The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher
by Hugo Young
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 570 pp., $25.00
The Thatcher Decade
by Peter Riddell
Basil Blackwell, 236 pp., $29.95
Since the celebration, on May 4, 1989, of the tenth anniversary of her becoming prime minister, not much has gone, right for Margaret Thatcher. By the end of last year the euphoric talk of an “economic miracle” that had followed Nigel Lawson’s tax-slashing budget of 1988 had given way to gloomy forebodings about the return of the “British disease”—inflation and chronic uncompetitiveness. By last October, on the eve of the annual Conservative party conference at which Thatcher would celebrate her sixty-fourth birthday, the base interest rate had been raised to a penal 15 percent as a means of squeezing out inflation but also of supporting the exchange value of the pound. Not long after that Nigel Lawson, the chancellor of the Exchequer, resigned from the cabinet in spectacular fashion, saying he had basic disagreements with the prime minister and her private advisers over monetary policy and the European Community.
This resignation came after a clumsy cabinet reshuffle in July in which Mrs. Thatcher had abruptly removed Sir Geoffrey Howe from the Foreign Office because he wanted Britain to participate in the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System and she did not. Her strident animosity toward European integration according to any model that implied federalism had contributed to the debacle of the Conservatives in the June elections to the European Parliament. For the first time under her leadership her party suffered a defeat at the polls.
This defeat planted the thought in the minds of MPs that she might have become a loser in Westminster elections too. At local elections a month earlier, and a parliamentary by-election in South Wales, voters had registered their dissatisfaction with the government and their disaffection with Mrs. Thatcher; people told reporters “she’s gone too far.” Opinion polls commissioned for the occasion of her tenth anniversary told the same story and must have made dispiriting reading at Number 10 Downing Street. The Gallup Poll reported that only 37 percent of voters agreed with the proposition “overall this is a better country to live in than it was 10 years ago,” while nearly twice the number who thought that “people’s pride in Britain” had increased during the Thatcher years considered it to have diminished. The phrase “Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain” had a negative ring to more than half of Gallup’s respondents. Other polls told a similar story and, all in all, some 60 percent of the voters were of the opinion that enough was enough of Mrs. Thatcher.
This was by no means the first time she had found herself in a trough of deep unpopularity. Her low rating in the polls—the worst since Neville Chamberlain after Munich, which is as far back as Gallup goes—was no worse than in the dire autumn of 1981 amid deepening recession and rising unemployment. Her fortunes reached a similarly low point halfway through her second term after the Westland affair in 1986, which was her nearest equivalent to Watergate. Yet on …