Richard Vinen: Britain Needs to Forgive and Forget the Iron Lady

Roundup: Talking About History

The writer teaches history at King’s College London and is author of Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the 1980s.

Meryl Streep remarked that she had tried, in the film The Iron Lady, to capture what it was about Margaret Thatcher that aroused such "venom". Venom is the right word. Recently, when I wrote an article that might have been interpreted as sympathetic to Lady Thatcher, my inbox filled with hate mail. Some of it was obscenely misogynistic, some based on simple errors (surprising how many people think that she privatised the railways) and some just mad. One man insisted she was a coward because she had refused to debate with him; it did not seem to occur to him that there might have been simpler reasons why she, or her advisers, thought that his invitation to debate deserved to go in the bin.

The different responses evoked by Ronald Reagan and Lady Thatcher are revealing. The former is remembered in the US with affection; his death was an occasion for national mourning. This is due, in part, to the respect accorded to a head of state – one cannot imagine an American film-maker would treat the frailty of Reagan’s declining years in the way that The Iron Lady treats Lady Thatcher’s. It was also because he cultivated a sunny optimism even when he was proposing policies way to the right of anything she tried in Britain.

Lady Thatcher, by contrast, always got people’s backs up. Her tone seemed sharp to those who had grown up with the emollience of Harold Macmillan or James Callaghan; when she complained about the latter’s "avuncular condescension", he said he found it hard to imagine her as his niece. Even people who voted for her did not necessarily like her. Tory canvassers got so used to hearing the phrase "That Bloody Woman" that they began to talk about the "TBW" factor. Until an unkind interviewer enlightened her, she thought it was the name of a television station.

There was, however, a time when the more intelligent parts of the British leftwing was careful about making personal attacks on her...

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