Beyond “The Crown”: Discussing the Thatcher years and legacy

12 February 2021 /

7 min

Margaret Thatcher made a return to popular culture in the Netflix series “The Crown”. Beyond her relationship with the Queen portrayed on the show, Thatcher is best remembered for how she managed the country for eleven years, reforming the UK’s economy and also creating social unrest. To this day, Thatcherism remains a subject of wonder…

November marked the return of the Netflix hit tv-series “The Crown”. Since 2016, Peter Morgan has brought viewers into the intimate life of the British royal family, centering the show around the country’s longest-reigning monarch – Queen Elizabeth. From one decade to another, from the queen’s crowning to her relationship with politicians such as Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson, each season depicts England through the decades as seen from the perspective of the monarchy. Season four was probably the most highly anticipated, as the show introduced two marking female personalities, namely the people’s princess, Diana Spencer, and the Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher.

Whereas Diana is soft, somewhat innocent, and receptive to other people’s suffering, Margaret stands in stark contrast to the young lady. Brilliantly played by Gillian Anderson, who brings the most memorable performance of the politician since Meryl Streep in 2011, viewers get to become acquainted once more with probably one of Europe’s most influential politician of the last century. In the series, Margaret is poise, sober, speaking with a deep voice (she had eloquence courses to sound more like a politician), she is also the anthesis of a feminist.

I have found women, in general, tend to be not suited for high office” she utters on the show, during her first meeting with the head of state. Although Peter Morgan merely interprets the personalities and conversations between characters (sometimes it is plain fiction), indeed the first-ever woman Prime Minister did not push for more gender equality. On the contrary, her cabinet was far from progressist. First, it consisted only of men, although during her eleven years in office she promoted (only) one woman to her cabinet. Furthermore, she did very little to advance women’s rights, such as investing in childcare or increased child benefits. She did not embrace the type of politics that elevated her to offices in the first place. In fact, Thatcher disapproved of feminism as an ideology, that she described as poison.

The daughter of a shop-keeper who climbed herself to the leadership of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher’s motivations laid elsewhere. For a while, she had become a vocal opponent to the country’s economic system. She opposed socialism and the nationalization of British firms. When the Conservative party won by a landslide in 1979, Thatcher became the Prime Minister of an economically weakened United Kingdom, though she had great plans for the country. The soul’s purpose of her premiership was namely to change the “nation’s soul and heart” – and that was her greatest accomplishment.

The embodiment of neoliberalism

Thatcherism was a name given by opponents of the Prime Minister to describe the doctrine that turned the country’s economy upside down. Thatcher replaced Edward Heath as the leader of the Conservative party, a pro-Europeanist, who supported social investment. When she came to power, her cabinet aimed to become the complete opposite. The government’s role was to control inflation and reduce public expenditure. For the rest, Thatcher advocated in favour of as little state intervention as possible. This type of economic policy was heavily influenced by neoliberalism ideologies, whereas increased autonomy from the state was conducive to economic growth. Indeed, entrepreneurship grew during her premiership and so did ownership. Yet, the result of her economic policies led to unemployment skyrocketing already during her first years in office.

Nevertheless, Thatcher did not lose faith in the great experiment she was embarking British citizens on. Turning the country’s economy around demanded strong reforms by the government, a paradox given her intention of reducing state interventionism. Despite her low approval ratings and protesters rising against the government, she was twice re-elected to the post. Her strong personal leadership style and harsh policies at home and abroad earned her the nickname of “Iron Lady” by a soviet journalist – a name she carried well.

Thatcher was a realist at heart. Her record of the Falkland wars and her doubts about the German reunification proved it. Furthermore, the Prime Minister understood well the changing nature of geo-economics around that time. The British economy, as most Western countries, had been weakened due to shifting dynamics in the world, the oil crisis and rising economic powers in the East. It was therefore to little surprise to see Thatcher getting elected in the UK, followed two years later by Ronald Reagan in the United States. The pair were natural allies. Both preached to the same economic ideologies of free-market, deregulation and placing their country’s interests first. In the case of Thatcher, she wanted to restore the UK’s grandeur on the international scene. “A strong Britain in a free world” became the motto of the Conservative Party.

“I want my money back”

Many remember Thatcher as being one of the first Eurosceptic of the European project and recognised in her what Charles de Gaulle was to the European Community during the sixties. Unbounding Europe for the sake of economic growth was much in her favour, but her warm feelings towards the EC did not go much further. Beyond that point, the UK became the awkward partner of the EC (and later on the EU), with Thatcher playing a great part in forming the relationship between the Brits and the rest of the Community.

During her Bruges Speech in 1988, Thatcher made her feelings about the relationship between Europe and the UK very clear: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” The speech also denounced bureaucracy and expressed a firm disdain towards the notion of a closer Community. Thatcher was a pain to Jacques Delors and his federalist ideals, opposing a deeper Europe but rather advocating for a wider Europe stretching to the East

Probably her greatest achievement in the EC was her successful negotiation of the British rebate for the UK’s contribution to the Common Agricultural Policy. When Thatcher entered office, her government was devoted to making budget cuts – that meant to the EC as well. Earlier on, she had told the Community at Strasbourg, she would not “play Sister Bountiful to the Community” when the rest of British citizens were asked to undergo “improvements” (in her own words) in the sector of health, education and welfare. Later on, her famous words of wanting her money back were held in Dublin, broking with the Community’s conventions. Eventually, she succeeded, when in Fontainebleau in 1984, it was agreed the UK’s contributions would be reduced to the size of its GNP.

Thatcherism, an early warning?

At her passing in 2013, many started to ponder how eleven years of Thatcherism impacted the British society. Three years later, David Cameron, after failing to negotiate a UK’s special status in Brussels, held the referendum that became the headache of the nation for the past four years. Some would argue that Thatcher, who was immensely critical of the Maastricht Treaty, would have been very pleased with the outcome and that she even paved the way – other doubt this is true. The woman absolutely opposed the notion of an “ever closer Europe”, but instead strongly advocated for a wider Europe without trade barriers. Her position was not one of a hard-Eurosceptic, who wish to discard the EU altogether, but rather of a soft-Eurosceptic, who thinks the EU has gone too far and oppose Brussels’ bureaucracy.

Yet, there is no doubt about the substantiality of her influence and politics – and the immense legacy she left behind. During her time, she was a devising figure, and inequalities between the wealthy and the poor deepened dramatically. She instored an individualist political culture strongly opposing socialism, that even the Labour Party used the word cautiously after her departure. Her New Public Management reform, deregulating the public sector – although inspiring countries abroad – turned the British Welfare system into an outlier in the European Union. In addition, her obstinacy and nationalism pushed the country a little further away from Europe. Therefore, beyond doubt, her eleven years set the stage for the UK’s economic success, but also its persistent social problems and hardened Euroscepticism, ultimately leading to the victory of the “Vote Leave” campaign.

For certain, Thatcher’s legacy will continue to be discussed in years to come. Around the globe, Thatcher is as (in)famous as the mighty Winston Churchill and the rest of the royal family. Her many appearances in popular culture, such as the Iron Lady with Meryl Streep and now in “The Crown”, are demonstrations of her persevering popularity and interest in her personality. Because indeed, the landscape of the British society could have been very different today had it not been for her – the Conservative Party as well.

This article was first published in the 33rd issue of our magazine.

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