Thatcherism in films: This is England and Billy Elliot

From 1979 to 1990, Great Britain and the British public suffered through a great period of change due to what is known as Thatcherism. Brought about by one of the most controversial figures in British political history, Margaret Thatcher, also known as the ‘Iron Lady’. The first woman to be the longest-serving prime minister in the 20th century, she enforced unyielding and relentless policies throughout her time in office, which some members of the British public argue, destroyed Britain’s manufacturing industry, brought about mass unemployment, and is someone who ‘divides opinion like no other leader of modern times’, thus for making her a controversial figure. Despite bringing social unrest, she won multiple elections and is someone who ‘must be respected; for there is no greater strength than for one’s opponents to know that you cannot be pushed around’. 

In Shane Meadows, This is England, set in 1983, and Stephen Daldry’s, Billy Elliot, set during the 1984-1985 coal miner’s strike, both directors engage with the politics of Margaret Thatcher. They attempt to do this by presenting us with believable British characters that are finding themselves under hard times during Thatcher’s reign; working-class characters that are relatable to audiences who lived through the turmoil. When examining these films, it is crucial to understand what Thatcherism is, the policies which brought about political unrest, and how accurate both films are to Thatcher’s Britain. 

Firstly, before looking at both films, it is important to understand the concept of Thatcherism. A neo-liberal concept that represented the belief in a small state, free trade, and a low taxation rate. Thatcher wanted the nation to take responsibility for their own lives and family. Advocating for monetarism, Thatcher insisted that controlling the money supply with high-interest rates would tame inflation without workforce unions having to negotiate pay policy. However, this only led to mass unemployment. ‘Only in one year, 1984, was Britain’s inflation rate lower than the average among its G7 competitor nations. Unemployment, which had risen steadily from 1979 to 1986 to over 3 million, fell over 44 consecutive months until early 1990…manufacturing employment dropped by more than 2 million in the 1980s’. Another policy of Thatcherism was to ultimately reduce the power of trade unions, leading to the destruction of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), and the shut down of many coal mines. In Billy Elliot, the narrative engages with this policy; Billy’s father, Jackie, and his brother, Tony, are both coal miners out on strike. Both characters represent most working-class miners during the Thatcher reign. The relevance of this is important as it still has an effect today. Reminiscing 1984, Ken Radford, a working-class man from South Yorkshire says that ‘what them the Thatcher government bastards did to us, it goes deep. It really goes deep’. 

In both Billy Elliot and This is England, this sense of loathing and distress is apparent. Both directors engage with telling the story of what it was like to grow up during Thatcherism and what effect this had on the British public. Many conservatives like James Prior and Ian Gilmour accuse Thatcher of ‘slavish adherence to the economic doctrine of monetarism whereas traditional Conservatism was rooted in pragmatism, flexibility, compromise, and common sense. 

Marxists on the other hand, who rarely think other than ideologically anyway, tend to see Thatcherism as a malign campaign to further the interest of the capitalist rich and powerful, consolidating and then extending forms of political and cultural domination over the underprivileged’. Both films support this statement as we see the suffering of the underprivileged which I will continue to develop in further detail. When looking at Shane Meadow’s, This is England, set in 1983, anyone would assume by the title that it is a film which represents national identity and nationhood. A film that is going to show the nations’ independence and togetherness. ‘It will construct imaginary bonds which hold the people of a nation together as a community by dramatizing their fears, anxieties, conceits, pleasures, and aspirations. They recognize themselves as a single body, with a common culture’. As being said, while This is England certainly shows a sense of community within the character's extreme right-wing political party, it also is ambivalent about nationhood as we see friendships and the sense of ‘togetherness’ fall apart. At the beginning of the film, we see a montage of footage which includes the Falklands War and videos of the uncivilized British public getting arrested and fighting. It reflects the current crisis in Britain due to the significant change that was brought about by Thatcherism. 

