The Current

'She believed she was always right': The polarizing legacy of Margaret Thatcher

With The Iron Lady prominently featured in the new season of Netflix's The Crown, British historian June Purvis discusses the complicated legacy of Britian's longest serving prime minister.

U.K.'s first female prime minister to be played by Gillian Anderson in next season of Netflix's The Crown

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is seen speaking at the United Nations on June 23, 1982.

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Margaret Thatcher was Britain's longest-serving prime minister and the first woman to hold the office in that country.

But historian June Purvis says her legacy is complicated in the eyes of many Britons because of her desire to diminish labour unions and her inability to acknowledge she was wrong.

"She was a conviction politician, Thatcher. She believed she was always right and that was her tremendous weakness," Purvis, emeritus professor of women's and gender history of modern Britain at the University of Portsmouth, U.K., and the editor of international journal Women's History Review, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Interest in Thatcher's political legacy has piqued recently, as Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame is set to portray The Iron Lady in the latest season of Netflix's The Crown.

The series, which follows Queen Elizabeth through multiple eras of her reign, tackles the late 1970s to 1990, the height of "Thatcherism" in its fourth season, which debuts Sunday.

Fans are eager to see how the show will depict the politician who, 30 years after resigning from office, remains a controversial figure years after her death in 2013.

Gillian Anderson portrays Thatcher in Season 4 of the Crown. (Des Willie/Netflix)

A controversial political legacy

When asked if Thatcher is viewed as a role model for women, her legacy "is problematic" when viewed through a feminist lens, said Purvis.

"Feminists do not like her because she didn't introduce women-friendly policies. She had a very confrontational style of leadership. She liked argument. She didn't like consensus in any way," she explained.

Thatcher appears alongside her all-male cabinet in a promotional image for Netflix's The Crown. (Des Willie/Netflix)

"I always see her as a queen bee, who likes to be surrounded by men and like to discuss and argue with them. She wasn't a leader who brought women with her. That's quite clear."

As for Thatcher's wider political legacy, she is equally controversial.

Her main goal at the outset of her tenure as prime minister was to roll back the state, and she did so by privatizing the country's state-owned utilities, like electricity and gas, Purvis said.

Thatcher won the favour of some Britons by allowing people living in council housing to buy their homes, but her desire to control the country's labour unions made her a reviled figure to many members of the working class.

"We had pictures of policemen with helmets on and batons attacking miners in their own communities who were trying to defend not only their jobs, but also a way of life. And I think people still find that quite shocking when it's shown," said Purvis. 

She added, "I think it was the controlling of the unions and the closure of coal mines — where unions were very, very effective — was really the key things that most people found particularly abhorrent about her. Unemployment rose. Unemployment rose to over three million."

Thatcher's reign ended in 1990, shrtly after she introduced "a poll tax whereby every member in a household would be taxed rather than the house itself," said Purvis.

"That was her downfall. And there were riots and protests. And in the end, she was pushed out by her own cabinet."

So, what will Purvis be watching for in the new season of The Crown?

"There's already a lot of discussion about it in our press and about how Olivia Colman, who plays the Queen, the way her salute is, is too limp. Some in the military say, you know, Olivia Colman should have held her hand up much more straight. So watch out for that."


Written by Mackenzie Cameron. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

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