Moira Buffini: Margaret Thatcher handbagged me into respecting her

Researching my play about the divisive Tory leader showed me how her tragedy was derived from the very thing that gave her such success: her inflexibility

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, when I was a schoolgirl of 13. When she was ousted by her own party in 1990, I was working as a drama teacher in Holloway prison. My life had changed completely during her years in office; so had the country I lived in.

She was a one-woman revolution, a villain, a conqueror, a witch, an icon, a horror, our saviour, our scourge, the Iron Lady, a huge foam-rubber puppet dressed as a man. In truth, Thatcher frightened me. As a teenager, I thought she was an evil person, implacable and deadly. She dealt in certainties, and I was certain she was wrong.

When she died last year, my children couldn't believe that people were partying in the street. This poor old lady had been incapacitated with dementia (like their beloved granny). They were confounded by those who could celebrate her death.

I tried to explain what it had been like; why people were still so angry. But my words fell over themselves. I remembered the distress I had felt about the race riots, the hunger strikes, the jingoism of the Falklands war, my terror at her stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the bitterness of the miners' strike, my outrage at her attacks on our public services; the way she demonised the poor. I told my children how we'd celebrated when she got booted out. Her downfall gave us joy. They were puzzled.

I was due to start a writing residency at the Tricycle theatre a few days later. Indhu Rubasingham and I had long planned to turn my half-hour play about Thatcher and the Queen (which I had written for her Women, Power and Politics season in 2010) into a full-length drama. The timing was uncanny. The media was full of glowing obituaries; praise for how Thatcher had ended the cold war, rescued the economy and done so much for women… Had she?

No one agrees about Thatcher. And one can only speculate about her complex relationship with the Queen. As I started to write Handbagged, I kept hold of the notion that I was writing for a younger generation. What was it like dealing with her? And what, of real value, got swept away with her reforming broom?

I began by watching her controversial funeral. It was like being back in the 1980s. Her death had picked the scab from the wounds inflicted then – and they were still raw. I watched older people, crying inconsolably as her cortege passed. And I watched the bonfires in the mining towns.

What a legacy.

As I researched, my understanding of her grew. In the end, her unyielding nature brought her down. If you've ever studied tragedy, she is the classic tragic protagonist. Her inflexibility was both the secret of her success and her greatest flaw. And although it kills me to say it, I have come to – yes, get it down – to respect certain things about her.

She was a giant. Her ministers were homunculi. She alone inspired our adoration and our hate. The strength of her will was astonishing. She was on top of every brief. She could have run masterclasses in Being Right and Not Listening. She alone was our government. She alone. How dangerous to democracy – and to the dramatist, how thrilling.

There was an honesty to Margaret Thatcher's confrontational stance that politics now lacks. Our current government is demonising the poor and attacking our public services even more ruthlessly than ever, but they are doing so with a slightly pained smile, as if to remind us they are nice. And we are hardly protesting.

We were all political in the 1980s. The thing I admire most about Thatcher is that being such a fighter herself, she made fighters of us all.


Moira Buffini

The GuardianTramp

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