Throughout the film, racism is a principal theme. The character Combo and his ‘troops’ constantly terrorise the Asian community and this eventually leads to the attack of Milky; the only black member in the right-wing gang led by Combo. Said by Thatcher herself in 1978, ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture’. While promising to reduce the number of Commonwealth immigrants entering Britain, Thatcher is encouraging public hostility towards immigrants and placed fear into the British public. Her use of the word ‘swamped’ gives the impression that the immigrants are coming into the country to cause harm, bring negativity, and evidently, pull Great Britain down along with its public. Former Australian foreign minister Bob car has gone as far to describe Thatcher as ‘unabashedly racist’. Her policies to try to reduce the number of immigrants entering the country is a catalyst for Combo’s racism as he believes he is trying to protect his country and its people. Whether this is what Thatcher intended, her words planted a seed in Combo’s already tainted mind. 

Despite this, it is clear that Thatcher wanted a nation that was respected, and feared, and a nation that can be proud and independent. This somewhat similar belief is seen within characters like Combo who proudly says ‘This is England. And this is England, and this is England’. However, it might be said that Combo has been led astray by his psychopathic disposition. He turns against his friend Milky, who represents the ethnic minority in Great Britain, and now the sense of community and togetherness in the country that national identity stands for has gone. Combo is aggressively racist and forces his ideologies upon the rest of the characters, including young Shaun. 

At the end of the film, Shaun, who appears disappointed, throws the St. George’s flag into the sea. This symbolizes the same disappointment that the British public was currently feeling due to Thatcherism. Director Shane Meadows has engaged with Thatcher’s politics by telling a believable story with relatable, working-class characters that are struggling because of the outcome of Thatcher’s policies. 

The main example of this is Shaun. The film focuses on the ‘coming of age’ narrative, and we see his transition clearly throughout the series of events. Shaun is a child that has been easily led astray by Nationalist parties. It shows the lack of support that the Thatcher government gave to the families of those who had lost their lives in the Falklands war. Shaun has lost faith in the country and its government after losing his father and his only way to move forward is to join Combo’s ‘troops’ of right-wing extremists because it gives him a sense of belonging and security. Combo makes him feel powerful and independent, capable of protecting himself because no one else will. This is England engages directly with Margaret Thatcher’s politics. While the film is of popular culture and has elements of nostalgia, its setting is the dismal period of Thatcherism and its policies which are seen to affect the working class. Shane has decided to film in Grimsby and Nottingham. English settings that are covered with derelict buildings and run-down streets. Throughout the film, Shane reminds us of the turmoil with frequent montages and even graffiti which reads, ‘Maggie is a twat’. Through the use of mis-en-scene, Shane shows the crushing effect of Thatcherism; such as unemployment and welfare cuts. By including small elements such as the graffiti it tells the audience about how the community felt towards Thatcher. As said by academic David Buckingham, This is England ‘offers a rich, multi-dimensional narrative of growing up in Thatcher’s Britain that takes us beyond the reassurance of both sentimentality and of political oversimplification.’ Not only does the film engage with Thatcher’s politics, but the audience can also engage with the characters. 

The imagery of the Falklands war, along with the remainder of social-housing cuts, and unemployment, it brings back memories for those watching and allows them to relate to the characters. While the film shows the sinister side of the skinhead movement, it allows us to see how politics can corrupt a soul and how characters find a purpose in racism due to their painful background. The film has remained popular, leading to a series TV drama where its characters have remained potent due to the realism that Shane Meadows has brought to the story. While the narrative isn’t necessarily about Margaret Thatcher’s politics, they definitely shape the characters, engage with the consequences of politics and move the narrative along. Moving on to examine Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot, it is important to consider the significance of the themes of politics. While the film is an international sensation, at the heart of its success is the theme of politics in Margaret Thatcher’s reign. 

