Peter Jenkins, the leading political journalist in Britain, has written a long and excellent book about the last two decades of British political history, a book that combines reporting and scholarship, journalism and history. He retells the headline stories of the Thatcher years with a novelist’s sense of detail and taste for gossip and a perceptive social theorist’s mastery of complexity. He is privy to politicians’ leaks and off-the-record complaints. He has included virtually every event of political importance since 1979. He describes, for example, the scandal in early 1986 over the government’s leaks of information compromising a cabinet member which Thatcher thought might end her leadership within a day, as well as her politically dangerous decision to help President Reagan bomb Libya, even though she thought that action stupid.
Jenkins breaks his narrative with sharp portraits of the important British politicians of the period, catching them in a few illuminating and sometimes hilarious paragraphs. But he is most impressive as a social and political historian, at ease with economic analysis, political sociology, and doctrinal controversy. Mrs. Thatcher’s Revolution will be of high value to historians of contemporary Britain and Europe, both as a primary source and for its argument. It should provide the classic account of recent British politics for many years.
During the last two decades, as Jenkins’s book shows, Great Britain’s political life has undergone the most radical and abrupt shift of any Western democracy since the Second World War. When I took up teaching at Oxford, in 1969, Britain still seemed the herald of a new egalitarian politics. Two decades earlier, the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee had begun a comprehensive program that aimed sharply to reduce the inequalities in income, education, housing, and medicine that had seemed inevitable consequences of British capitalism and its class system. The Labour government brought key industries, including steel and coal, under collective national control, and made government the main provider of medical care through a national health service, and the main landlord through council housing schemes that eventually brought a third of British homes under collective ownership.
In 1969, in spite of economic difficulties and some backtracking, and though much inequality and privilege remained, the spirit of this egalitarian movement seemed still powerful. The central institutions and policies of the welfare state Labour had created were no longer challenged at their foundation by Conservatives. Journalists said there was a political consensus uniting the two parties, which they called “Butskellism” after R.A. Butler, an intellectual leader of the Tories, and Hugh Gaitskell, who had become Labour’s leader. Political wars were fought over which party could administer the developing welfare state more wisely and efficiently. Americans dismayed by the failure of their own country to reduce inequality admired Britain’s progress. They read the sociologist Richard Titmuss’s exciting book, The Gift Relationship, which used the contrast between the British practice of donating blood for transfusions and the American practice of …