The Downing Street Years, by Margaret Thatcher
A great many political memoirs are full of obfuscation and self-deception and a distinct lack of detail as the author tries to paint themselves as some sort of transformational leader who is somehow beyond the need to write about the mundane details of their behavior in office. Such people are not Margaret Thatcher, whose writing in general reveals someone with a high degree of interest in the nitty gritty details of passing laws and dealing with regulations, which is not the usual aptitude one sees when it comes to elected leaders. It is not hard to understand that Margaret Thatcher’s own background in chemistry as well as her father’s job as a grocer likely influenced her deep and abiding interest for the details and logistics of how to turn vision into practical achievement. The author also shows herself to be both polite and blunt when it comes to discussing her fellow politicians both in Britain and around the world. She even recognizes the difference between Presidential and Parliamentary democracies and the end of the book hangs on a moment of drama involving Conservative leadership that led her to step down when her subordinates were no longer willing to sustain her over some ministerial melodrama.
This book is more than 850 pages long and is divided into 28 chapters dealing with Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister of England between 1979 and 1990. The book begins with a list of illustrations and acknowledgements and then gets into an account of her time in 10 Downing Street. This includes discussions about the drastic changes that she sought to make from her Labour rivals (1,2), her willingness to tackle British politics head-on (3), the firmness of her commitment that drastic change was necessary to revive English fortunes (4,5), her thoughts about Western malaise during the late Carter years (6), as well as a detailed discussion of the Falklands War (7,8). The author discusses her views of her Communist counterparts (9) and her efforts to disarm the left (10). There are discussions of local politics (11, 12) as well as obscure crises (13), the terrorist threats of the IRA (14), and even the problems of inflation and interest rates (15). There are discussions of seeking to put the world to rights and deal with others (16, 17), her thoughts on Europe (18), her own election campaigns (19), and her goal of presenting a conservative way of life that went above and beyond a political program (20, 21). Various chapters explore her look at local government and its struggles (22) as well as the need to cut budgets (23) and deal with currency policy (24). The book then ends with a discussion of the end of communism (25, 26) and her feelings of success even as she sought to bolster Bush’s spine with regards to Iraq (27) as her own ministers rebelled and tossed her over the side (28). The book then closes with a chronology, a discussion of her various cabinets, a list of abbreviations, and an index.
Whether or not the Iron Lady was someone you liked or not or whether or not you agreed with her positions, she certainly did a great job at telling you what she thought in vivid detail and providing suggestions to wrestle with the problems of her times. She often (though not always) had insightful things to say and her skepticism of the European Union and European supranationalism as well appears to be very much ahead of her times, and revealing of the deep divides that even in the 1980’s were present within English society. If she was not as successful as she would have wished in encouraging a revival of England’s traditional culture, she was certainly a successful Prime Minister whose political philosophy and detailed discussion of her decisions and behavior, her travels and interpersonal relations are shown here. Her fondness for Reagan, her struggles in finding ministers who were able to transfer her vision into practical changes, and her recognition of the need to be sound both in perspective as well as to be able to communicate that vision fill these pages. There are detailed discussions of the making of speeches to deal with crises and the communications that a British Prime Minister has to undertake with a wide variety of foreign and domestic figures. If you like that sort of detail, this is a compelling book of the first rank, and one of the few political memoirs worth wholeheartedly recommending.