Review: The Downing Street Years (1993) by Margaret Thatcher

51X0DkGblnLIn her book All Must Have Prizes, the journalist Melanie Phillips made what I once considered a very strange assertion for a right-winger: that is, essentially, that Margaret Thatcher was not really a conservative. Here it is important to note the lower case -c, as opposed to the proper noun Conservative Party. Indeed, there are plenty (perhaps even a majority) of Conservatives in the British Parliamentary Party who are not conservatives. But how could any astute political observer reach the conclusion that Mrs. Thatcher was anything but the archest of conservatives, if not the mother of the movement? In fact, after reading The Downing Street Years, I see that Ms. Phillips got it quite right—a point I’ll return to in the conclusion of this (far too lengthy) review.

It must be stated outright that, regardless of one’s own politics, Mrs. Thatcher’s political memoirs do not make for easy or even pleasant reading. The reader is made instantly aware that this is a scientific, analytically-oriented brain at work (Mrs. Thatcher read chemistry at Oxford and worked in the lab that invented soft serve ice cream), as from the prologue one is immersed in highly technocratic jargon and a very dry recitation of chronological events. Due to the remarkably lengthy term of Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership (May 1979-November 1990), the book spans almost 900 pages. Precisely recalled statistics, dates, and acronyms pile upon one another so outrageously as to almost seem ironic. Witness:

Geoffrey Howe was able to demonstrate that to reduce the top rate of income tax to 60 per cent (from 83 per cent), the basic rate to 30 per cent (from 33 per cent), and the PSBR to about £8 billion (a figure we felt we could fund and afford) would require an increase in the two rates of VAT of 8 per cent and 12.5 per cent to a unified rate of 15 per cent. (The zero rate on food and other basics would be unchanged.) I was naturally concerned that this large shift from direct to indirect taxation would add about four percentage points onto the Retail Price Index (RPI).

Or, take for example this reflection on selecting a date for the 1983 general election: “Therefore, if we went in June it would have to be the 9th, rather than the 16th or 23rd.” These examples are excruciatingly emblematic. Not surprisingly, there is a four page list of acronyms and abbreviations attached as an appendix. Compounding the abstruseness of the narrative is a near total lack of pathos, self-reflection, or humor that isn’t biting. Mrs. Thatcher’s only expressed regrets are times when she should have been even more unyielding, ruthless in battle, and secure in the “Tightness” of her positions. There is absolutely nothing to connect with here on an emotional level. The book can be recommended only on the grounds that one is seeking a meticulous—if cold-blooded— synopsis of the major events of the Thatcher era and, by extension, the 1980s as a whole.    

Though the reader risks getting lost in the weeds, Mrs. Thatcher’s focus over these many pages can be boiled down to four primary challenges which she saw facing Britain and the world when she assumed office in 1979: longterm economic decline, the debilitating effects of socialism, the growing Soviet threat, and the inexorable trudge toward economic and monetary union (EMU) for the European Community. I will organize my review accordingly.

Mrs. Thatcher vs. “Managed Decline”

I preferred disorderly resistance to decline rather than comfortable accommodation to it.

Only the most partisan and deluded of her critics will deny that the country Mrs. Thatcher inherited in 1979 was in shambles. Her election victory came on the heels of Britain’s “Winter of Discontent”—a period between 1978-79 when strikes by public sector trade unions brought the country to its knees. But the struggles had begun much earlier. The British economy was chronically ill throughout the 1970s—so bad by 1974 that Foreign Secretary James Callaghan warned of an impending “breakdown of democracy.” Inflation reached a crippling 26.9% in late 1975, leading Harold Wilson’s Labour government to adopt an incomes policy that capped pay increases for public sector workers at government-mandated limits. Sanctions were levied to persuade private companies to follow suit. But while inflation had halved by 1978, Mr. Callaghan (now the PM) and his minority Labour government kept wage increases capped below 5%. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which had played nice with their Labour allies for three years, finally revolted. When Mr. Callaghan announced that the general election anticipated for September would be postponed until the next year, he set off the largest disruption of British labor since 1926.

What began with strikes by Ford workers and lorry drivers soon grew to encompass a wide cross section of the public sector: railwaymen, nurses, ambulance drivers, waste collectors, gravediggers. Social services ground to a halt as hospitals were staffed to treat only emergency cases. The Army was called up to provide emergency response services. Rubbish accumulated at such volumes that it had to be stored in public parks and squares, attracting vermin. Corpses went unburied while local councils seriously considered mass burials at sea or allowing bereaved family members to dig graves for their own deceased. To add insult to injury, blizzards and the coldest winter in 16 years depressed retail operations and weakened the economy still further. As one head of the British Civil Service reportedly remarked some years earlier, the best the country could hope for now was the “orderly management of decline.”                 

