I never thought I would write the words – I feel sympathy for Margaret Thatcher – but I do. Being in London last week I took the opportunity to see the Meryl Streep movie, The Iron Lady, which will bring the actress many rewards, maybe even a coveted Oscar. It is a silly film, it is a fine film but my own personal feeling is that such a delicate subject as Thatcher’s fading old age amidst dementia should have been left to after her death.
I have no problem with a film about the Thatcher years. They faded in and out of the portrayal and reminded us why and how she divided a nation. Indeed the legacy of what Britain’s first woman prime minister achieved lives on to this day both in her triumphant successes and total disasters.
I was in London throughout the mainstream years of Thatcherism. I was in Brighton on the night in 1984 when the IRA bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel. I had drunk in the bar and then passed the hotel in the late hours on my way to catch a train to London. When I awoke the following morning very early to catch a train to Edinburgh I could hardly believe my ears when I heard the radio news reports of what had happened and how the Thatchers had escaped unscathed.
Thatcherism was not something that for Gibraltarians simply happened in the UK. Let us not forget it was her Foreign Secretary now Lord Howe who in 1984, with her full approval, foisted the Brussels Process on the Rock. The relevant clause reads: “The establishment of a negotiating process aimed at overcoming all the differences between Spain and the United Kingdom over Gibraltar and at promoting co-operation on a mutually beneficial basis on economic, cultural, touristic, aviation, military and environmental matters. Both sides accept that the issues of sovereignty will be discussed in that process. The British government will fully maintain its commitment to honour the wishes of the people of Gibraltar as set out in the preamble of the 1969 constitution.” Its implications and the fact it opened up the right of Spain to discuss Gibraltar’s sovereignty will haunt us for many years to come.
It is ironic that a Conservative Prime Minister, who would open up the prospect of negotiations over Gibraltar’s sovereignty with Spain, would give the order in 1982 to sink the Argentinean battleship, the Belgrano, in her determination to ensure the Falkland Islands remained British. The Belgrano is the only ship ever to be sunk in anger by a nuclear powered submarine HMS Conqueror The debate over whether the Belgrano was a threat or sailing away from the British Task Force will rumble on long after Thatcher has left us.
The Iron Lady shows a Margaret Thatcher who wanted to do nothing more than to change the world. That she became a Tory MP at all and indeed went on to lead her party (and thereafter her country) is probably down to two men: Denis Thatcher and Airey Neave. Denis has always been portrayed as a golf playing and gin and tonic swilling buffoon – the truth is probably far different but the film does little to dispel it.
Airey Neave was a MP, a barrister and a war hero long before Margaret Thatcher even came on the scene. He is one of the few prisoners of war to have escaped from the German prisoner of war camp at Colditz castle. He was assassinated by it is believed the Irish National Liberation Army in a car bomb explosion as he drove out of the car park at the House of Commons in 1979. The moment is graphically portrayed in the film. I had interviewed him the year before at his office at parliament on Northern Ireland issues. He was a man of true stature and helped guide the young Margaret Thatcher through the ranks of the sneering Tory grandees.
The Iron Lady also shows us a Margaret Thatcher who is devoted to her family. However she made it plain when agreeing to marry Denis that she was destined for a life in politics and hence wouldn’t be a housewife tied to the kitchen sink. I suspect he always played second fiddle to her ambition and what of her children: Carol and Mark? Carol is shown trying to help her dementia suffering mother come to terms with the facts that Denis is dead and she is no longer prime minister. It is said their relationship has always been difficult. Mark was and is by all accounts her favourite but only appears as playing as a child on the beach in old family home movies. Given what we know of him; that is probably the best place to leave him.