Mrs. Thatcher’s Revenge

Letters from London

by Julian Barnes
Vintage, 320 pp., $13.00 (paper)

The Disenchanted Isle: Mrs. Thatcher's Capitalist Revolution

by Charles Dellheim
Norton, 416 pp., $25.00


There is a mansion near Columbus, Ohio. It is very grand indeed. Horses in the fields, wrought-iron gates, a neo-Georgian style of architecture, a ballroom inside, and a hall as big as a movie theater. In that hall, on the occasion I had to see it, was an elegant side table, and on that table, picked out by a hidden spotlight, was a book, heavy as a Bible: the first volume of Lady Thatcher’s memoirs, The Downing Street Years. The Baroness of Finchley, I was told, had dined at the house only a week before. Snobbish thoughts came instantly to mind (as they are wont to do when reflecting on the baroness). She had come a long way, I thought, from a corner shop in Grantham, Lincolnshire, to the baronial splendor of a mansion in Columbus. Then again, I thought, no less snobbishly, the lord of the manor was probably just her kind of guy, her ideal baron, so to speak: very rich, very selfmade, American, and Jewish.

Margaret Thatcher’s often-professed philo-Semitism must be approached with some caution, to be sure. I’m not certain what Harold Macmillan was implying when he observed that Mrs. Thatcher’s first cabinet contained “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians,” but I have a feeling I don’t like it. When a right-wing columnist for the conservative Daily Telegraph comments that Judaism was the creed of Thatcherite Britain, I’m sure I don’t like it.1 And when a left-wing columnist in the Guardian called Mrs. Thatcher an “honorary Jew,” British Jews did not like it either.2 Nonetheless, Mrs. Thatcher has often made a point of admiring what she sees as Jewish virtues: self-reliance and get-up-and-go. Indeed, she writes reassuringly in the second volume of her memoirs that she “was … to find some of [her] closest political friends and associates among Jews.” As for the US, she continues to refer to it as her “second home.”

What should we make of these professed affinities? Was the feeling mutual? In some ways, yes. Mrs. Thatcher was popular in her old constituency, the north London suburb of Finchley. I would not describe the place as particularly charming. But Finchley and Mrs. Thatcher suited each other. There is an air about it of hard work, self-improvement, and close-knit family life. It has a large middle-class Jewish population (and Chinese and Japanese too, but they don’t vote). Finchley is tidy rather than elegant, with narrow streets of Victorian terraced houses, as well as pockets of Edwardian mock Tudor, and a cluster of “olde English” cottages built around the turn of the century. Small rather than big business is the norm. There are good delicatessens, stores, Chinese restaurants, and there is a place to buy Doric arches and marble fireplaces to touch up the home. In religion and politics Finchley is solidly conservative.

Grantham, Lincolnshire, was never noted for any Jewish connections. Mrs. Thatcher mentions only one. Her sister Muriel had an Austrian pen friend called Edith, who came…

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