Culture & Society

The Crown and Margaret Thatcher

At least it got the handbag right

Published by
Daniel Griswold

The Netflix series The Crown is great entertainment, but it is more fiction than history—nowhere more so than in its flawed portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

As prime minister from 1979 to 1990, Thatcher features prominently in the recently released Season 4 of the acclaimed drama series based loosely on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The sad tale of Charles and Diana dominates this season, but that did not stop the creators of the program from showing the thrice-elected leader in the worst possible light at almost every opportunity.

More than the average American viewer, I was keen to see how the series would depict the most consequential British leader since Winston Churchill. I’m a longtime visitor and sometimes resident of the U.K. going back to the mid-1980s (thanks to my British-born spouse). I’m also a fan of Thatcher’s record of curbing union abuses, shrinking government control of the economy, standing beside the U.S. and standing up to communism. Last year I read all three volumes of Charles Moore’s superb authorized biography of Thatcher, which were published by Penguin Random House from 2013 to 2019.

A conservative British journalist and newspaper editor, Moore is sympathetic but not hagiographic in his treatment of Thatcher. While he had access to all her papers, she did not review any of his drafts, and the books were published only after her death in 2013, per their agreement. As a result, Moore’s authoritative work shows the Iron Lady in all her strengths as well as her weaknesses.

In contrast, The Crown focuses almost exclusively on the weaknesses—and not her real ones, but those based on a caricature embraced by her critics on the left. The series does get a few things right about the style if not the substance of Thatcher. She was all business in her political life, famously eschewing personal vacation time and typically working long hours. She was always well-dressed, with her hair just right and a handbag always at her side—sometimes containing important notes to be pulled out at key moments with world leaders!

She had a strained relationship with her daughter, Carol, and her schoolmarm style did grate on some of her senior Cabinet members, which contributed to her political undoing in 1990. Moore has said the actress who plays Thatcher in the series, Gillian Anderson, did manage to capture “the incredible determination and seriousness of Margaret Thatcher.”

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Image Credit: Netflix

But on matters of historical importance regarding Thatcher, The Crown abdicated any obligation to truth. Here are what struck me as the five most egregious historical misrepresentations in the series:

First, The Crown obscures one of Thatcher’s greatest triumphs—the retaking of the Falkland Islands in 1982 after the Argentinian invasion. It muddies the narrative by showing a distracted Thatcher worrying about her race-car-driving son Mark being lost in the Sahara Desert just as news comes in about Argentina’s invasion. In fact, her son went missing for six days in January 1982, while the military confrontation did not begin until April.

Far from being distracted, the prime minister was resolute from the beginning on reclaiming British sovereignty over the South Atlantic islands. Volume I of Moore’s biography contains this telling exchange between Thatcher and Admiral Sir Henry Leach, first sea lord, at a pivotal meeting on March 31 as British intelligence confirmed the pending invasion. The question Thatcher and her advisers put to Leach was whether Britain had the capability to retake the islands with military force:

“Can we do it?” asked Mrs. Thatcher with piercing urgency.

“We can, Prime Minister,” said Leach, “and, though it is not my place to say this, we must.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because if we don’t do it, if we pussyfoot . . . we’ll be living in a totally different country whose word will count for little.”

At this, Leach remembered, Mrs. Thatcher gave a sort of half-smile, as if this was what she had wanted to hear.

Isn’t that compelling drama enough? To the writers of The Crown, however, the prime minister’s strength under pressure would have been an inconvenient truth that would have made Thatcher look too good.

Second, the Netflix series ignores the sorry state of Great Britain in the late 1970s, the condition that brought Thatcher to power. Under both Conservative and Labour governments in the decade before Thatcher, Britain had lurched from one crisis to another—high inflation, crippling strikes, a humiliating International Monetary Fund bailout, slow economic growth. For good reason, the months before Thatcher won her first term in May 1979 were remembered as the “Winter of Discontent.”

And yet, in The Crown you would think Britain was a nation living in harmony and contentment before Thatcher imposed her grocer’s-daughter policies of austerity and personal responsibility, causing “irretrievable damage to the social fabric,” as the fictitious queen herself puts it. No mention is made of the grim conditions Thatcher inherited, nor of the lower inflation, economic expansion and rise in living standards that her policies began to deliver by her second term.

Yes, Thatcher’s policies aroused fierce opposition, but they also won support among a large swath of Middle England. She did, after all, lead her party to a historic three consecutive election victories, in 1979, 1983 and 1987. By the end of her second term, as Moore summarizes in Volume II of his biography, Thatcher’s vision of a property-owning middle class with a stake in a market economy had become real:

Owner-occupied houses, shares, portable pensions, employee ownership, much greater opportunities to start up companies with small initial outlay, and even the highly controversial loosening of controls on personal credit, all helped create prosperity and greater financial freedom for classes of British citizens that had never known such things before.

