On May 4, 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister of Great Britain. When she resigned—aptly enough, on Thanks-giving Day, Thursday, November 22, 1990—she had held office for eleven and a half years: longer than any prime minister since Lord Salisbury almost a hundred years before, and the longest consecutive term since Lord Liverpool at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Nor did she go gladly or gracefully after all those years; her colleagues and her party had had enough of her, but her appetite for power was unslaked, as anyone who saw her performance in the No Confidence debate the afternoon of her resignation will remember.
“Mr Kinnock,” she says in her memoirs, “in all his years as Opposition leader, never let me down. Right to the end, he struck every wrong note.” That’s not wholly true; when Kinnock relaxed and made fun of her, Mrs. Thatcher was utterly lost. But that afternoon, he made the speech he would have made if Mrs. Thatcher had announced her intention to stay on for another eleven years, and he was trounced. At one point, she glanced round the Commons, looking for the next heckler to destroy, and in a momentary lull sang out, “Oh come on—I’m enjoying this.” And there is no doubt she was.
This was good, rough fun. More seriously, she was combative on principle, and saw politics essentially as a series of battles, to be won by sheer willpower. Ten years before, Edward Heath had promised a regime of sound money, curbs on union power, and an end to government support for ailing industries—“no lame ducks.” The policy was dreamed up at a meeting in a hotel in the suburb of Selsdon, and the policy’s ideal citizen was promptly dubbed “Selsdon Man.” Mrs. Thatcher is unabashed about admitting that she is Selsdon Woman. Heath had been driven out of office by the failure of his industrial policy; first the power workers and then the miners had shown that they could unmake any policy for controlling wages and prices the government tried to establish. Nor did the policy of “no lame ducks” do any better. When substantial firms like Rolls Royce were about to go broke, the government took them over. Margaret Thatcher was a devout believer in the promises of 1970, and thinks to this day that it was a failure of nerve that defeated Heath. Her contempt for the interventionist policies to which Heath turned when laissez-faire had been found wanting is matched by an intense (and fully reciprocated) personal dislike of the man himself—one, though only one, of the hatreds in which her memoirs are so rich.
Her own nerve she never doubted, and with reason. She had become leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 at a point where other and more distinguished candidates had hesitated to challenge Heath for the leadership. She had risked everything by standing against him, and had done so well on the first ballot that it was then too late for potential rivals to step in and steal her prize. The knowledge that she had dared and won when such Conservative leaders as William Whitelaw, Keith Joseph, Ian Gilmour, Geoffrey Howe, and James Prior had not, gave her the astonishing ascendancy she exercised over them all once she became prime minister.
With the publication of her memoirs, her Conservative critics have been asked for the past several weeks why they let her get away for so long with policies they always thought were ruinous, half-baked, and divisive; none has much of an answer. One feeble reply is that they feared to let in the Labour Party; but that doesn’t wash. They were usually tempted to revolt when dropping Mrs. Thatcher seemed the shortest way to improve the Tory Party’s fortunes—as they finally did in 1990. The truth is more discreditable; they were intimidated by her. She was bolder, more ruthless, less amenable to reason than they were.
In fact her nerve seems to have cracked only once. This was in the winter of 1985–1986, and on a matter of no great moment in itself, when she dithered much too long about putting a stop to the feud between Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan over the fate of Westland Helicopters, which an American company wanted to acquire. Thatcher and her minister for trade and industry, Leon Brittan, approved of this takeover and Heseltine, the defense secretary, opposed it, favoring a group of Europeans. In that curious episode, ministers leaked damaging documents designed to discredit one another, and senior civil servants began seriously to fear that the whole direction of government was unraveling—British administrators, unlike their American counterparts, being utterly dependent on coherent leadership from their political masters. Mrs. Thatcher gives an oddly arm’s-length account of the affair, though she does deny the familiar charge that she was behind the most damaging of the leaks intended to discredit Michael Heseltine. The sequel, of course, was one that neither of them can be happy about. Once Heseltine had been driven to resignation, he became her sworn enemy, and unlike most of her other victims, he was ready to risk his own career by standing against her for the leadership when the moment was right. He damaged her fatally, and the best she could do when the test of strength came was to make sure that the party elected her protégé John Major on the second ballot, and not Michael Heseltine.
