The Magazine

Rebel With a Cause

Margaret Thatcher, revolutionary.

Jul 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 40 • By JOHN O'SULLIVAN
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A second category comprises books on the Cold War partnership between herself and Ronald Reagan. Given the outcome, these can hardly avoid being highly favorable. Considered as narrative, moreover, their partnership is a gripping and inspiring story. Geoffrey Smith's study, Reagan and Thatcher, set a high standard for the genre. Written in 1991, it remains a fine first draft of history rooted in painstaking research and well-placed sources. All later writers on this topic, myself very much included, are in his debt. Nicholas Wapshott is an admirer of both Reagan and Thatcher, but well "this side [of] idolatry." His A Political Marriage brings the story of their partnership up to date with newly declassified material from official archives, recent memoirs, and the diaries of Reagan and others.

Though I have my quibbles--Wapshott misses how the early determination of the Foreign Office to stay out of the Grenada crisis was the ultimate cause of the Reagan-Thatcher row--the overall result is briskly readable and, well, gripping and inspiring. It is also a political romance with a happy ending:

Reagan and Thatcher did more than merely ride a wave of history; they provided clear leadership amid potential chaos . . . and escorted the world across the threshold of a new era.

A third category, books on the ideology of Thatcherism, divides broadly in half. If written by economists, such books have a better-than-even chance of being favorable; if written by political scientists or historians, they are usually hostile, reflecting a general anti-Thatcher animus in the academy. Thus, historian Richard Vinen's thorough and lively new study marks something of a departure. Though he leans to the left and disputes some key claims for Thatcherism, he reaches other conclusions that, once cleansed of paradox, Thatcher herself would be happy to take to a (solvent) bank:

By the time she resigned, Soviet troops were pulling out of Eastern Europe, the National Union of Mineworkers was broken, and more than a million council houses had been sold. The problem for this unconsensual politician was that she had created a new consensus.

A final category is the serious full-dress biography. John Campbell's life, originally in two volumes, has now been pruned and reissued as a one-volume paperback. This book is indispensable to Thatcherologists, especially on the young Margaret, and though Campbell is disposed to be critical, he also strives mightily to be fair-minded. What emerges is a work that is sharply critical of Thatcherite policies but very sympathetic to the brave, principled, and usually embattled human being who was driving them forward.

My impression--it can be no more than that--is that Campbell ended up being less critical and more sympathetic as he went through the eight years of writing than he expected at the outset. In his final summing-up of the Thatcherite legacy, for instance, he anticipated Vinen in seeing Thatcher, like Reagan, as a statesman who had created a new political consensus that was then ratified by Tony Blair and New Labour. In addition, his sharpest criticisms may yet be revised by history--notably on Europe, where Campbell condemns her Euroskepticism but where he may be confounded by future chapters in our island story.

Not so incidentally, Campbell pays a generous, if barbed, tribute to an important competitor: namely Margaret Thatcher herself, the author of a two-volume memoir, The Downing Street Years and The Path to Power. Of the first volume he writes: "The book has its longueurs, but it is still by far the most comprehensive and readable of modern prime ministerial memoirs: partisan, of course, but generally a clear and vivid account of her side of the arguments."

Both halves of this tribute have force. The memoirs are a powerful presentation of the Thatcherite case--and one that is gaining traction as serious history in the academy. At the same time the qualification about longueurs is a fair one. For the sake of historical completeness a full prime ministerial memoir will necessarily include much material that is of little interest to the general reader. But since the full version has been published, and since the market in Thatcher memorabilia is clearly not exhausted, Harper- Collins might want to consider imitating Campbell's publisher and putting out a one-volume abridgment.