No one can fully understand the phenomenon of Thatcherism without understanding that revolutionary reality—a reality ignored by The Crown.

A third historical injustice to Thatcher concerns her record on opposing apartheid in South Africa. According to the show, her main goal was to squash sanctions against the white-controlled government, with a hint that she was motivated by her son’s business interests there. The issue supposedly caused a major row between the queen and the PM, coming to a head at a meeting of the Commonwealth leaders in Nassau, the Bahamas, that the queen presided over in October 1985. While Thatcher did strongly oppose sanctions, which put her at odds with the other Commonwealth nations, she also strongly opposed apartheid and played a meaningful role in bringing about its end.

Thatcher had no sympathy for South Africa’s Nationalist government and its policy of denying blacks the vote and full economic opportunity. She wanted to see the system end, but she did not believe sanctions were the right tool. According to Moore, “She did not want British companies to lose business or South African blacks to lose their jobs. She believed that South Africa could change peacefully to a multi-racial government, negotiated after the release of Nelson Mandela, if the right interlocutors could be found.” To that end, she repeatedly raised the issue of freeing Mandela in her meetings with South Africa’s Afrikaner leaders.

Mandela was released in February 1990, apartheid came to an end in 1991 and South Africa elected Mandela as its first black leader three years later. It is an open question whether sanctions played the decisive role, or whether it was more the circumstances of a changing, post–Cold War world that doomed apartheid. The Netflix series ends the episode with a quote from Mandela that sanctions were decisive.

But Mandela also praised Thatcher. After a congenial meeting with her at No. 10 Downing St. in July 1990, Mandela said, “She is an enemy of apartheid.” Their differences, Mandela added, were about the methods to bring about its demise—an important distinction ignored by the Netflix series.

By the way, the rift all this supposedly caused with the queen is overblown in the series. The queen’s primary interest was to maintain harmony among Commonwealth members, not to directly challenge the policies of the government. In fact, Moore records that Thatcher’s relationship with the royal family was mutually respectful. Queen Elizabeth’s mother, the “Queen Mum,” was a fan of Thatcher’s, and the queen attended Thatcher’s 80th birthday party in London in 2005, “the only one of her prime ministers to be thus honored,” according to Moore.

The fourth significant deviation from history in The Crown is its portrayal of Thatcher’s final days in office. It does manage to capture the drama of Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech in Parliament on Nov. 13, 1990, which signaled the final turn against her by party leaders. But the writers can’t help inserting the observation that she had lost support in the country because of her disregard for the political center, which is debatable. They show her desperately appealing to the queen to salvage her position as PM by dissolving Parliament, under the pretext that war was looming in the Persian Gulf after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait that summer. Nothing like this “queen’s gambit” can be found in the history books.

In fact, Thatcher won support from a majority of the Conservative members of Parliament on the first vote on her leadership on Nov. 20. She did fall two votes short of the margin needed to avoid a second round of voting. It’s a margin she could have plausibly overcome if she hadn’t been out of the country to attend a European security conference in the crucial days before the vote, if she had spent more time meeting with individual members, and if her leadership campaign had not been managed by a member of Parliament who, according to Moore, was drinking heavily much of the time. Instead of fighting the second round, Thatcher heeded the advice of those closest to her and announced her resignation on Nov. 22.

Finally, while the actress playing Thatcher may have captured her mannerisms, she and the screenwriter fail to convey her character. Thatcher was certainly serious about matters of state, but she was also known to write warm and caring letters to people who had suffered personal losses. She was beloved by her career staff, if not always by the senior male politicians around her. She showed grace and courage after the deadly Irish Republican Army bombing at the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton, delivering a speech the next day.

Far from being stuffy, she liked to dance and enjoy drinks after dinner with her husband, Denis, and colleagues. She kept a diary full of her favorite poems and could quote Kipling, Tennyson, Longfellow and others by heart. This warmer and more rounded side of Thatcher is completely absent from the caricature we see on the small screen.

Of course, The Crown is fiction, and some artistic license is not only expected but necessary for a dramatic series to succeed. But the truth should still matter, especially in the current time of “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories fed by social media. I’m afraid many American viewers will accept its portrait of Prime Minister Thatcher as truth, when in fact it is mostly fiction. If anyone wants a slice of the real Margaret Thatcher in action, I suggest watching her bravura performance in Parliament after she announced her resignation. Even better, spend some COVID-induced free time with Charles Moore’s readable, engaging and faithfully accurate biography of one of recent history’s most important and remarkable leaders.

Daniel Griswold

Daniel Griswold is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and Co-Director of its Trade and Immigration Project.

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