The old adage “never explain, never apologize” is one she has taken to heart. The most striking feature of these memoirs is the absoluteness of their self-confidence. Describing her feelings on taking office, she writes,
Chatham famously remarked: “I know that I can save this country and that no one else can.” It would have been presumptuous of me to have compared myself to Chatham. But if I am honest, I must admit, my exhilaration came from a similar inner conviction.
Only the unkind would recall that Chatham went mad and killed himself.
Like many people who believe in their own destiny and see politics as the triumph of the will, Mrs. Thatcher was quick to doubt the courage, constancy, or good faith of anyone whose ideological zeal failed to match her own. She speaks kindly of her hand-picked helpers, whether they are the officials of her Finchley constituency party, or better-known figures like Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, and Charles Powell, her foreign affairs adviser, but she has almost nothing good to say about the members of her cabinets. They had their own views, and to start with at least, their own bases in the Conservative Party; they ran their own departments, and they displayed a nasty tendency to disagree with her. Even John Major, her own creation, and her intended successor, lost his shine when he inherited.
She observes that she could have saved the country with the aid of six good men and true, and immediately laments that she could so rarely find a half dozen who shared her convictions and her passions. This contempt for almost everyone she ever worked with is not a very engaging quality. But even those who disliked her found it hard not to admire her behavior on the few occasions when her combativeness really was needed. The Falklands War, to take the most obvious example, was a stupid war from everyone’s point of view—except perhaps that of the Falkland Islanders, who were rewarded for their sufferings under the Argentine invasion with subsidies from the British taxpayer that would have sufficed to have brought them all to Britain and set them up for life. But once General Galtieri’s forces had invaded the islands, it was a wholly legitimate and proper response to do everything possible to throw the invaders off again.
In doing this, the British government was helped neither by Jeane Kirkpatrick’s unhealthy passion for preserving Galtieri in power nor by Alexander Haig’s eccentric diplomacy. Finding a deal that would save British face but leave the Argentine government in possession of the island appealed to many others in the US government, and only the folly of Galtieri and his cabinet let the British government off the hook of having to be the party that rejected a peace formula. Like 90 percent of the British people, her line was: these are our people and our islands, and we’re getting them back. (Like 90 percent of the British people, too, Mrs. Thatcher saw nothing inconsistent in taking a very different view of the Britishness of the Hong Kong islanders.) The success of the British action did nothing at all for the problems that Mrs. Thatcher had been elected to solve. It did wonders for morale, however. Indeed it did altogether too much for hers:
The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat. The tacit assumption made by British and foreign governments alike was that our world role was doomed steadily to diminish. We had come to be seen by both friends and enemies as a nation which lacked the will and the capability to defend its interests in peace, let alone in war. Victory in the Falklands changed that. Everywhere I went after the war, Britain’s name meant something more than it had. The war also had real importance in relations between East and West: years later I was told by a Russian general that the Soviets had been firmly convinced that we would not fight for the Falklands, and that if we did fight we would lose. We proved them wrong on both counts, and they did not forget the fact.
The second occasion where stubborn willpower paid off was the Miners’ Strike of 1984–1985. This, too, was a stupid fight, but one the government had to win. The British coal miners had emerged so thoroughly beaten from the General Strike of 1926 that it was forty-six years before the National Union of Mineworkers called another national strike. But in 1972 and 1974, they had given Edward Heath a very bloody nose. A particularly effective tactic, developed by the union leader Arthur Scargill, was the “flying picket,” a large body of strikers who would converge on a power station or coal depot and close it by sheer weight of numbers. This tactic had been decisive in 1974 and had misled Scargill, when he became the president of the NUM, into thinking the miners were invincible, and could destroy Tory governments whenever they chose. For the first five years of Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership, she and Scargill circled round each other like sumo wrestlers waiting for the decisive moment to settle the question, “who’s in charge.”
