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Saturday, 6 November, 1999, 19:07 GMT
Iron: The man in the mask

When Tony Blair told the CBI this week that Gordon Brown was "the Iron Chancellor", what image did that conjure?

A reputation for prudence perhaps? For being tight-fisted enough to keep public spending in check? For being "unyielding, merciless" (OED)?

Whatever image the government hopes to get Mr Brown, one thing is unavoidable.

And that is the spectre of the Iron Lady, Lady Thatcher herself. Some might think it a strange comment to make when - only a few weeks ago - Mr Blair was reviling the forces of conservatism.

Mr Blair talking to the CBI this week
But whatever Mrs Thatcher's legacy, iron itself has been a hardened performer in the political arena.

It was in 1976 that she reacted to being dubbed the Iron Lady by the Soviet press. She said: "I stand before you tonight in my green chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up, my fair hair gently waved. . .the Iron Lady of the Western World."

Even more famous than that line, though, was Winston Churchill's speech in 1946, concerning the plummeting temperature as the Cold War started.

The Iron Lady, before she came to power
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent," he said.

Although it will forever be Churchill's phrase, it seems it was not his alone.

The editors of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations identify that it had been used to describe the Soviet Union's sphere of influence by Ethel Snowden in 1920, and by Goebbels in February 1945.

Churchill himself used it in a cable to President Truman, four months after it had been used by Hitler's propagandist.

Churchill: Used line after Goebbels
The original Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, once reportedly used the phrase to damn Lord Salisbury: "A lath of wood painted to look like iron," he said.

But Bismarck was better known for using the phrase "Eisen und Blut" (blood and iron), particularly in the context of how to unite Germany.

But Bismarck had a huge impact on building German power, and he hated socialists. He once said they, among others, were "rats and should be exterminated".

So Mr Brown may also baulk at references to Bismarck.

Well before that, though, there was the Iron Duke, the Duke of Wellington. He earned this nickname because his opposition to parliamentary reforms so enraged people that he had to protect his windows with iron shutters.

Again, not - in that respect - a positive role model.

But there is hope for Mr Brown. He can always say it refers to Ted Hughes' children's novel The Iron Man.

The "hero" of the book stomps across the countryside, eating tractors and fences and showing that he really does mean business.

Then, when the planet is threatened by an alien, the Iron Man turns from his "unyielding, merciless" (OED) ways. He becomes a goodie, and saves the earth.

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