Commentary Magazine


The Downing Street Years, by Margaret Thatcher

Leading Lady

The Downing Street Years.
by Margaret Thatcher.
Harper Collins. 914 pp. $30.00.

You cannot stop rulers from writing memoirs. Egyptian pharaohs and Persian kings published their doings on vainglorious stelae, notorious for exaggerations and plain inventions. Generations of schoolboys once had to struggle through the war memoirs of Julius Caesar in Latin. The modern tradition was inaugurated by Winston Churchill in 1923, when he published four volumes about World War I. His colleague, A.J. Balfour, noted dryly: “Winston has published an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis.” Churchill’s motives were self-justification (he had served as First Lord of the Admiralty during the disastrous Dardanelles campaign) and money, and his success at both set off an avalanche of print, led by Lloyd George. So it has continued.

On the western side of the Atlantic, untimely death spared readers the vindications of Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Kennedy; but Coolidge, Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan have all spoken, some more than once, others at considerable length. On the eastern side, Chamberlain and Macdonald died before they had the chance and Balfour and Baldwin stayed their hands. All the rest, even the dullest, like Attlee, Douglas-Home, Heath, and Callaghan, insisted on being heard. Eden and, still more, Harold Wilson and Macmillan engaged in multivolume ventures of prodigious length and unspeakable tedium, and of course we have had six more volumes of Churchill.

So it was not to be expected that Margaret Thatcher would remain silent. In the first place, she is talkative—although not so much as many claim, and it is quite untrue that she never listens. Often she talks out of nervousness, to fill the silences left by awed interlocutors. If people are bold, and what they say is worth hearing, she will not only listen hard but whip a notebook out of her handbag and make a record. Nevertheless, she does feel she has a lot to say, and says it, stressing both vocally and in print many more words than is necessary for effective emphasis, a tiresome trait.

But then again she is one who, after a triumphant reign of glory—some would say terror—was bundled out of office unceremoniously in the biggest exercise of collective treachery seen in British politics in this century. She is certainly entitled to give her version of this untoward event and what led up to it. Fellow Tories, who are having a hard time at present and do not want further embarrassment, say she should have waited a few years. But the lady naturally wanted to speak out while interest in the subject is still vivid, and in any case she owes the Tory party nothing—quite the reverse.

Furthermore, she wants to raise money for the Thatcher Foundation, and that sort of thing is much more difficult to do on the British than on the American side of the Atlantic. Lloyd George, who made a fortune out of selling honors, showed how useful it was for a former Prime Minister to have the means to back his ideas. The precise objectives of the Thatcher Foundation are not clear to me, but evidently she has no intention of allowing the spirit of Thatcherism to die for lack of money to keep it alive.

For all these reasons, Margaret Thatcher was bound to give an account of her stewardship, beginning with her eleven-and-a-half years as Prime Minister. (Her apprenticeship and rise to power will come later.) What is the result? As a rule, and Churchill always excepted, there is no particular reason why Americans should read the reminiscences of a British Prime Minister. In this case, however, there are several.

First, Thatcher had to face, sometimes in an even more acute form, the problems which baffled America in the 1980’s and are still around in the 1990’s: inflation, government overspending, lack of national will, relative economic decline, trade deficits, overregulation, bureaucratic elephantiasis and inertia, welfare dependency, and the multiple evils of an over-nourished liberalism in all the country’s institutions, from the campus to the media.

Second, Thatcher tackled these difficulties in broadly the same spirit as did Ronald Reagan in the United States, by seeking to deploy a very few simple, rudimentary beliefs clearly presented and tenaciously pursued. Thatcher’s performance is interesting both when it echoes Reagan’s and when it differs from it. She is far more articulate than Reagan and more conscious of the origins of her salient ideas; in this book she pays eloquent tribute to the influence on her actions of such thinkers as F.A. Hayek and Michael Novak. On the other hand, like Reagan, she glories in homespun ethics and morality, which in her case derive both from her father and from her husband, Denis. For instance, she quotes the latter on success: “The desire to win is born in most of us. The will to win is a matter of training. The manner of winning is a matter of honor.” Like Reagan, too, she puts morality, as opposed to expediency, right at the center of politics. Her working vocabulary is rich in good and evil, right and wrong, the responsibilities of the individual and the horrors of collectivism.

In particular Thatcher dislikes the implications of the word “society,” as currently used to evade personal duty. In this book she explains that she strenuously objects to “the confusion of society with the state as the helper of first resort.” Hence her famous, or notorious, remark on one occasion that, in this sense, “there is no such thing as society.” She went on:

There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbor.