Mrs. Thatcher was wise to bide her time, or rather to let herself be made to bide her time by her ministers. Among the innumerable acts of ingratitude in these memoirs the way she slights her debts to her employment secretary Jim Prior is striking. The much-put-upon Prior, described here as a “false squire” and a traitor to true Tory policy, shared her opinion that the balance of power had swung too much in favor of the unions, but took a more cautious view than she did about the chances of taking on the miners before public opinion was firmly on the government’s side. He rather than she drew the correct lesson from the failure of Heath’s trade union legislation: the public disliked the use of the criminal law against anything other than violence and intimidation, but had no qualms about legislation that allowed employers to sue for damages in the civil courts. By the end of 1983, the first battle against flying pickets had been won when the heretofore unchallengeable print workers failed to shut a non-unionized printing plant in Warrington. A combination of police action to prevent pickets assembling and civil injunctions to restrain the union from encouraging unlawful action had done the trick. This was a popular victory: the print unions not only discouraged technological innovation but in some cases refused to print views they objected to.
Arthur Scargill failed to read the signs. Then he blundered horribly: he called a strike without waiting for the national ballot his union’s rule book demanded, and he launched it in the spring, when the demand for coal was slackening. The government had long anticipated the event. Coal stocks were high. The police were ready to block flying pickets. Scargill conducted himself with all the skill of General Galtieri, the union movement kept its distance from the miners, and not even Ian MacGregor, the elderly American merchant banker whom Mrs. Thatcher had imported to slim down the steel and coal industries, could alienate enough middle-ground opinion to lose the war. Mrs. Thatcher treated the dispute with the miners as a war—her chapter on the strike is called “Mr. Scargill’s Insurrection”—and Mr. Scargill was foolish enough to do so too. He did not help himself by accepting financial assistance from Colonel Qaddhafi and the Soviet mine workers, neither of them much liked by the British public.
Like most events in Mrs. Thatcher’s career, the publication of her memoirs has been presented as another pitched battle against her critics and denigrators. Like her other fights, it can be seen either as a huge success or as a stunning failure. She was paid £3.5 million for them; the BBC, much despised by her when she was in office, is running a series on Thatcher: The Downing Street Years that amounts to a free publicity campaign; the British publishers claim that 300,000 copies are in print and are leaving the bookstores as fast as the customers can haul them out the door; and loyal Thatcherites camped overnight outside the bookshop where Baroness Thatcher was to sign copies of the book in order to get the very first.
On the other hand, John Major is still prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party; he got the biggest cheer of the party’s recent annual conference when he declared that he was going to carry on as prime minister and “not write my memoirs for many years yet.” On the assumption that at least part of the point of Thatcher’s memoirs was to make life impossible for her successor, that must count as a failure. Her nastiness to her chosen successor is quite impressive. Here is her account of his behavior when she was thinking of fighting on in the fall of 1990.
I told him that I had decided to stand again and that Douglas [Hurd] was going to propose me. I asked John to second my nomination. There was a moment’s silence. The hesitation was palpable. No doubt the operation on John’s wisdom teeth was giving him trouble. Then he said that if that was what I wanted, yes. Later, when urging my supporters to vote for John for the leadership, I made play of the fact that he did not hesitate. But both of us knew otherwise.
Of course, this sort of exercise in character assassination is likely to rebound on the assassin; the Tories may value power more than anything short of life itself, but they value loyalty, too. Disloyal accusations of disloyalty are a dicey currency to trade in, even for Baroness Thatcher.
So far as the book’s merits as a literary composition are concerned, nobody pretends it is anything but a disaster; it is chronologically incoherent, it carves up the activities of her successive governments into disconnected chunks, and several hundred pages read like a civil service memorandum on Mrs. Thatcher’s travels—so much so that she has had to include a fourpage list of acronyms to remind the reader of what it was she was going to when she attended CHOGM in Kuala Lumpur in 1989.
