Smith of the Star: The Iron Legacy

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SHE IS one of the most divisive and controversial characters in British political history.

The woman who took on the steel workers of Sheffield and Rotherham, the woman whose militarised police force fought pitched battles against striking miners in coal’s South Yorkshire heartland.

Undated Film Still Handout from The Iron Lady. Pictured: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. See PA Feature FILM Film Reviews. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Pathe Production UK & Ireland. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FILM Film Reviews.

Undated Film Still Handout from The Iron Lady. Pictured: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. See PA Feature FILM Film Reviews. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Pathe Production UK & Ireland. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FILM Film Reviews.

She gave us the right to buy our council houses, took us into a war over the Falklands, survived an IRA bomb, told Europe ‘No, no, no’ and oversaw the Tories ‘managed decline’ of the north of England.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, daughter of a Grantham grocer and three times Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 is now in her twilight years and suffering the torments of dementia.

But her fame, and infamy, have long been assured.

Tomorrow the film The Iron Lady opens in cinemas and a brilliant performance by Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep as the former Prime Minister captures her driven political will and charts the immensity of her achievement in becoming Britain’s first and only woman Prime Minister.

But no-one who lived through those times, particularly in this area, could watch the film dispassionately.

The effect the Conservative Government’s policies had on the industries and economy of South Yorkshire in the 1980s will never be forgotten or forgiven by many.

“Margaret Thatcher is a person who affected a huge number of people in this country and in this area in particular,” said former Sheffield Central MP Richard Caborn.

“She attacked the steel and coal industries and decimated them, there’s no doubt about that. You either love her or hate her but what she did to the industries and economy of this region was devastating.

“There are thousands of people who will not forgive or forget what she did to this area and that will go on for generations.

“You can have a sneaking admiration for someone who led from the front but the damage she did to our industrial base was terrible.

“As someone said at the time she did what the Germans couldn’t do and brought Sheffield to its knees.

“I had my run-ins with her and she was viciously opposed to my motion to impose sanctions against South Africa and apartheid. You can respect the woman for what she stood for and the way she led from the front but do I agree with her?

“No, certainly not.

“I will go out of curiosity to see the film to see the portrayal of the woman I knew. I’m sure Meryl Streep will be brilliant in it but that’s a film. I think her policies were fundamentally wrong and did damage to the economy of this area that we are only just recovering from now.”

But Margaret Thatcher was an inspiration to a generation of Conservatives and others who see her as a politician who made Britain competitive again and brought back patriotic pride.

“I think what she did for the UK between 1979 and 1990 with one or two exceptions was extremely valuable,” said Andrew Cook CBE, Chairman of Sheffield-based William Cook Cast Products.

“She liberated it from decline which seemed to be accepted as part of British life with its rampant inflation, a penal tax system and control by labour and the unions.

“Though there were some negative consequences. The destruction of some basic industries went too far.

“This country should have retained the basic industries like mining to a greater extent than it did. But overall I do think that her contribution was a great one.”

The Streep performance in The Iron Lady charts Thatcher’s struggle over 11 years in office against the doubters in her own party, those she regarded as “the enemy within” - whether the unions or the IRA - and “the enemy without” - Soviet Communists and the Argentine junta who ordered the invasion of the Falklands.

Barnsley writer Mel Dyke has first hand experience of the effects of some of the results of Mrs Thatcher’s and her successor’s policies.

“Lives and mining communities were changed for ever at a stroke back then. Forgiving is for the individual but no-one will ever forget.

“I have no doubt that Meryl Streep is excellent in the film but the reality of Mrs Thatcher’s actions is that there are people who lost their jobs when the pits closed who have still not been able to pick up a full-time career.

“I still have letters that children wrote who for the first time in their lives had to go to what they called the ‘grov shop’ for their school uniforms and apply for free school dinners because their dads were not working any more.”

But the film concentrates on the personal and does not try to chart the social impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, there the reality of life under Thatcher and the selective biography of the film are are most at odds.

For some her years in office will have been liberating, exciting and challenging. But for those millions on the wrong end of unemployment and social upheaval the only things that matter are the everyday consequences of the politician’s ambition.

Whether or not Mrs Thatcher was able to combine career and family life, had a successful marriage or stable upbringing will mean less than nothing to those on the estates of Rotherham, Barnsley and Sheffield who had all those aspects of their lives damaged by her years in government.