‘History is what happened in the past': reflections on The Iron Lady

As many commentators have pointed out, The Iron Lady is a biopic of one of Britain’s most divisive prime ministers – with all the politics left out. We get neither critique nor hagiography. Sadly, this is not a case of balanced neutrality, but of an anodyne approach that also manages to remove all traces of exciting and contingent history from Thatcher’s story. There is no sense that any of the events depicted in the film could have turned out any other way.

Much discussion has been given to the decision to frame The Iron Lady through the wandering mind of Thatcher as a senile old woman. Had this device been used to contrast Thatcher’s own recollections with popular perceptions or to bring some other new perspective to the story, its alleged ‘tastelessness’ could perhaps have been justified. Instead, it serves as an excuse to takes us on a reassuring tour through our own memories (Thatcher’s Francis of Assisi moment: check; Howe’s resignation speech: check).  This is history as nostalgia. And it is bland enough to be shaped to suit any political predilection.

Describing her surprise at the intense and bitter debates over the drafting of the National Curriculum for History, Margaret Thatcher remarked: ‘Though not an historian myself, I had a very clear – and I naïvely imagined uncontroversial – idea of what history was. History is what happened in the past.’ This film seems to take a similar view. Event follows event, and the fact that they ‘happened’ is authenticated by grainy archive footage (police horses charging poll tax rioters: check; topless women greeting the return of troops from the Falklands: check). Why they happened and whether they mattered do not seem to be questions worth asking.

However, when the time came to reflect on her own life as history, Thatcher’s view became rather more nuanced. While donating her papers to the Churchill Archives Centre in 2002, she offered a couple of ‘friendly warnings’ to historians. First, that in the historical documents, ‘the mood of the moment was lost. Tension and trouble […] are efficiently smoothed away by the note-takers.‘ Second, she ‘caution[ed] against politicians or historians imagining that a knowledge of the facts and access to past experience alone provide the answers to the most important questions’ – instead, a firm set of beliefs and instincts are required. She effectively argued for a greater awareness of historical contingency and for a clear political commitment. If only the makers of The Iron Lady had heeded these warnings, we might have had a more exciting, more contentious, and a fundamentally more interesting film.

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