Not all British prime ministers have been literary duds. Churchill, Macmillan, and Attlee produced accounts of their careers that were highly readable, not least because they were relaxed and reflective, marred by as little malice and self-praise as it is reasonable to demand of politicians, and written by men who had got over the disappointments of leaving office and the urge to score points off their rivals. The Downing Street Years brings off the astonishing feat of being simultaneously malicious, strident, self-righteous, and dull. British reviewers have been almost uniformly unkind. Even the egregious Alan Clark, a former defense minister, praised by Mrs. Thatcher as “a gallant friend” and one of the few ministers who urged Mrs. Thatcher to fight on into the last ditch when the party rejected her in the fall of 1990, admits it’s pretty boring, for which he blames the hacks who helped to assemble it rather than the leading lady herself. Most other critics have thought it a perhaps unintentionally faithful portrait of its author, and have disliked it accordingly.
The question that lies behind the book and is nowhere discussed is how much difference she made to Britain and British politics. She takes it for granted that she made an enormous difference; and such is the view of her enemies as well as her admirers. With a nice absence of modesty she is flattered that there is a political creed called “Thatcherism,” agrees that she embodied it, and reckons she achieved a British miracle, a 1980s Wirtschaftswunder. Americans will recognize the style; like Ronald Reagan, Mrs. Thatcher has always acted on the assumption that if you tell people often enough that you have done great things they will end up believing you. It is, however, as dubious a proposition in Britain as it was in the United States. That she made Britain rather different from the way it would otherwise have been is plausible; that she much affected the economic and social ills she was elected to cure is another thing entirely.
By the end of Mrs. Thatcher’s eleven years in office, Britain was in as deep a recession as it was heading into when she took over in 1979; high interest rates were squeezing down inflation at the cost of throwing another million people out of work. The program of “rolling back government” had made so little headway that when she left office the proportion of the national income taken in taxes and national insurance payments was slightly higher than when she came in. Many formerly nationalized industries had been privatized; as private monopolies they behaved much as they had before, and the public liked them no better.
Nigel Lawson, her chancellor of the exchequer between 1983 and 1989, often complained that her policies were driven by the prejudices of the lower middle classes rather than by truly “Thatcherite” economics, which claimed to be committed to the workings of the market and to fiscal responsibility. Lawson’s claim seems convincing. No concerted attack was made on distortions in the tax system; tax relief on mortgages remained sacrosanct, because “our people” wanted it. The poll tax, a device for municipal financing, cost vast amounts of money both to establish and, recently, to unravel; it was introduced to satisfy middle-class home owners who resented the fact that tenants in public housing paid no property taxes. Defense expenditure was never reduced as much as it should have been, and so generally on. The perennial problems of the National Health Service and the educational system remained unresolved—how well your body and mind were served continued to owe more to where you lived and what your family earned than to what your mind and body needed.
Among the various matters that Baroness Thatcher keeps quiet about is her wholesale failure to convert the population to her way of thinking. Although she won three elections, her party never got so much as 43 percent of the national vote; no party since the war had won an election on such a miserable basis. To put it another way, given the 75 percent turnout that British elections attract, she was the choice of something less than one third of the adult public. She denounces “corporatism” as an un-English snare and delusion, and insists—even The Economist bought this line for a time—that what worked for the German economy could not work for the British.
The German experience of hyperinflation between the wars meant that nearly everyone there was deeply conscious of the need to keep inflation down, even at the expense of a short-term rise in unemployment. German trade unions were also far more responsible than ours, and, of course, the German character is different, less individualistic and more regimented.
This is known in polite circles as “saloon bar social science.” She appears still to believe that her judgment of workers’ behavior was an open and shut matter, and that she had the public on her side. But all the evidence suggests that the British would have settled for something like the German system of collective bargaining and industrial management if they had thought it would be applied consistently and that neither managers nor the workers on the shop floor would spend too much time cheating on agreements.
