“Obsess over Gillian Anderson all you want, but not Margaret Thatcher please”

Written by Katy Harrington

Gillian Anderson is stellar as the UK’s first female PM Margaret Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown but let’s not forget what the real Maggie said and did during her time at the top of the Tory party.      

*Contains mild spoilers for season four of The Crown

The Crown is one powerful show. Not only does it pull in the viewers (73 million accounts around the world have watched since it began in 2016), with every new season it sparks controversy and creates national conversation about everything from the casting (superb so far) to the plot lines (internet searches for ‘The Crown vs real life’ are up 250% in the past week according to Google trends). 

While Princess Diana’s storyline is one of the hottest topics of season four, the casting of the impeccable and versatile Gillian Anderson as Conservative PM Margret Thatcher has been a huge talking point too (from the fashion to the mannerisms, the voice and of course, that hair). 

But Anderson’s star power and at times almost pantomime portrayal of the Iron Lady may be having an unintended effect – people seem to like Maggie. 

Amy Roberts, costume designer for The Crown, was quoted in The Sunday Times saying: “The more I worked on The Crown, she was my favourite person.”

Online too, there have been defences of Thatcher’s leadership ratioed by reminders of what Thatcher did and said when she was in power.

Despite the fact that Thatcher was the first female PM (and held the position from 1979-1990) it’s important to remember she was no feminist.

Speaking on NPR’s Fresh Air podcast, Anderson addressed this head on saying: “The fact that she was in office normalised female success and I think that the girls who grew up when she was running the country were suddenly able to imagine leadership as a female quality, but at the same time she was not a feminist.”

“She didn’t have interest in social equality, she didn’t really know anything about female solidarity and had a lack of interest in childcare provision …so she really wasn’t a feminist icon.”

With Anderson’s faithful (and in my opinion, OTT at times) portrayal, we do see the human side of Thatcher the virago (you can’t help but feel for her and her mild mannered husband Dennis when they make a mess of the very stuffy protocol when visiting Balmoral) but it’s still good to remember what Thatcher stood for.

At times it’s natural to feel for Thatcher as a woman battling the out and out misogyny in the media, her own cabinet and everywhere else in 1980’s Britain, but stanning Thatcher is a bit like stanning Trump (while Thatcher was undoubtedly a  more polished politician they share the same dogged and divisive “MAGA” attitude, and neither ever cared a jot about causing controversy). 

The real Margaret Thatcher makes Boris and his lot look like absolute softies – she doesn’t deserve any revisionist rose tinted glasses nor nostalgic sympathy. 

Thatcher’s reputation as the Iron lady (and the women who uttered the indelible quote: “The lady is NOT for turning”) was well earned. 

In episode four of season four of The Crown, we delve into Thatcher’s decision to go to war over The Falkland islands. Despite pleas from members of Parliament and advisers (as well as U.S. President Ronald Reagan who repeatedly urged Thatcher to pursue diplomatic solutions) she eschewed peace talks and on April 5, 1982 sent the 38 British navy warships 8,000 miles into the South Atlantic to take on the Argentine forces. 

While that British victory was seen as a huge coup for Thatcher at the time, watching now it is a stark example of her firm belief that the British Empire was entitled to take what they wanted, stick a flag down and then kill to keep it. 

Her stand on the Troubles in the North of Ireland was just as controversial.

As we see played out in season four, Thatcher was fairly new to office when the IRA murder of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten brought the violence in North of Ireland right to the door of Number 10 Downing Street. 

Thatcher’s ‘solution’ to the conflict (created as a result of Britain’s invasion of Ireland) was unflinching and inflexible. “Crime is crime is crime”, she famously said: “It is not political, it is crime.”

She held fast to that view, even when the Irish Hunger Strikes began in 1981. Thatcher refused to grant Irish republican Bobby Sands and other Irish prisoners prisoner-of-war status. Her decision led to the deaths of 10 of the hunger strikers and created an even deeper division with the Irish. 

Around this time 36 years ago, on 19 November 1984, Margaret Thatcher dismissed the findings of the New Ireland Forum, saying “That is out” to all three suggested solutions to the conflict in Northern Ireland. President of Ireland Garret Fitzgerald said that Thatcher’s language was “gratuitously offensive.”

How many lives (on both sides) would have been spared had Thatcher been willing to talk to those on the other side of the conflict we’ll never know. 

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has often been depicted as a political queen bee for failing to appoint other women politicians 

At home she was no softer, as demonstrated by her unflinching approach to thecoalminers strikes in 1984, where the clashes often turned violent. Again Thatcher proved herself no friend to the everyday people of the county she served. Union memberships plummeted during her time in power and she showed as little regards for workers’ right as she did for the industries she obliterated. 

Meanwhile, unemployment and poverty soared, making life in 1980’s Britain miserable for for the working classes as the effects of Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” belief were felt. A study of data conducted by The Guardian proved emphatically that poverty went up under Thatcher’s rule, according to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. 

We would do well to remember too that although more than three decades have passed since Thatcher’s government introduced the anti-LGBT+ legislation, “its shadow still looms over schools and local authorities in the UK today”, as an article in Pink News states. The article describes the legal clause as the Conservative government’s “vitriolic and traditionalist” response to calls for gay rights. 

It goes on to explain the effects of the rule: “The legislation meant that councils were prohibited from funding of books, plays, leaflets, films, or other materials showing same-sex relationships, while teachers weren’t allowed to teach about gay relationships in schools.”

To anyone who says Thatcher was just a product of her time, the gay rights movement was in full swing by the 1980s. Others supported it, Thatcher chose not to.

Near the end of season four, we come to Thatcher’s stubborn refusal to introduce sanctions against the South African apartheid government (48 other countries had already agreed the move in a show of support for Black South Africans). 

Thatcher didn’t care about those people’s suffering, or being on the right side of history, she only cared about the effects sanctions would have on Britain’s economy. Thatcher’s stance even made the Queen think her uncaring. 

So let’s all enjoy The Crown, swoon over Gillian Anderson but cast a cold eye over Maggie’s memory. 

The Crown season 4 is available on Netflix now. 

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