestic.

"By the time I knew her, poor health had confined her to the housekeeping, where she was only happy when performing a really difficult task with panache. I have a vivid mental picture of her with a smile of satisfaction on her face as she whipped two egg whites into stiff, brilliant white peaks to make meringues, on a flat dinner plate with an ordinary fork, the eggs held on the angled plate by the sheer force of her beating."

Eric Taylor of Sheffield, however, who as a young Labour Party activist had encountered my grandmother in political circles in London's Stamford Hill, was not impressed by my sentimental recollections of Mrs Bronowski.

"You described your grandmother as 'a formidable woman', he wrote to me after my meringue-whipping reminiscence. As someone who had the misfortune of encountering her, I'd describe that as a considerable understatement.

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You described your grandmother as 'a formidable woman' - I'd describe that as a considerable understatement”

End Quote Eric Taylor to Lisa Jardine

"You referred to her being 'active in local politics'. However, you carefully refrained from mentioning that she was a rabid and fanatical communist, whose only response to anyone who disagreed with her was to hurl a stream of invective and personal abuse at them. I do not think you should allow personal sentiment to prevent you from acknowledging that some aspects of your grandmother's personality, political outlook and career may have left something to be desired."

So have I skewed the historical record with my fond reminiscences of my grandmother?

Did I, perhaps, choose deliberately to omit the fact that she had been active in far-left politics during and after World War II and had stood as a Communist candidate for the London County Council?

I don't think so. My grandmother's legacy went no further than her private life and the model she served as for me, her eldest grandchild.

Margaret Thatcher in the House of Lords The Iron Lady became a Baroness

By contrast, whether we supported or opposed her during her years in power, Margaret Thatcher's legacy continues to shape the society in which we live today.

In the opening shots of The Iron Lady, as Thatcher wanders incognito around her local corner-shop, a man on a mobile phone pushes past her to the front of the queue. She is jostled by a young man engrossed with his iPod.

The film hints here that Britain is tougher and less considerate than in the days of Thatcher's confident individualism. "There is no such thing as society," Mrs Thatcher told Woman's Own in 1987. Each of us has to look out for ourselves, not expect "society" to take care of us.

For some of us, that is as much Margaret Thatcher's legacy as the contribution her years in power made to the relative financial strength of our economy today.


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  • Comment number 515.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 514.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    I was 13 in 1979. My father & older brother reviled against Mrs.Thatcher daily for a decade. In such an atmosphere it was difficult to be objective but, by 16, I realized that she was looking out for Britain's future, rather than purchasing four more years. Would that LJ could too after 30 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    Margaret Thatcher's deregulation of the banks? caused our financial crisis?! Wow that's news to me, here - might want to take a look at this - a BBC article with Gordon Brown ADMITTING he failed on regulating the banks


    It was he (LABOUR) under the advice of Ed Balls and Ed Miliband that set this country up for failure - not Thatcher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 511.

    I am sooo relieved to see the vast majority are slamming Thatcher. I just can't wait for them to do the same to Cameron and co. How they have 38% in the polls is an absolute mystery to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    How are all the 'top posts' so moronic? 'What an evil woman, she sold off our industries and we import coal instead of mining it', the industries were a black hole of public spending, coal was cheaper to import than to mine in britain, it would have been stupidity to let it continue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    i miss her as PM

  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    She was a "strong politician" yes if that mean inflicting pain and misery on others is a virtue. She wasn't that strong when her gormless son was lost in the desert, crying all over the telly. It's easy to be strong when you are inflicting suffering on others!

  • rate this

    Comment number 507.

    I too met the PM, on four occasions. She had a great understanding of engineering problems, She was after all a qualified chemist. The UK was in self destruct mode in the 70s. We were cancelling trains because drivers and guards would simply walk off the job with no notice for some minor gripe. If that days pay was missing on pay day-all out again the following week. She was needed alright.

  • rate this

    Comment number 506.

    488. prolemmie

    The fact that you absurdly insist on calling the Falklands "the Malvinas" strongly suggests that you sympathise with Argentina's invasion and ambition to illegally confiscate land that doesn't belong to them.

    You say you 'understand democracy'.

    You concede the liberation of the Falklands was popular, yet you side with Argentina. That's an odd interpretation of democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    My only disappointment with Thatcher is that she didn't finish off the unions once and for all when she had the chance. You should see the trouble they are causing where I work now (private sector), no compromise, refusing to see the big picture, self centred, blinkered idiots. Come back Maggie, all is forgiven!

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.

    So she was a 'strong politician' - so were Adolph Hitler , Joseph Stalin, Kim Il Sung, General Pinochet and a whole host of others. Maybe we need weak politicians; weak enough to listen to the people and to care how they live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    Once more the the 'bien savants' of the left have a short memory. When Labour ruled we were at the whim of the unions - remember the Winter of Discontent? Then again these people always have a rose tinted view of socialism. Thatcher had her faults and yes society was more divided under her but then, unlike the left she didn't take us into an illegal war and then bankrupt this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 502.

    Margaret Thatchers final legacy for Britain will be Scottish Independence

    She tore the social cohesion of this country to pieces and the final price for the UK will be paid by the children of Thatcher currently residing in Westminster.

    Those of us who lived through her tenure know that no mercy will be shown by the victor and no quarter can be expected by the vanquished.

  • rate this

    Comment number 501.

    You havent posted my comment and you havent sent me an email saying you're not going to post it and why...what's this about? And don't you know the difference between offensive and disrespectful? I understand offensive is not allowed but nowhere in the house rules does it say you have to be respectful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 500.

    President Mitterand of France summed Thatcher up with a single sentence

    "The voice of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula"

    Streep gave a good performance but her soft round eyes lacked that merciless cruelty which was Thatchers trademark

  • rate this

    Comment number 499.

    I have detested drinking fresh milk ever since those days in the 60's when on a summer's day the school milk was at a warm 25 degrees and smelled of sweaty socks. Made me want to puke. Unfortunately Thatcher's abolition came too late for me! Seriously though, she was a necessary evil for the economy, even if I disagreed with many of her social policies. Labour had left the country a basket case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 498.

    It's unrealistic for any politician to be universally loved or hated so the debate seems a bit pointless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 497.

    495. Scarf66  21 MINUTES AGO Sick individuals on here suggesting that they will celebrate the death of an individual. Socialist compassion only when it suits the argument .......

    Report them they get taken off, didnt realise compassion was political.

  • rate this

    Comment number 496.

    The bizarre and irrational apparent approach to Irish republicanism seems to have been overlooked.

    This caused immense suffering, loss of life, and billions in needless bomb damage. Contrary to the declared position, the Tories were very much "talking to terrorists" indeed, but to little benefit, it would now appear.


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