How the Iron Lady boils an egg: why private moments matter in politics


If I learnt just one thing from watching The Iron Lady, it’s that despite popular belief, politicians are people too. Margaret Thatcher might have sent missile ships to the Falklands and vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, but she still boils an egg, fills black sacks for Oxfam and asks her daughter to fasten the catch at the back of her dress which she can’t reach.

The snippets of Maggie’s domestic life are definitely the most moving parts of the film (which, in case you are wondering I would highly recommend). It’s impossible not to feel something as you watch the forgetful but resolute old lady plonked awkwardly on the floor in an uncomfortable cotton dress, trying to prise open a DVD case and twitching as she eavesdrops on conversations her daughter has with her carer.

It made me think that if Britain has its iron lady in ‘Maggie’, then Germany has found her equivalent in ‘Angie’.

Like Thatcher, Merkel is frequently portrayed as emotionless and inexpressive and ultimately, as Maggie was, “out of touch”.

A recent article published on Spiegel Online seeks to redress the balance. In it, journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit, who has spent many years accompanying Merkel on her trips, documents a series of moments, unrelated to the financial crisis, nuclear power, or the future of the Euro, in which Merkel shows herself as something more than a political machine.

As a Human Being in fact.

They are ordinary moments.

Once, she laughed uncontrollably and snorted while telling a story about the Lithuanian Prime Minister, who was detained by the Belarusian police while out cycling disguised as a tourist.

Another time, after her defence minister Guttenberg resigned following revelations that he had plagiarised passages of his doctoral thesis, she made an uncharacteristically emotional speech. During it, she kept tugging at a loose thread on her sleeve.

She makes her husband breakfast every morning.

Some, especially the French, might inquire as to why on earth it matters what a politician does behind closed doors. Can they not sew their buttons in peace? Have they not got the right to entertain several lovers without the world having to know about it?

The French media in particular thinks personal privacy is sacrosanct.

Back in November, at the G20 summit Obama and Sarkozy were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar”, said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day!”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet, in the belief that this was a private conversation, and would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got their hands on the clip, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

Why is this important?

Because it reinforces the point that politics is a drama encompassing the full spectrum of human emotions.

We must never forget that it’s the behind-the-scenes conversations over strong cups of coffee and dog-eared files that end up directing events on the world stage.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

It’s one thing to believe in protecting private comments from the public glare but it’s another to detach entirely the personal from the political.

Research has shown that politicians get elected on the strength of their personality rather than on their policies.

It’s not surprising.

People are interested in people. They are less interested in policies. Policies may be more important, but ultimately it’s people, not machines that make them.

It’s futile to remove the personal from the political. We can rationalise emotions but we can’t remove them. Margaret Thatcher’s style of governance was probably affected a great deal more by the values of her stiff-upper lip upbringing than by the pages of briefs and pieces of advice she got from various channels during her premiership.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

How Maggie boils an egg matters, but you’d really better go and see the film to find out.

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8 thoughts on “How the Iron Lady boils an egg: why private moments matter in politics

  1. You’re right, it IS impossible to feel something while watching the film. Like disgust at the horrifically biased attempt to beatify this horrible woman. I don’t give a shit if she looked after her husband and her kids. She was a politician, it was her job to look after everyone ELSE’s husband, and everyone ELSE’s kids. But instead she callously tossed them aside to rot in the gutter just like the people of Britain were doing outside the house of parliament near the beginning of the film. Her refusal to show any appreciation for the suffering of the everyman, or give any creedence to arguments that didn’t come delivered by her own voice can tell you a lot more about who she was as a person than whether or not she loved her husband.

    This film constantly made me want to spit on the floor (and preferably, in Thatcher’s face), for it’s ridiculous apologist, and coddling narrative, something which I am left to assume you fell into completely, and so overlooked the “I’ve got mine so fuck everyone else” tory motto, and the general hypocricy of her politics…which yet again is barely touched upon when she decides they have enough money to go to war, despite the fact that they supposedly didn’t have enough money to pay civil servants a decent working wage for the past several years). The whole film tried to portray her as being the SINGLE tory party member who was in touch with the working people, and worked incredibly hard and was genuinely trying to help, while everyone around her was arrogant, and selfish, and backstabbing, and only in politics for their own gain.

    This film is nothing but propoganda as far as I’m concerned. Especially considering there’s currently another tory party in power that is once again trying to tear the country apart for the local pawn shop.

    I could go on, but frankly I shouldn’t.

    However, I found the rest of the article to be very interesting. Though I personally feel that the personal lives of politicians shouldn’t be relevant, they most definitely are, since so many people base their voting opinions on that. This can work to politicians advantage as well though. JFK was a particular user of this. Whenever his approval ratings were especially low, he would simply release pictures of his children playing in the white house to the press, and the resulting coverage would increase his approval rating. Although the reality of his personal life at play there is a little dubious, given that he had these pictures of his children taken in secret, when his wife was away on business, because his wife didn’t like pictures of the children being taken.

