Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Iron Lady

On Friday afternoon January 6th I went to see the second performance showing of The Iron Lady and the Bolden Cineworld. The film was shown in the largest of screen theatres and the audience for the 1.25 showing number around and 50 good for most early afternoon showing but less that for the Kings Speech or Tinker Tailor. I was not surprised at this because there are those on the political centre and left that hate what the woman did during her thirteen year reign as Prime Minister and would not contemplate seeing a film about her life.

In February 2007 (Blog 1008 Feb 2009)) after seeing Thatcher the Musical I mentioned knowing of several senior political figures at national and local level within the Labour Party who admired her ability to get things done, her way, and wished they had a leader of similar strength, ability and popularity. Be Careful what you wish for.

I attended an evening performance of the Musical at the Playhouse Theatre in Newcastle attend by an audience of 200 which mainly comprised students from the two Universities in the town. The auditorium to the main stage was about half full. The musical touched on all the things which many people came to hate her for, including Members of her Cabinet and Party because once she had made up her mind the Lady was not for turning even if the decision quickly proved wrong in terms of the desired outcome.

The show commenced with the quote from St Francis about compromise and healing divisions made before entering number 10 as Prime Minister for the first time and touched all the main issues which continue to be debated, monetarism and the Grocers daughter approach to budgets, her contempt for anyone who became dependent on the state, her attitude towards ideological Trade Union Leaders which I came to share, especially Scargill despite his being right about the end of coal mining in the UK, her approach to Europe and the single currency, her intransigence in Northern Ireland, her success with the Falklands War despite the sinking of the Belgrano as it appeared to be sailing away, her bonding with Ronald Regan and the generally hated Poll Tax together with the venom of former Cabinet Colleagues when they fell out. For me there was one aspect of her approach where her rough justice approach was wrong.

She presided over the destruction of local government autonomy from Central Government over budgetary control in setting local taxation according to the wishes of the local electorate. The Treasury became all powerful nationally and locally. When South Tyneside was first created in 1974 the controlling Mid Tyne Labour group were insistent that the emphasis should be on the provision of public services so they created a small management team which included the heads of Education, Housing and Social Services as well as Finance and Technical Services headed by a Chief Executive. Until that time Legal officers, Personnel Officers and Planners could have expected to have had permanent seats in management teams. It did not last long and soon the shift in power change and the money and their supporters took firm control. It was the job of the political chairman and vice chairman of the Committee to forge good links with their colleagues in control of the finance Committee and for myself and senior management work creatively and constructively with colleagues in the finance department to provide a degree of protection within the straitjacket imposed by central government.

Thatcher led the way to Treasurers taking control to the extent that they became more powerful than Prime Ministers after her, look at the way Brown controlled domestic policy while Tony had to play the international stage and in local government accountants rather than Lawyers became Chief Executives.

It is interesting that while David Cameron has talked the talk about decentralising power the approach of the first two years of the Coalition is to force local authorities to rigidly stick to the decision of no rate increases at the same time as reducing government financial support with the consequence of ruthless reductions in public funded services and their staff irrespective of local needs and circumstances and electoral wishes.

I came into close quarters with senior Tories and with Margaret Thatcher twice when as Minister of Education she came to a Social Service Annual conference and made it plain in private conversations and in her after dinner speech that she believed in self help and welfare being restricted to only those with carefully assessed need. The second occasion was when on a visit to London for a morning meeting I stayed over for a debate in the House of Commons on a child care scandal affecting an authority in the Northern region to which listened to the introductory speeches. The Deputy Labour Chief Whip arranged a seat on the floor of the House for me similar to those of the Civil servants but opposite to them. As I sat alone except when he came to sit with me, my presence appeared to interest the Government front bench and got a visual appraisal from her. I worked out the assumption being made that I was from the local authority under attack whereas in fact I was sympathetic to the criticism.

Lady Thatcher is said to have been influenced my two men, in addition to her father and her husband. Airey Neave who was assassinated by the IRA was a distinguished second world war soldier with the Military Cross and DSO who encouraged her not just to seek the leadership of the Tory but to see herself as Prime Minister and the loss of his wise and supportive counsel was greatly missed especially when she was forced out of office by the then Tory leadership.
In the film there is an important moment when Lady Thatcher challenges the claim they she has become governed by emotions, emphasising that all her life she has been concerned not just with ideas but putting ideas into practice. Her guru in this respect was Sir Keith Joseph who was my dinner guest on one occasion with whom I shared a flat overnight and who was responsible for approving my appointment as a local authority chief officer. When I openly admitted my different political perspective he suggested that I moved from the UK to a Russia, a sentiment which in the film Lady Thatcher also expresses in a different context. I think he understood more of my position when I commented that come the revolution we would both be on list for an early firing squad.

However while the film does refer as flashbacks to all controversial policies which marked her Premiership, The Iron Lady is not primarily about politics but about what happens when we get old, particularly those who have held positions of power or of public attention.

The film does cover the truths of political life at the top and that most colleagues belong to other political parties with as Churchill advised one newcomer to Parliament your enemies sit all around you. There is also the price to be paid in terms of partner and children. Denis, her husband played by Jim Broadbent, I suspect more as Jim Broadbent than Denis, complains that her ambition relegated him to an appendage. Yet the main focus of the film is inability of Lady Thatcher to accept the death of her husband allegedly keeping his clothing and possession for seven years or so in place before being persuaded to part with them and constantly having conversations with him as if he was with her long after his death. When her daughter arranges an earlier than planned visit to the Consultant Thatcher is defiant that she is not having hallucinations and afterwards tells Denis how she successfully dealt with examination although shortly afterwards she spends the night putting his clothes and possessions into bin bags for passing on to charity.

Michael Portillo on attending a private showing of the film last year commented on this Week that she had been shocked about how old she is presented. She was born in 1925 with HM Queen Elizabeth born in 1926. Yet the film also showed the difference between the elderly who are not cared for and those who are able to have their hair professionally attended and if female continue to sue make up. The film opens with Lady Thatcher going out alone early one morning to the local corner shop for milk and a paper and returning to tell Denis that the price of milk is now 46 pence a pint. The world around her is presented as alien to her but this is a misunderstanding as the film itself points out that when challenged by colleagues that she was out of touch because of the unfairness of the Poll Tax in practice, she is able to quote the price Lurpack and other makes of butter and challenges her male colleagues to do likewise. When meeting one of several comments about being a grocer’s daughter, she commented back that that she had had an Oxford Honours degree (second class in Chemistry).

The film is therefore primarily about how we perceive ourselves and our lives in old age and how others perceive us. For many they will see Lady Thatcher not as the old woman she is but as the ruthless Prime Minister she once was riding roughshod over the views of anyone and everyone who did not share her point of view and perspective. The acting in the film is superb and there will be no justice if Meryl Streep is not awarded the Oscar. I have not seen many films in theatre this season but it is the film of he year to date although the Artist which will be shown later in January is said set to be Oscar Winner along with the War Horse which has no appeal to me. I have reached the stage where a film has to appeal as well as appear to be of quality before I will venture to the theatre.

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