Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady and British History

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Around the turn of the 20th Century, Coventry made a name for itself in first bicycle then automobile manufacture; with such pioneers as Rover plying their trade from the city’s industrial district Coventry became an important player in the British motor industry until its decline in the 70s. During the war and post war Coventry was a boomtown for jobs and industries, attracting thousands from across Britain and overseas. Anyone was able to gain a job and earn a decent wage. However, this steady wave of economic success suddenly shifted into a devastating tidal wave of unemployment, angst and protests.

This change in economic success and the closure of industries and loss of jobs happened in the 1970’s when Britain was under the Conservative government and welcomed new political leader: Margaret Thatcher.  To gain a better understanding of greatly hated and admired politician as well as her affects on the people of Britain I watched ‘Iron Lady’ and read articles on the Internet. Let me focus on ‘Iron Lady’, which has given me much insight.

‘Iron Lady’ tells the compelling story of Margaret Thatcher, played by Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress Meryl Streep, a woman who broke new boundaries, smashing through the barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dominated world. The film reflects the power and the prices that are paid for its gain.  Past and present are intertwined with organic footage, sound affects and new reports, making for an authentic view into a legendary piece of British history.

The picture begins with modern Britain as Thatcher buys milk with an increased price from an Asian corner shop, confusion and a sense of rush infuses, ‘Milk’s gone up, 49p a pint!’ whilst the news reports various bombings. Thatcher is haunted by the past, both politically and personally, ‘It used to be about doing something. Now it’s about being someone’, often behaving as if she were still Prime Minister and hallucinating about her late husband, engulfed by a terrible amount of grief and disbelief.

We see glimpses of Thatcher’s teen years working for her fathers business, a small shop and gaining a place at Oxford University. Self-reliance, business and being an individual are highlighted as key. Flash backs of Thatcher’s father, a huge influence in her political aspirations, speaks of how the Conservatives believe in giving people the freedom and opportunity to fulfill their own potential. Especially the young and how we must encourage our children to aspire to achieve more than we have, as the children of today are the leaders of tomorrow. Working, leadership and getting up to make a change become inherent to the young Miss Margaret Roberts.

We witness Thatcher talking at dinner amongst politicians, where her defiance for working people and econimising are prevalent, yet gender expectations and lack of equality are still defiant barriers. Thatcher, then Roberts, meets her husband but expresses her need to do something with her life, much more then what society expects of a woman. Despite this she marries and has twins, a girl and a boy. Alongside this normality, Thatcher gains a place for the Conservatives, having gained an impressive 29,697 votes, thus becoming a new Member of Parliament for Finchley in 1959.

Years pass and the Conservative Government are not fulfilling the people of Britain’s high and rightful expectations. There are losses of jobs and school closures whereby Thatcher is now the Education Secretary for the Conservative party ‘Teachers cannot teach when there is no heating, no lighting in their classrooms. And I ask the right honorable Gentlemen, whose fault is that?’ Opposition screams and shouts ‘Yours!’ The Government at this time forced so many in the public sector into taking strike action to save their own jobs. The breakdown in essential public services, in transport, in electricity, in sanitation was not the fault of the Trade Unions but of the Conservative Government it would seem. Power cuts became a regular occurrence; miners asked for a 35% increase in wages, which they could not touch, the Government was simply struggling to make compromises for the sake of the economy.  Black outs, no petrol, Britain was compared to the conditions seen in World War II. All of this was under the reign of politician Heath and people wanted and were desperate to make way for someone new.

In 1974, Thatcher decided to run for leader of the Conservative Party, eager to shake up the party, not expecting to gain the place, but just to run. Her appearance and voice were transformed into an authoritive leader maximizing her appeal, bringing out all her qualities in order to go the full distance, even Prime Minister, which she never initially intended. Thatcher began to talk with utter conviction, authority and belief. She supported and believed in the growth of businesses, to put people back into work and to sustain jobs, ‘It’s time to put the Great back into Great Britain’. Inevitably, Thatcher became Leader of the Conservative Party the same year. Next stop, Prime Minister.

