The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher
The Thatcher Decade
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 each occasion she had sprung back to win landslide victories at the polls in 1983 and 1987. Admired and respected by most of the British for the qualities that had won back the Falkland Islands or faced down Arthur Scargill and his striking coal miners, Margaret Thatcher has never been much loved; she is the curious phenomenon of an unpopular populist.
This time, however, there are differences. For all her time in office hitherto she was spared effective parliamentary opposition. Since it went lurching to the left in 1980 the Labour party has been virtually unelectable. The attempt to form a new, nonsocialist constellation on the center-left flourished briefly but served the purpose chiefly of dividing the forces of opposition under an electoral system which is hostile to third parties. By last year, however, the centrist alliance of Liberals and Social Democrats had fallen apart in personal and sectarian disagreement, opening the way for Labour to move back into the center ground of British politics. This, under Neil Kinnock, it had been seeking to do, and it junked many of its socialist policies along with the vote-losing cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
By the end of 1989 Labour had built up a lead of eight to ten points in the opinion polls, and, for the first time in a decade, looked as if in contention for power. Today, as the government’s unpopularity has deepened Labour’s lead is nearer 20 percent. At least there is now the possibility of the Conservatives losing the election if they try hard enough. Try hard they will have to, for the electoral demography of Britain is increasingly on their side. For decades Labour’s power base has been in the declining regions of the north, the depopulating inner cities, and among the dwindling ranks of the old manual working class while Conservative power has become increasingly entrenched in the more populous and prosperous southern region of the country, the burgeoning suburbs and smaller towns, and the new home-owning, share-owning middle classes.
To many of her own supporters Mrs. Thatcher seemed to be doing her best to lose. Having attributed the troubles of her second term to the lack of a clear program, the Conservatives had run in 1987 on a new radical platform, in effect the second stage of what had by then been dubbed the “Thatcher Revolution.” At the time it seemed like an inspired electioneering coup, today it looks like a major error. Instead of tackling real problems, of which there are enough, it set the government down the path of ideologically inspired and highly contentious institutional reform, none of which would seem to offer much electoral payoff. To take the most egregious example, Mrs. Thatcher rashly pledged herself to abolish local property taxes (“rates”) that finance local government and to replace them with a thoroughly regressive, inequitable, and explosively unpopular tax on each adult citizen, which has provoked renewed left-wing violence outside town halls and is in large part responsible for Labour’s commanding lead in the polls. Privatizing publicly owned industries, popular during her first and second terms, has become unpopular now that it is being extended to the electricity and the water industries. More contentious still is the proposal to introduce market discipline into the National Health Service, the most popular of Britain’s postwar institutions. This was the result of a purely reflexive initiative by Mrs. Thatcher herself and has led to running warfare with the medical profession. A similar upheaval in the school system has left teachers more dissatisfied than ever with their pay.
This surge of Thatcherite zeal has enhanced the impression that the government’s values are out of touch with those of the people at a time when inflation is rising, mortgage rates are punitive for many young home buyers, public services run down and starved of finance, and the streets disfigured by homeless people inhabiting cardboard boxes. To round off her disastrous anniversary year Mrs. Thatcher was challenged for the leadership by Sir Anthony Meir, a stalking-horse candidate, himself a nonentity, who nevertheless caused seventy MPs to deny their votes while a further thirty, it is said, informed the Whips that their loyalty could be stretched no further.
Hugo Young’s biography of Mrs. Thatcher was published in Britain to coincide with her tenth anniversary as prime minister and may have contributed to the sourness of those proceedings. Published in the United States as The Iron Lady, in Britain it was called One of Us, a title rich in irony. “One of us” is a Thatcherite catch phrase—“Is he one of us?” she used to inquire of people’s ideological credentials—but as the title of Young’s book implied, the irony was that Mrs. Thatcher was not at all “one of us,” the British people. This is the unspoken question that runs through Young’s biography. Is she to be seen as some kind of aberration or does she embody the spirit of her age in a real and lasting way?
The Thatcher story is by now mostly familiar, but Young tells it with studied fairness and natural elegance and constructs a rich and subtle portrait. The daughter of a grocer, she was brought up over the store, which is the nearest the British have to the American logcabin myth; in fact, her father was a well-to-do grocer, a moral pillar of the local community, and extremely ambitious for his daughter, who attended fee-paying schools and Oxford at his expense. She lacked nothing in political education, Young notes, commenting that “few scions of the nobility, however high their destiny in the Conservative party, have been able to say the same.” No thread of destiny ran through her early career as aspirant politician. She was elected to Parliament in 1959 at the age of thirty-four and became the “statutory woman” in Edward Health’s cabinet between 1970 and 1974. It is the typical story of an ambitious politician marked by a mixture of self-serving loyalism and calculated opportunism.
Much history had to be rewritten to accommodate the Thatcherite myth that the true Tory cause was destroyed by Macmillan and Heath and rescued by her efforts. As Young demonstrates, there is little trace of “Thatcherism” in Mrs. Thatcher’s early career. Much of what she became after she had wrested the leadership of the Conservative party from Health in 1975 she learned on the job; and when she came to power in 1979 there was no ideological blueprint for transforming Britain although, as Young several times stresses, she had been guided throughout by a strong certitude that whatever she is doing is morally right. He correctly identifies the 1981 budget as a major turning point. Keynes was stood on his head; taxes were lowered so as to curb public expenditure, even though unemployment was continuing to rise sharply. It was undoubtedly an act of great boldness and it worked, though at the cost of much manufacturing capacity and still more social hardship. Victory in the Falklands war the following year guaranteed her reelection “unopposed,” as Young puts it, in 1983.
Her second term Young sees as characterized chiefly by rudderless improvisation, a period of accident and error, the chief of which was the Westland affair, in which she allowed a relatively minor dispute over the award of a helicopter contract to be blown out of proportion by leaks and countercharges in the press. The result was the resignation of the Minister of Defense, Michael Heseltine, “the only man in Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet,” Young writes, “whose fearlessness and ambition came close to matching her own.” Although she by then reigned victorious over her colleagues after purging her successive cabinet dissidents, she remained curiously vulnerable. As Young explains it, “A consequence of being dominant was that failures as well as successes were laid only at her door.” He dates her true apotheosis from her third successive electoral victory in 1987, for only then, he suggests, could she know “she had changed the course of history.” Young walks around his subject with fastidious fascination. He takes pains to distinguish her real achievements from the mist of moral theology which has come to surround them and which, quite plainly, he finds repellent. In the end he attributes her successes largely to the failure of others. It was