‘The Crown’ Reveals How Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Became the Best of Frenemies
“The Crown” Season 4 brings to vivid life the collision of personalities and politics that shaped the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen. It’s mostly all true.
Gentlemen, hold on to your nuts.
The reincarnation of Thatcher in this series is a truly terrifying reminder of her lethal radiation field. Gillian Anderson has assumed the full, intimidating presence of the Iron Lady: the withering glare, the shoulders hunched in aggression, the whisper that morphs into a dismissive snarl.
But in this version of history the major casualties are not just the fearful pols but the royal family—including the Queen.
“Two menopausal women at the top” sighs the redoubtable Denis Thatcher to his wife as they check in to what is presented as the recreational weekend from hell, the Queen’s favorite Scottish retreat, Balmoral.
I’m sure the First Husband never said that, just as I’m sure that a lot of what we see going on during the “Balmoral Test” episode is over-egged drama. For example, the Queen never humiliated Thatcher by luring her, while dressed in a city frock and shoes, into the boggy Highland tundra to stalk a wounded noble stag.
But there’s little point now, into the fourth series, in fact-checking every liberty with the truth taken by Peter Morgan as he unloads his molten narrative. The only fair question is: does he get the big things right?
My answer is, yes and no. He is descriptively spot-on, but literally making a lot of stuff up.
The delicious collision of the monarch and Thatcher is the most vivid example of his approach. Let’s first allow that, in real life, the prime minister and the Queen came from and inhabited different planets.
This huge disparity of personal experience did, for sure, dangerously converge at one point—in a view of what the real idea of Great Britain was, and meant, to each of them as they attempted to shape the kingdom through their own strong sense of public duty. There is, therefore, an undeniable opportunity for high drama in showing how this pairing played out.
The problem is that anyone writing this narrative, whether dramatist or journalist, immediately hits a serious hurdle. We have a replete documentary audit of everything Thatcher thought, said, and did as she held power from 1979 to 1990.
We have no reliable knowledge of what the Queen thought and only a very limited knowledge of what she said—which, by custom, was always anodyne. In so many ways, after 70 years on the throne, the Queen remains unknowable.
This is where Morgan’s descriptive gifts help a lot. The Crown is deeper than just a sumptuous soap opera. It pictorially assesses the social consequences of a once great power in decline.
The opulent palaces, the absurd formalities and rituals of the royal tribe, continue to provide a high level of visual porn while, at the same time, all the stresses and cruelties afflicting the Windsors and their victims are seen alongside all the stresses and cruelties inflicted by politicians who can’t seem ever to successfully manage decline, or even understand it.
In the end, both Thatcher and the Queen are defeated by this condition.
The first question about Thatcher has to be how could a woman rise to the top of the greasy pole in 1979, a time when the glass ceiling was more stubbornly in place than now? It is important to understand that this was not a victory for feminism: she never invoked feminism as either a cause or as personal leverage.
That does not mean she was unaware of the problem. In 1952, when the Queen succeeded her father on the throne, Thatcher wrote, “If, as many earnestly pray, the accession of Elizabeth II can help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places, then a new era for women will indeed be at hand.”
But by the 1970s the politics of gender were irrelevant to her, too modish and too limiting. One shrewd biographer, Hugo Young, wrote, “Without discarding womanhood, she transcended it.”
She was, however, susceptible to a certain kind of smooth-talking Lothario, particularly if they were successful in business, to the point of promoting them above their ability.
For example, she was, literally, on the brink of appointing one of them, Cecil Parkinson, to the third highest political post, foreign secretary, when he confessed that he had sired a child out of wedlock.
“What about Ann?” she said, naming his wife. She told him to repair his marriage and withheld the new job. When he pointed out that, unlike her, he had never made a speech about upholding Victorian values. She snapped, “What is more Victorian than keeping the family together?”
“The Queen has the absolute right to know, to criticize, to advise.”
The Balmoral audition is used in The Crown to establish not just Thatcher’s unfitness for blood sports (in Downing Street she practiced her own version with gusto), but to plant the idea of her whole distaste for an antiquated habit of royal privilege in which she is looked down upon—particularly in scenes with Princess Margaret, whose rudeness as written by Morgan is way over the top.
But the relationship between the prime minister and the sovereign was never that clear cut.
In politics Thatcher knew her footing. She was less sure of herself in that ever enveloping cage of British life, class. Ferociously upwardly mobile herself, she had little time for the classes beneath her, but the monarchy was in a class of its own—at the top—and in facing the Queen she hovered uncertainly between deference and self-assertion.
As Morgan correctly shows, her curtsies in the royal presence were deeper than they needed to be, and she always turned up 15 minutes early for her weekly audience with the Queen, to make sure there was no lapse of respect by being unpunctual.
But after seven years in power there came a grave rupture between them that was hard to conceal, and The Crown makes a feast of it.
Harold Macmillan, a Tory predecessor, describing the relationship of prime minister and monarch, said, “The Queen has the absolute right to know, to criticize, to advise.”
With Thatcher those last two services would not have been welcome. She kept her own counsel to an extreme degree.
In 1986 the Sunday Times broke a story that shattered the established code of silence about what went on between a prime minister and the monarch in a way that had never happened in the 34 years of Elizabeth’s reign.