    “Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it”
    Politicians will remain out of touch with it so long as they can live in their privilged cocoons while telling everyone else (read “the poor and disadvantaged) that they need to tighten their belts, while passing laws that privilege the already privileged wealthy.

    • “The whole film tried to portray her as being the SINGLE tory party member who was in touch with the working people, and worked incredibly hard and was genuinely trying to help, while everyone around her was arrogant, and selfish, and backstabbing, and only in politics for their own gain.” Don’t agree with this. I think the film clearly showed how out of touch she was, particularly in her treatment of her own party members. I think she did work hard, but was very misguided in how to ‘help’. She seemed to think that there was a way of thinking you could ‘enforce’ through government policy: self-reliance, hard-work and pride. This assumption showed an enormous lack of awareness of other people’s situations.

      Of course I take your point though, (which is ironically what she herself would have said) that what she did was ultimately much more important than how she felt. However, I feel the latter carries weight because it guided her decision-making.

      Cameron wasn’t happy about the film http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/8996782/David-Cameron-The-Iron-Lady-should-have-been-delayed.html

      I think the hypocricy of going to war while refusing to pay decent wages was made abundantly clear: the two events couldn’t have been more obciously pitted against each other. Leaving the trade union disputes out while glorifying war would have been propaganda.

      What I liked about the film was that it was a human story, before it was a political one. I don’t think she came across particularly well to be honest but I did respond emotionally to the universal indignity of ageing.

  2. I havent watched the film – nor have any plans to. But Kate, I like your way of looking at things and I agree with one point – how we conduct our everyday life does have a bearing on the decisions we make. It’s our personality showing through our behaviour.
    -This assumption showed an enormous lack of awareness of other people’s situations.-
    It seems glaringly obvious to some how certain things affect certain people and we find it ridiculous why other people are not able to see the same way. It could be truly a lack of awareness or perhaps they are just not able to see/feel it that way at all. Deliberate or pure ignorance or lack of the capability?
    Take a look at this article.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2065161/Psychopaths-arent-just-mentally-different–brains-physically-deformed-prevent-feeling-fear-guilt.html
    The article shows how certain people are built differently and there are people who have to be taught to behave or cultivate certain manners or understanding of others. We have to know that the basic underlying assumption that all men are similar(not identical) – mentally or physically may not stand true. Although we do have a couple of black sheep who try to take advantage of that but we still have to consider this possibility.

    Just some triggered thoughts after reading the ongoing comments above 🙂

  3. Pingback: sacrosanct – Above or beyond criticism, change, or interference. « Die Reise meines Lebens

  4. Hey
    Politicians ARE people too, but Hitler was a person and he loved petting his dog and throwing a big stick for it, I don’t see that any politicians are vindicated by the small details of their personal life. Politicians stink, and you can count the effective ones on one hand – Britain and America and Germany this century – Clement Atley, FD Roosevelt, Gustav Stresemann, LB Johnson and each of them are maybe 70% decent and 30% bent, so I don’t know what that says about Reagan, Thatcher and Bush.

    What is worth remembering is Thatcher continued what Heath before her put in place, and it was a reversal of what the Labour party had done in 1945 – but what Britain couldn’t financially afford since the oil crisis of 1973. If you want someone to screw the workers royally and to dump on traditional big employers and manufacturing industries why not get someone who is ruthless? I don’t have a big problem with the woman (even though my dad was out of work as an aircraft fitter for 3 years in her government), if she didn’t change the way Britain worked then Major would have, or Blair would have been even more conservative than he was. In the end someone was doomed to strip the industry away, outsource everything to India, doom 2.5-4.5m to the job queue with no hope and send everyone else into a call centre. Who gives a royal sh*t about Kuwait, and the Falklands, both oil rich – Iraq and Afghanistan – both oil and mineral rich…what changes? More men died in the Falklands than the total population of those islands. In the era of declining fossil fuels and increasing production and technology we better just get used to this kind of government that seeks out fuel, even via war, and neglects society and poverty at home. this is the next century mapped out for us.
    PS another beautifully written post, you could sell me cancer and I’d think it was wonderful 😉
    I sent two stories to your email.

    • Of course they’re not vindicated by any details of their personal life. Not at all! I’m not a Thatcherite by any stretch of the imagination. I just like details, and I like to think of people as they are behind closed doors. And I just wonder about what the public figures of our time are like when they are having breakfast, or shaving, or wooing somebody. When you think about it, the idea of a handful of powerful people making enormous decisions which affect the future is extraordinary. I can’t think of a job I’d be less inclined to, except perhaps enginnering.

      I’ll try and never sell you a disease, but thanks 🙂

      I didn’t get your stories 😦 Did you send them to ferguskk@tcd.ie?

  5. Pingback: Big Issue: Small change | katekatharina.com

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