When Maggie Was No.1 At No.10


By Margaret Thatcher

Harper Collins x 914pp x $30

It's May, 1983, and Margaret Thatcher is in Edinburgh, campaigning for reelection. Just back from an economic summit, the British Prime Minister realizes that a speech reporting on it, just hours away, needs much more work. So, as she relates in The Downing Street Years, she and some staff members spend the early evening "crawling around the floor of my room at the Caledonian Hotel, sticking together bits of text with sellotape."

When most people think of the Iron Lady, they hardly picture her on her hands and knees. But given her proclivity for perfectionism and capacity for work, it's not out of character. The longest-serving British Prime Minister of this century is widely acknowledged to be brilliant, intense, and rigid. The first volume of her memoirs also reveals her to be usually indomitable, sometimes earthy, and, en occasion, amusing.

Unfortunately, readers must plow through many, many pages to find the revelatory moments. Even history buffs will find the book tough going. Thatcher too often merely recites her day-by-day activities. Unlike authors who invent dialogue for occasions they never attended, she uses none--even from events at which she was present--and she rarely reports others' positions. She can skewer opponents along with the best, but, with a few exceptions, she doesn't--and she skimps on positive appraisals, too. Least forgivable, she stints on displaying her formidable analytic powers. Instead of arguing her geopolitical views, she offers generally mundane, matter-of-fact observations. She commits the sin one least expects: She's bland.

Yet inside this huge tome is a book, perhaps half as big, that's worth reading. Thatcher, Britain's most important political figure since Winston Churchill, shows herself to be what she claims to be: a conviction politician--as opposed to, say, a consensus politician. At one Commonwealth conference, she asked Guyana's President what he meant by consensus--"a word of which I had heard all too much"--and he replied that "it is something you have if you cannot get agreement." Consensus, she lectures, is "the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects."

Except, of course, Thatcher. During 111/2 years in office, once she decided what was right--and to her there was always right and wrong--she was unstoppable. This trait explains her success and her downfall. At first, Britain wanted a revolutionary (a sobriquet she revels in). It wanted tax and labor reform, privatization, changes in housing, education, and health policy. But in time, Thatcher--who, as backers liked to say, "leads from the front"--got too far ahead of her constituents, particularly by proposing a poll tax. It matters not that her refusal to submerge Britain in a supranational Europe--the other issue that brought her down--was vindicated. Even when her instincts were wrong, she could not stray from conviction.

On matters of state, The Downing Street Years provides only one revelation--that Thatcher and Fran ois Mitterrand in 1989 privately discussed ways to slow Germany's reunification and prevent its dominance of Europe. The French President contradicted those leanings publicly, however, which leads Thatcher to blast "his tendency to schizophrenia."

Thatcher also offers short, sharp observations of many other world leaders. Giscard d'Estaing "had the manners of an aristocrat, [but] he had the mind-set of a technocrat...[and] saw politics as an elite sport to be carried out for the benefit of the people but not really with their participation." George Bush was "always well-briefed" and "decent, honest, and patriotic," but as President, he required Thatcher's praise and deference. Besides Ronald Reagan, whom she praises for his leadership, views, and charm, Thatcher saves her highest regard for Helmut Schmidt, with his "wisdom, straightforwardness, and grasp of international economics."

Thatcher serves up capsule descriptions of British politicians, too. Her gentle treatment of Sir Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson--the two senior, longtime supporters who eventually turned on her--cleverly makes them look more treacherous. For much of the book, Thatcher praises both--though sometimes backhandedly. "I had by now come to share Nigel's high opinion of himself," she writes on Lawson's 1983 appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer. She credits Howe, a "tower of strength," with developing nearly every step of her early economic program.

Occasionally, Thatcher describes her personal likes (speech-writing, verbal combat, comparisons with de Gaulle) and dislikes (the media, satisfaction with the status quo, underhandedness, innuendo). She throws in a few homey touches--how she hid papers and books when visitors came to No.10, how she stocked her freezer with meals for staffers who worked late, how she hired a teacher to improve her pronunciation before delivering two paragraphs in French to the Canadian Parliament. And she doesn't hide the bitterness she felt on being deposed.

The Downing Street Years shows Thatcher as she is: a tough, strident, pro-free-market, pro-British, pro-American, anticommunist woman who changed the course of British history. Readers who dislike her will find her even more trying here. Admirers will probably skip the book's tedious parts and end up liking her even better.

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