The Magazine

Rebel With a Cause

Margaret Thatcher, revolutionary.

Jul 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 40 • By JOHN O'SULLIVAN
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There Is No Alternative
Why Margaret Thatcher Matters
by Claire Berlinski
Basic Books, 400 pp., $27.95

Rebel With a Cause

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher
A Political Marriage
by Nicholas Wapshott
Sentinel, 352 pp., $25.95

A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl
A Memoir

by Carol Thatcher
Headline Review, 320 pp., £18.99

Thatcher's Britain
The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era
by Richard Vinen
Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., £20

Margaret Thatcher
Grocer's Daughter to Iron Lady
by John Campbell
Vintage, 576 pp., £11.99

The Complete Public Statements of Margaret Thatcher 1945-1990
edited by Christopher Collins
Oxford, CD-ROM, £50

Where does the reputation of Margaret Thatcher stand 30 years after she entered Downing Street? Does it matter? And if so, why? These questions invite a complicated answer. The market in reputations is even more volatile than the market in corporations. It has a heavy bias towards short selling. And in the last year fluctuations in the financial market have stimulated equally dizzying zig-zags in blue-chip guru stocks--Alan Greenspan, Gordon Brown, Robert Rubin, almost any banker you care to name.

Until the middle of last year, Lady Thatcher's stock had been slowly on the rise. Her reputation had long been high outside Britain, especially so in the United States and Asia, but in recent years it had begun to climb in her native land as well.

Last year Morgan Stanley--are they still around?--gave Thatcher a "lifetime achievement award" while awarding the 2008 "Great Britons" prize to J. K. Rowling. (This is a practice borrowed from the Oscars to compensate iconic figures for not actually winning.) Most impressive of all, in a 2006 New Statesman competition in which the readers of the left's weekly bible nominated heroes of our time, she came fifth, admittedly behind Nelson Mandela (2) and Bob Geldof (3), but ahead of Noam Chomsky (7), the Dalai Lama (9), Mikhail Gorbachev (13), Fidel Castro (16), and Tony Blair, who was rather lagging at 18.

The New Statesman's explanation was accurate but astounding: "When Margaret Thatcher was asked what she had changed about British politics, she answered, with uncharacteristic immodesty, 'Everything'--and it was true."

Finally catching up with this trend as the anniversary of the 1979 election approached, the BBC ran a series of teleplays on Thatcher's career--the first illustrating the young Margaret's "human" side, in which she flirted with a youngish Edward Heath. If this climax in the theater of embarrassment ever happened, I am only sorry I was not there to sell tickets, or even to buy them. No matter. Entitled "The Long Walk to Finchley," the teleplay is now available on DVD.

These are essentially eddies in the stream of popular culture, however. A more significant indicator of Thatcher's stature may be that, nearly 19 years after she left office, books on her ideas and her person continue to thud off the printing presses: popular biographies, serious biographies, economic analyses, histories of the period, Cold War memoirs, and lightly disguised doctoral theses.

These books favor or attack the former prime minister along broadly predictable lines--but interestingly, the lines, originally parallel, have recently begun to converge.

Popular biographies and memoirs of friends tend to concentrate on Thatcher's personality and take the rightness of her politics for granted. Most of these show the decisive and energetic stateswoman of legend.

The memoir entitled A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl by her daughter Carol takes a different tack. It depicts both the everyday mother of earlier days and the lioness in winter. Both aspects of this portrait are affectionate and moving. Yet the passages showing Thatcher as forgetful and suffering the ravages of old age were those that hit the headlines--and they are far from the whole story. Lady Thatcher gads nightly about London to receptions and dinner parties, and though (on doctor's orders) she no longer makes speeches, she can still wield a sharp tongue in conversation.