In The Downing Street Years she says that when she heard critics calling on “society” to come to the rescue, she would ask: “And what are you doing about it, then?” She adds: “Society for me was not an excuse, it was a source of obligation.”

In the ability to appeal to strong, basic moral instincts, Thatcher was at least the equal of Reagan. Where she fell short of him was in the ability to please. Reagan proved an astonishingly difficult man to dislike; Thatcher, abrasive rather than emollient, was only too easy to hate, even by those who sometimes agreed with her. Of all the presentational techniques, humor is the most useful to a politician, and none ever employed it more frequently or skillfully than Reagan. Thatcher lacked his devastating repertoire of one-liners (though once, after a succession of tedious male speeches, I heard her come up with: “The cock may crow but it’s the hen which lays the egg”—a striking and unique example of Thatcherite feminism).

It is often claimed that Thatcher has no sense of humor, but that is not true. Her peculiar brand—wistful, sad, resigned, ironic, and what the French call désabusé—crops up again and again in this book. But it is not the kind of jokiness which fits a political purpose, such as electioneering. Thatcher could command the public but she could not jolly it along. Their perception of her—brave, strong-willed, single-minded, and hugely obstinate, but also unfeeling, deaf to criticism, and materialistic—was an extraordinary mixture of truth and complete misapprehension. The woman she sold was only half of the woman she was. Of the nine Prime Ministers I have known, she was the only one, apart from Wilson, conspicuous for her kindness to those around her, interest in other people, and unselfishness. But this never came across.

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A third reason why Americans should read this book is that it contains important insights into the way the cold war was won and into other foreign-policy matters of at least as much concern to America as to Britain. It shows that Thatcher was the author of the winning formula for breaking the will of the tiring Soviet colossus, which Reagan was happy to adopt. While it is clear the strategy would not have worked without Reagan’s enthusiasm, and indeed leadership, it might never have been conceived without Thatcher, or persisted in without her resolution.

No one has ever been a firmer exponent of the maxim that aggression must never be allowed to pay. She showed this in the Falklands crisis, which forms the most riveting chapter in her book, and she showed it again in the summer of 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Fortunately, on this latter occasion, she was in Colorado and able to bend George Bush’s ear on the spot. Otherwise, Operation Desert Storm might never have been conceived.

Equally, the biggest beneficiary of her abrupt departure from office in November 1990 was Saddam Hussein. For it is inconceivable that Thatcher, if still in power, would have permitted Bush to let the Iraqi dictator off the hook after the success of Desert Storm. American readers who study Thatcher’s text will be persuaded that her presence in Anglo-American councils has been missed many times since then—notably on how to handle the breakup of Yugoslavia. With a Thatcherite input, the tragedy of Bosnia would have been a very different story: not necessarily less bloody, but certainly less shameful. She is also likely to be missed in devising a strategy, now urgently needed, to handle the accelerating emergence of China as a global colossus.

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A final reason why Americans should read this book is that it is an education in modern democratic politics. Politics has dominated Margaret Thatcher’s life: she is really interested in nothing else. Her book reflects her concentrated single-mindedness from start to finish. Here is the story of how a radical reformer sets about using the machinery of government to change policies, attitudes, and institutions: where compromises must be made, where they must be avoided, how the courage of weaker sisters can be screwed to the sticking-place (as Shakespeare put it) and how it sometimes breaks in the process, how cabinets can be bullied, coaxed, bribed, and divided-and-ruled, how worms turn and mouths bite the hands that feed. Love, hate, disdain, snobbery, sexism, class rancor, envy, jealousy, petty-mindedness, and decency all play their parts in Thatcher’s tale. She is particularly good on her—on the whole—rather second-rate colleagues.

Here then is a good, if long, tale, plainly told with sometimes too much detail but no padding. The book has caused an almighty hullabaloo in Britain, beginning with scandalous pre-publication leaks. Many of her ex-ministers have risen from their living tombs to denounce it with quivering rage, and so have added to its notoriety. Her old enemy, the BBC, has devoted countless hours of air time to its destruction, so helping to ensure it will live. The lady has been everywhere, energetically plugging it, and she disposed of 300,000 copies in the first three days of publication, an enormous sale for Britain.

One salient point The Downing Street Years gets across is that little can be achieved in politics, still less in geopolitics, without strong leadership. In a world which now lacks leadership everywhere, that is a poignant reminder. My own feeling, not widely shared in London, is that Margaret Thatcher may well return to power. The lady is not unwilling.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.




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