January 13, 2012 7:45 pm

The Iron Lady heads to America

The biopic demystifies austerity and shows that a nation can go through that painful tunnel and emerge at the other side

Why has the British government pressed ahead with a programme to tackle its national debt, while America continues to procrastinate? It is a question that often crops up in conversations with British visitors to Washington, given the current US policy gridlock.

And there are plenty of possible answers. Britain’s parliamentary system, for example, makes it easier for a government to impose unpopular policies (particularly since they only face voters every five years). The close proximity of crises in Greece and Ireland has concentrated politicians’ minds. Britain is also more debt-laden and lacks a reserve currency. Unlike Uncle Sam, it cannot simply print money and pray: there is more pressure to act.

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Gillian Tett

But I suspect that there is another factor at work too, of which I was reminded last week when I saw The Iron Lady, the biopic about Margaret Thatcher, at a cinema in New York: the sad truth is that Britain, unlike America, has already experienced austerity within living memory. More specifically, as The Iron Lady shows, it was only four decades ago that Britain was grappling with an economic crisis, cutbacks, protests and endemic gloom. And while nobody under the age of 40 remembers those days, they are baked into folk memory. Thus, for better or worse, British voters and politicians recognise the smell of austerity – or, more accurately, nod with grim familiarity when it is presented on a cinema screen.

To be sure, this point is not spelled out explicitly in The Iron Lady: indeed, there is much that is (sadly) left unstated in this biopic. Meryl Streep does a brilliant and haunting job portraying a dementia-ridden Thatcher. But the film skips rather lightly through British history, assuming a high level of prior knowledge, which is irritating and baffling for non-Brits. My friends in New York, for example, were completely nonplussed by the poll tax references. They also found the emphasis on dementia an irritating distraction from the bigger historical tale. (It would be hard to imagine anyone making a film that focused so heavily on Ronald Reagan’s struggles with dementia. To American eyes, this seems disrespectful of high office.)

Notwithstanding these flaws, The Iron Lady has played to packed cinemas in New York, even before it opens elsewhere in the US. And although it is the tale of Thatcher herself that mesmerises most Americans, what I found equally striking were the jarring images of 1970s social strife and economic pain. After all, during the past three decades of economic boom in Britain, those memories have tended to be downplayed. But The Iron Lady is full of news reels of demonstrations, protests and power cuts. And there is a particularly memorable scene where Thatcher steps around stinking rubbish bags (or garbage cans) when the disposal men are all on strike: a potent – and pungent – symbol of a nation overwhelmed by fiscal woes.

Of course, such images are not unique to Britain: films about 1960s and 1970s America also feature plenty of clips of political protest. But the demonstrations that occurred in the US four decades ago tended to focus on issues such as the Vietnam war or civil rights. And while there was real economic pain aplenty, the flashpoints tended to be regional, not federal. In New York there was a debt crisis (and piles of uncollected garbage), but the nation as a whole did not experience a comparable level of angst to the UK and Ronald Reagan never had to dodge piles of uncollected rubbish. Instead, you have to return to the 1930s to find a time when the entire American nation suffered similar woes and collective belt-tightening.

This timeline matters. Today, there are relatively few Americans alive who remember the 1930s clearly. Thus, for most people, the idea that America may face a long bout of austerity and stagnation – if not national decline – has come as something of an existential shock. In Britain, by contrast, there are plenty of people who have seen this austerity script before. The prospect invokes a weary sense of grim resignation. Yes, voters are angry about the prospect of protracted stagnation; some have gone on strike. But instead of ideological fervour or political fracture, the dominant mood is downbeat, cynical pragmatism – and a sense of déjà vu.

So I hope that this Thatcher film ends up being widely screened in the US. That is not because I necessarily consider Thatcher to be the perfect solution to the current woes in Britain or America (never mind that politician Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party darling and former Republican presidential candidate, recently aired commercials likening herself to the Iron Lady). Thatcher’s leadership style was flawed and some of her policies were misguided. But, if nothing else, The Iron Lady helps to demystify the idea of austerity and shows that it is possible for a nation to travel through that painful tunnel and (eventually) emerge at the other side. And that is a crumb of comfort indeed – no matter what side of the Atlantic, or political spectrum, you sit.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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