The Queen, it claimed, was at odds with Thatcher on many issues, domestic and foreign and, according to the paper, she thought Thatcher was “uncaring, confrontational and divisive.”
The issue that most angered the Queen was very personal. She took her role as head of the British Commonwealth very seriously. She had particularly encouraged the shift from colonial rule in Africa to independence and she was frustrated that with South Africa still under the white apartheid regime Thatcher was not supporting the idea of applying economic sanctions to speed change.
This was, indeed, odd, because the majority of the Tory party had long reconciled itself the end of white rule. But Thatcher’s son Mark had business interests in South Africa and she had a special tolerance for his adventures, in the same way that the Queen had (and still does) for Andrew.
Also, as The Crown shows, Thatcher was prone to Rule Britannia jingoism long after its shelf life. In 1982 she launched the last gasp of gunboat diplomacy by taking back the Falkland Islands from Argentina (allowing Andrew to indulge his taste for heroics). That campaign was sustainable only with American logistical support.
The Sunday Times story was delivered in an unattributable briefing by the palace press secretary, Michael Shea. It was assumed that he was acting as a ventriloquist for the Queen. But the storm caused by the scoop was so intense that, within hours, the Queen called Thatcher to assure her that the allegations were completely false.
And so, using the classic public relations gambit, the palace and Downing Street gave each other deniability.
Morgan ignores this truce and, instead, powers up the feeling of crisis by inventing a scene during Thatcher’s next regular audience with the Queen in which the prime minister lectures the monarch on her handling of the Commonwealth, accusing her of being soft on African despots and insisting that sanctions will wreck the South African economy and do more harm than good.
OK, this is wonderful hot-blooded drama. But it is false and politically naïve. These two women knew exactly how to agree to disagree and Thatcher, no matter her public acerbity, was far too respectful of the Queen to lecture her on anything. In a very British way they could just talk past each other and then comment on the weather.
Michael Shea did not fall on his sword, as portrayed. Months passed before he quietly left for a less stressful job in the corporate world. He thought he had been talking to the Sunday Times reporter about the future of the monarchy. When the sanctions issue came up he expressed his own frustrations with Thatcher (for a palace appointee he was unusually left-wing) and the “uncaring, confrontational and divisive” line was his, far more explicit than anything said by the Queen.
Nonetheless, I have always believed that, in fact, the essence of the story was true. There were at least two peripheral sources that eventually surfaced to bear this out.
One was a former Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, who said he personally knew that the Queen described Thatcher as “dangerous.” The other was a member of the Irish embassy staff in London who reported to his chiefs in Dublin at the time that the Queen was angered that Thatcher’s stand on South Africa was damaging “her Commonwealth” at a sensitive time.
Thatcher had four more years in power. In that time she more than met the description of “uncaring, confrontational and divisive.” She used the techniques of a police state to smash the miners’ unions and left the nation’s treasured National Health Service so underfunded that it took decades to again be fit for purpose.
She clung to power too long. In a scene of Shakespearean savagery, some of the men who had been closest to her turned on her and she was forced to resign.
The leading assassin was Geoffrey Howe, the deputy prime minister. He resigned with a speech that delivered a devastating accusation that she had undermined his role in negotiations in Europe, saying “It is a conflict of loyalty with which I have wrestled too long.” (I knew Howe personally as a mild and un-combative man, and was, like many others, astonished when he finally found his nuts.)
The Crown brings us back to the Queen and Thatcher with a very moving scene in which the monarch bestows on the ex-prime minister one of the highest honors in the land, the Order of Merit—uniquely in her gift to award. And she confides to Thatcher, “I was shocked by the way in which you were forced to leave office.”
It is clear from both Downing Street and palace sources that this is a true version of events. Thatcher was deeply moved by the gesture—enough to render her mute as she absorbed it. Always one who favored consensus over division, the Queen had, after some painful times, found a fellow spirit in a woman who, against all the odds, had become a formidable world figure.
The royal historian Hugo Vickers said that the honor was proof of the Queen’s respect for her first female prime minister. “Thatcher was surprised and delighted to be offered it. If further evidence is required, the Queen appointed her a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter in 1995 — again her personal gift. She attended her 70th and 80th birthday parties and was present at her funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral in 2013. The only other prime minister whose funeral the Queen has attended was that of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.”
As this phase of the long reign of Elizabeth II unspools, I feel sorry for Olivia Colman. Throughout the new series she is totally convincing as the middle-period queen, evolving from mother to a dumpy matriarch, the glamour giving way to stoic endurance, and retreat into her comfort zone of horses and the landed gentry.
The new action has removed her from being a player to a hapless spectator. The consequences of her lack of parenting skills are all too apparent. Martin Charteris, who was her private secretary in the 1970s (Morgan wrongly extends his career for a decade), later recalled, “If the Queen had taken as much trouble over the bloodlines of her sons’ wives as she has over her horses and dogs, she would have avoided a lot of trouble.”
In Season 4 of The Crown, we see two spectacular women, Thatcher and Diana, are—in very different ways—shaping history and dominating the screen. The Windsors are in freefall and it is enthralling to watch.
Clive Irving is the author of The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor, just published in the U.K. by Biteback, and published in the U.S. by Pegasus on Jan. 5.