Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of the Iron Lady in the lavish production reminds us that, though she was a Tory PM, Margaret Thatcher was no conservative, but a handbag-wielding wrecking ball to all that was ‘great’ about Britain.
The Netflix mega-production The Crown has been a trip through my lifetime, really – I was born in 1954. Her Majesty was crowned in 1952. I’m familiar with all of the episodes of her soon-to-be 70-year reign, though I’ve met her only twice, and one of those was as a wine waiter!
As the series has gone on, of course, more and more often I can say, “I was there” or “This is what I thought at the time.” Fifty years in politics, and nearly 30 of those in Parliament, can get you that way.
I’ve just binge-watched the new series, and don’t regret having done so, through my tired eyes. This morning I disagreed with my old parliamentary adversary, Lord Forsyth, the former Thatcher Cabinet minister who openly wept in my presence on the evening of her defenestration back in 1990. He was quite upset about the script of the Crown, describing it as “one step up from Spitting Image”.
I presume his gripe was with the portrayal of his heroine, Mrs Thatcher, as grotesquely out of place among her ‘betters’ in the aristocracy. Turning up to go deer-stalking at Balmoral wearing scent, a bright blue coat and high heels, for example. Gauchely sitting in Queen Victoria’s chair and being upbraided by the absurdly snobbish slattern, Princess Margaret. Ironing her and her husband Dennis’s clothes by herself in a castle full of servants, shooing away the maid who began unpacking the Thatcher suitcases with a “that’s a wife’s job”. And spectacularly failing at the zoo-like quality “parlour games” played after dinner by the extended royals.
Finally, as she watches yet another burly Highlander toss a caber at the Braemar Gathering she exclaims to the laconic Mr T, “What AM I doing here? I have WORK to do”, before scuttling out of Balmoral early, all handbags and middle-class glad-rags back to Westminster. The royals are exceedingly pleased to see her go.
Absurdly, the prejudice against Mrs Thatcher was partly misogynistic – in a country headed by a queen. Mr Thatcher summed that up best when his wife returned from her first audience at the Palace: “Two menopausal women running the country – what could possibly go wrong?”
But it had as much to do with class.
Though she’d married a rich businessman in divorcee Dennis, Mrs Thatcher came from spartan, almost humble, beginnings. She was a grocer’s daughter. For her, hard work was its own reward – too much to be done to make time for parlour games and slaughtering wild animals for fun. And though a scholarship girl at Oxford and briefly a barrister too, she was thoroughly lower middle-class.
The royals and the rest of the noblesse-oblige British upper class preferred their own of course, like Mr Churchill, Mr Eden, Mr Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. But they could live with the odd ‘noble savage’ from the working classes, like Mr Harold Wilson and Mr James Callaghan. The one thing they really hated was the grasping mercantile materialism of the middle-class. Personified by ‘loadsa money but not much breeding’ Margaret Thatcher.
You see, though she was the leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher was not a conservative. In fact, she was a radical outrider of a train of thought most recently personified by Donald Trump. She saw herself as surrounded by the “swamp” of Donald Trump’s fevered rhetoric. Even the ‘wets’ in her own cabinet were viewed this way, never mind the Civil Service, the diplomatic corps, and the BBC.
In her eyes, all of these were holding her back from her revolutionary tasks. She wanted not to conserve but to tear down any remaining shelter from the storm troops of free-market capitalism. For her, there was “no such thing as society, only individuals”. For her, the parable of the Good Samaritan was that the Samaritan had made himself rich first. For her, there was no such thing as “us and always”, only “me and now” as Neil Kinnock put it. She was without religion, without culture, without pity. She was the Iron Lady, but she had ice in her veins. Her mission was to destroy any remaining good, never mind great, about Britain sacrificed to the Gods of the Free Market. Nothing sacred should be left unprofaned, nothing solid not be melted into air.
In so doing, she made friends at the farthest reaches of British society. The dukes and grandees had far more fellow feeling with the British mineworkers than with the dessicated calculating machines of the Thatcher revolution.
As she herself once put it: “It’s a funny old world.”