Appreciation of complexity and the wish to understand her opponents’ views were and remain foreign to her. All her opponents seem to hold their misguided opinions out of sheer perversity. It is some indication of the thoughtlessness of her politics that none of the intellectuals who wrote on her behalf and defended her policies both privately and publicly gets a mention in her book—no Roger Scruton or John Casey, no Anthony Quinton, no Hugh Thomas, not even Paul Johnson. But that is not surprising. She had few ideas, and ideas as such clearly never interested her. The limitations of her imagination emerge from time to time between the lines. What does she read? “Thrillers by Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carré.” When Helmut Kohl takes her to the great cathedral at Speier, the organist is playing Bach, and she is touched because Kohl knew “how much I love church music.” Her grip even on political ideas is tenuous. When the Gorbachevs visit, she gives them tea. “Our advice at the time was that Mrs Gorbachev was a committed, hardline Marxist; her obvious interest in Hobbes’s Leviathan, which she took down from a shelf in the library might possibly have confirmed that.” Seeing how plausibly one could invoke Hobbes as an ancestor of Mrs. Thatcher—both of them devout believers in the combination of a strong state and economic laissez faire—one wonders which branch of the intelligence services put that idea into her head.
Mrs. Thatcher was essentially a protest politician, even when she was in charge. The last third of these memoirs is a long diatribe against the wicked disloyalty of her ministers; those of them that have had the energy to reply have pointed out how hard it is to be loyal to a boss who curries favor with the public by running against her own cabinet. It was the resentful electorate that kept her in power, however. The majority of the electorate never voted for her; they voted against the trade unions that had produced the “winter of discontent” in 1979, when hospitals were picketed and the dead were left unburied owing to a municipal gravediggers’ strike. They voted against the Militant Tendency that tried to install Trotskyite candidates in Labour constituencies, and against the sleaziness and countless broken promises of Harold Wilson’s and James Callaghan’s Labour governments. All too many of the voters who shared her views shared a lumpen distaste for the old ruling elite.
There were more generous possibilities in her appeal. The view that British politics, British industry, and the British welfare state needed a shake-up was plainly right. So, too, was the meritocratic thought that the country wasted too much talent and too much energy, and that ambitious people were too often thwarted by snobbery and fear of change. She shared Harold Wilson’s liking for self-made men, and had none of the hostility to Jews that old-fashioned Conservatives were prone to display. The restrictiveness of Mrs. Thatcher’s governments’ immigration policies alienated many leaders of the Asian community, but she was admired by others who represented the aspirations of corner grocers and the owners of gas stations. Her version of the classless society had obvious attractions for talented outsiders. Then, there were those skeptics who thought she might be an evil but a necessary evil—Labour supporters who were happy to see Mrs. Thatcher beat the unions into a frame of mind to cooperate with a future Labour government and not wreck its efforts as they had wrecked James Callaghan’s.
Her own vision was more apocalyptic. Britain had been Great Britain as a freetrading, fiercely capitalist, Victorian power; then the nation had gone flabby; flabbiness led to social democracy and to a conservatism that was just about indistinguishable from what the Labour Party practiced when in power. Her task was to reverse this decline by a Great Leap Backward, to the world of her father, the Grantham grocer. This vision grew upon her in the last three years in Downing Street, and it eventually led to her downfall. It was a view that had less to do with the real well-being of the British people, and much more to do with what sort of figure they cut in international comparisons.
Her emotions seemed rooted in World War II, a time for which she, like many of her compatriots, feels intense nostalgia. It was the last time the country pulled together to achieve clear and simple goals. This meant that complicated questions of trade union policy, welfare reform, the proper size of the public sector were constantly reduced to “battles” against this, that, and the other. One obvious effect was that criticism of her policies was dismissed as unpatriotic, tantamount to desertion in the face of the enemy. A less obvious, but equally important effect was that it poisoned relations with Europe. One of the more outspoken Cabinet members, Nicholas Ridley, finally got the sack for saying out loud that he didn’t fancy German reunification since unified Germans would start throwing their weight around in a Hunnish fashion. But Mrs. Thatcher liked him precisely because she held much the same views. “Thatcherism” as she understood it was not a matter of scientific economics, but of British economics; “corporatism” was bad economics, but more importantly, it was un-English.