The major policy that the film engages with is the miners’ strike in the North of England. As Thatcherism attempted to destroy the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), a battle emerged between unions, and the government causing miners to strike. Thatcher thought that coal mines were not economical. Of course, miners did not agree with this and as previously stated, this affects Billy’s family drastically in the film. Both Tony and Jackie are fighting for what they believe in, however, Tony becomes radical and violent, insisting that Jackie does not fight enough for what is right. Billy misses his first audition because of Tony’s arrest, thus political conflict being a major theme in the film because it demonstrates the pressures that were on workers and the effects that this was having on working-class families. Jackie, as a single parent, struggles to provide for his family, working every hour he can and even breaks Billy’s mother’s piano so that he can keep the house warm through winter. The strike, evidently, has a huge financial effect on Billy’s family. While the film concentrates on dance and the theme of growing up, it largely engages with the politics of Thatcherism. Without the effect of Thatcher’s policy to try to close the mines, the story arc would have changed. The story would have, arguably, would have not given Jackie any opportunity to become accepting of dancing. Stephen Daldry also needed to demonstrate that the working-class families’ lives were being threatened by political decision-making, and the audience needed to see the devastating effect in order to understand this severity. Additionally, Billy Elliot is perhaps one of the most realistic films because of its depiction of the British public. Billy and his family are evidently working-class because of the furniture that is displayed within the home setting. When Thatcher was elected, there was a huge divide in social classes and Billy’s family are among the poorer of those classes. They have little money and live in a small and shabby neighborhood. The use of wide shots which show Billy dancing on the street is also making the audience aware that Billy lives poorly in a neighborhood that is undoubtedly being neglected by the Thatcher government. 

Stephen Daldry has also engaged with the violence that police used against the strikers. These fights were bloody and personal because the ‘Northerner’ was fighting passionately for their life and for their right to provide for their family; something that the government could no longer do as Thatcher wanted the public to be more independent. It is important to take into consideration that those fighting were male which is expected. We see that boys are also expected to participate in activities like boxing or football and when Jackie discovers that Billy is unable to hit his opponents, we see the disappointment. Billy has dreams and wants to be a dancer. Stephen is reminding us that Billy is still a young boy and it shows the effect that the strike is having on him as he is unable to meet the communities’ standards. 

This loss of community can be understood on a national scale and Billy Elliot shows the consequences of what happens when government politics don’t protect those communities and make them feel safe. Furthermore, Billy is different from the character of Shaun in This is England. Unlike Shaun, Billy is interested in the world and is desperate to get away from the poverty that he lives in. He wants to change and becomes more independent throughout the film, opening Jackie and Tony’s eyes. Shaun, on the other hand, relies on Combo and the rest of the gang to help him become independent. He is led down a path of revenge and hatred, whereas Billy continues to do what he is best at, which is dancing. He continues to work hard and encourages his family to see the happiness and joy that it brings at such a difficult time of crisis. They both actively show the effect that political turmoil can have on someone’s life. If both Shaun and Billy were from upper-middle-class families, or Shaun’s father did not die in the Falklands War or if Billy’s father and brother weren’t under the pressure of striking, then both story arcs would have been very different. It would not have shown an accurate presentation of Thatcher’s Britain. 

Directors Stephen Daldry and Shane Meadows clearly wanted to demonstrate the struggles of most of the British public on an international platform. It was so severe that it was crucial for both directors to include this in the context as it is what supports the narrative. In conclusion, both This is England and Billy Elliot engage with the politics of Margaret Thatcher and shows the negative effects that politics have on working-class families and children. Thatcherism caused political conflict in Great Britain by bringing about mass unemployment, trying to destroy the manufacturing industry and arguably provoking racism against commonwealth immigrants and the Asian community. By engaging with the politics both directors create working-class characters that are believable and relatable with most audiences. After examining both films, Thatcherism brought about political unrest and accurately presented the consequences of the policies. 

07 July 2022
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now