On Friday 4th May 1979, history was made as a Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher was set to lead the country. Prior to this there had never in the West been a woman Prime Minister, becoming the first woman in British history ever to be invited to form a government.  ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there’s despair, may we bring hope’ A prayer of St Francis Of Assisi which Mrs. Thatcher spoke before entering the most famous address in the world; Number 10, Downing Street. Thatcher became the longest standing Prime Minister in the 20th Century, leading the country for eleven and a half years.

These flashbacks are interwoven with Thatcher’s current life, mourning her husband, dealing with modern Britain and persuading people that she is utterly capable and fine. ‘Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. And watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become. And I think, I am fine’. This determination and need for hard work I can’t help but feel are traits within the people of Coventry as I’ve been researching, throughout history we have worked hard and want to do better, similarly to Thatcher.

Supporters claimed Thatcher transformed the British economy, and reversed the country’s post-war decline. Her detractors blamed her savage public spending cuts and sweeping privatisation of education for the country’s struggles. Just two years after quoting St Francis, and speaking of bringing faith, harmony and hope to the country, the public quickly turned their opinions and thoughts on Thatcher.  Whilst in power she caused the highest rate of unemployment since 1934, the biggest fall in output in steel and coal production in one year since 1931 and the biggest collapse in industrial production since 1921. Thatcher’s free market economics were designed to create a growing middle class, ensuring that the rich got richer and the poor were well irrelevant. In relation to Coventry, the industries certainly felt a soaring decline and less skilled jobs and jobs in general were no longer available.  This period of time in the film is dispersed with sounds of news reports, protests and gunfire, Thatcher’s speeches, genuine footage of protests and riots, facts and statistics. One is engulfed in this time of angst and frustration, a whirlwind of recession and decline.

The country by the 80’s was in one of the deepest recessions we had ever experienced whilst spending cuts came as a resolution to avoid bankruptcy. This was the time of sweeping protests and crime across Britain, Coventry included, as described in the Stand Up For Your Rights in Herbert Art Gallery. People could not pay their mortgages. Manufacturing industries were on their knees. Honest, hardworking people were losing their homes.  The country was split between the employed and the unemployed, taking part in various protests, March for Jobs being the most poignant. Around 3 million people were unemployed in Britain during this period and Coventry felt the brunt of the Conservative Government actions. The film then shows a bombing Mr. and Mrs. Thatcher experienced in Brighton, an eye opening experience for them as they witness what destruction the Conservative Governments actions have caused in the people of Britain first hand.

Than the attack on the Falkland Islands. Despite the disastrous economy Thatcher decided to send out military forces to protect and fight for the islands.  This would mean paying for 28,000 men and 100 ships, 12,000 miles to Argentina, a price the country could simply not afford.  Britain went to war nonetheless, something Thatcher could have stopped. Thankfully, the Argentineans retreated bringing an end to the war and allowed the British forces to exploit their success and feel a sense of great achievement.  The attack was an unprovoked aggression where Britain simply responded, as we have in previous conflicts, as evidenced in the people of Coventry after the Blitz. Coventry responded with unity, strength and courage, as the soldiers did during the Falklands War. Britain’s celebrations over the success of the Falkland Islands deemed Margaret Thatcher, as the nation’s darling once more and businesses were also on the up, improving the British economy to greatness again. However, taxes did become an issue. Thatcher believed the prices of taxes should be the same for everyone, for the poorest of the poor to multi millionaires.  As an outcome angst and protests swept across the country once more.

The issues arisen during Thatcher’s reign over Britain tempted MP’s to take her place as leader. As an outcome, Thatcher decided to withdraw as Prime Minister, quitting whilst she were still ahead as it were. Slowly Britain regained their prosperity but the British still struggle today. Thatcher’s time in government was one of highs and lows, which were reflected in the peoples’ behavior, Coventry included.

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