This was not a helpful attitude at a time when European integration was supposed to be on the agenda. The Germans weren’t to be trusted, in Mrs. Thatcher’s view, and neither were the French—everyone else was to be ignored. The Germans, after all, didn’t even trust themselves, and were busy cementing themselves into Europe so as not to turn into nationalists and imperialists all over again.
This desire among modern German politicians to merge their national identity in a wider Europe is understandable enough, but it presents great difficulties to self-conscious nation-states in Europe. In effect, the Germans, because they are nervous of governing themselves, want to establish a European system in which no nation will govern itself. Such a system could only be unstable in the long term, and because of Germany’s size and preponderance, is bound to be lop-sided. Obsession with a European Germany risks producing a German Europe.
Against this threat, the French were, as usual, no help. After all, they had crumbled in 1940, and François Mitterrand was no Charles de Gaulle.
Mrs. Thatcher’s relations with European heads of government were always faintly comic; from the opening complaints about the community budget and demands for “my money” to her toing and froing about British membership in the Exchange Rate Mechanism, she was determinedly non-communautaire. What she wanted Britain to belong to was a free trade area linking separate nation states; no Jacques Delors, no Roy Jenkins, no social charter, no cultural unification, no encouragement for a joint European foreign policy. It was this opposition to European integration that finally did her in. She dragged her feet over joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1986 when it likely would have worked. She lost the support of Nigel Lawson over the issue and then Lawson himself when he resigned. Eventually she was forced into joining the ERM in 1990 when it wasn’t going to work. At last she drove the long-suffering Geoffrey Howe into revolt. Howe was a perennial victim; years before Denis Healey described an attack by Howe on himself as being “savaged by a dead sheep.” Since then he had been shoved into the firing line as chancellor of the exchequer, treated with contempt by his prime minister during his time as foreign secretary, then bundled aside so she could promote John Major.
Howe finally got his revenge. His resignation speech in November 1990 contained what even Baroness Thatcher acknowledges as a good line. He complained that her habit of treating “the government” as an alien force over which she neither had nor could be expected to have very much control made the life of her ministers just impossible. “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen [into action] only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.” She still doesn’t get it. It still seems to her that Howe can only have been moved by bile and bitterness, corrupted by the Foreign Office and all those dreadful smoothies whose aim was to sell British interests down the river, and that this was something close to treachery for its own sake.
The most extraordinary feature of these memoirs is their unself-consciousness. It seems never to have crossed Mrs. Thatcher’s mind that while she preached self-reliance and productivity, she herself had made a career in politics by marrying a very rich man—the Thatchers are said to be worth £63 million—and, as an elected politician, had then been paid by the taxpayers. The extent to which she and her children enriched themselves by trading on the connections she made in office is another delicate topic left unbroached. The obliviousness is more than personal, however. Among the issues entirely undiscussed a large one is the damage she did to British civil liberties; the Spycatcher affair, when the British government tried to suppress the memoirs of a retired M1-5 officer, only to make itself look illiberal, duplicitous, and stupid in the courts and in the press, is not mentioned at all. Her high-handed insistence that IRA spokesmen were not to appear on British radio or television strikes her as a wise move to deprive terrorism of “the oxygen of publicity,” and not as a lost opportunity to remind the IRA how widely they are loathed. The mess her government made of higher education is belatedly acknowledged. She writes that critics” genuinely concerned about the future autonomy and academic integrity of universities” had “a stronger case than I would have liked.” A footnote refers us to a speech she made at Rand Afrikaans University six months after she left office, which seems an odd venue in which to discuss the future of British universities.
One way and another, these memoirs make it even more surprising than it seemed at the time that the stolid and unfanatical British should have contrived to hand themselves over for so long to a leader whose grip on reality was so slight. It is by the same token alarming commentary on the decayed state of the British Labour Party and the difficulties of third-party politics that, faced with the choice between Mrs. Thatcher’s folie de grandeur and two variations on old-fashioned social democracy, the electorate should have voted so unshakably for folie de grandeur. Not a pretty tale, and not a very comforting moral.
December 2, 1993