The Conservative Party won a 43 seat majority in May 1979 on a 5.2% swing, the largest since Clement Attlee ousted Winston Churchill in 1945. Mrs. Thatcher became Europe’s first elected female head of government. She came in like a bull in a china shop, asking: “What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus’?” Only a character of remarkable self-confidence would seek to pick up the mantle of leadership during such troubled times. When reflecting upon those tumultuous days early in her premiership, Mrs. Thatcher recalls a famous quote by William Pitt the Elder: “My Lord, I am sure I can save this country, and no else can.” She does not feign modesty: “It would have been presumptuous to have compared myself to Chatham. But if I am honest, I must admit that my exhiliration came from a similar inner conviction.” A reader of American history is reminded of William L. Yancey’s encomium upon the election of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy: “The man and the hour have met.”     

Mrs. Thatcher vs. Socialism

To cure the British disease with socialism was like trying to cure leukaemia with leeches.

The historian Kenneth O. Morgan has written that the spectacular fall of Labour (cursed not to regain power for 18 years) and the rise of Mrs. Thatcher “meant the end of an ancien régime, a system of corporatism, Keynesian spending programmes, subsidised welfare, and trade union power.” By 1979, the United Kingdom, like much of Western Europe, had acquiesced to what seemed the inevitable advance toward comprehensive socialism. In Britain’s case, the project began in 1945 when politicians of Left and Right, seeking unanimity and balance as they set about rebuilding their country, acceded to a so-called “post-war consensus” (exemplified by the somewhat satirical term “Butskellism”). Under this general agreement, Conservatives colluded with Labour in a far-reaching program of nationalization, regulation, high taxation, and an oversized welfare state. To fully fathom the insurgent, quasi-revolutionary quality of Mrs. Thatcher’s rise to power, one must appreciate that her election marked the end of a post-war order that had begun some 30 years earlier and was by that point firmly entrenched in the British psyche.

The Thatcher manifesto called for decentralization, deregulation, privatization, busting up unions, curbing inflation via interest rate manipulation and a tight control of the money supply, income tax cuts for top rates, and, perhaps most alarmingly, austerity measures. The latter policy was entirely against the pervading economic logic of the day. It was widely accepted that reducing both expenditures and borrowing during times of recession was a recipe for disaster, but Mrs. Thatcher was characteristically dismissive of “those who had not heard that Keynes was dead.” The PM was an avowed acolyte of Milton Friedman, and her government was betting on the maturity of the British public: things would have to get worse before they could get better. The overarching economic goal of the first Thatcher Parliament can be fairly succinctly stated (though it is a bit of a tongue twister): reduce the deficit, which in turn will reduce inflation and thus mitigate the need to fund future deficits via inflation.    

The economic record of Thatcherism is mixed and still a matter of fraught debate. That said, I discern four key areas where hard facts may be gleaned. [This is the long version, for a quick summation, skip to the next paragraph.] First, Mrs. Thatcher’s budget measures proved remarkably effective at bringing down inflation (it ticked up again following the economic boom of the late 80s—though in The Downing Street Years, she places practically all of the blame on Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s decision to abandon monetarism for shadowing the exchange rate with the Deutschmark). Second, unemployment grew much worse during the years of recession, exceeding 3 million in 1983. It experienced a gradual decline with the boom years beginning in 1987, but never recovered to pre-1980 levels. Third, GDP plummeted into negative territories during 1980-81 while the Government pursued its stringent anti-inflationary policies. Recovery began in 1982 and growth picked up in earnest in 1985 as the boom accelerated. Fourth, interest rates were raised to an absurd high of 17% in 1979, but the desired effect was accomplished: inflation began a steady decline.

Moral of the story: Mrs. Thatcher’s budgetary measures brought down inflation to a steady 4-5% throughout most of her premiership. Those same policies led to a fairly consistent unemployment rate that hovered around 10%. If you were middle class, upwardly mobile, and primarily concerned with matters of consumerism, then her policies dramatically improved your quality of life over the socialist codes of Labour. If you were lower class, employed in state-supported industries, or historically dependent upon the welfare system, Thatcherism was a harsh pill to swallow.

The aggressive record of privatization is almost mind boggling, and on this score it’s difficult to find fault. Consider that all of these firms were at least partially owned by the state until Mrs. Thatcher sold them off: British Aerospace, British Petroleum, British Steel, Britoil, British Gas, British Leyland (which included Jaguar and Land Rover), and Rolls Royce. Many of these companies have gone on to become very successful private firms. Moreover, their privatization freed up government money that otherwise would have necessitated further spending cuts or taxation, and tax payers were no longer burdened with propping up failing or wasteful industries.

Mrs. Thatcher’s great battle with the National Union of Mineworkers (TUM) in 1984 is now the stuff of legend. She writes that “history intertwined with myth seemed to have made coal mining in Britain a special case: it had become an industry where reason simply did not apply.” She was unwilling to relent on coal pit closures on economic grounds, as indeed the Labour government had closed 32 pits between 1974-79. Suffice it to say that a similar strike had toppled the Conservative government of Ted Heath some 10 years earlier. By contrast, the miners gradually returned to work in 1985 having won no concessions from the Thatcher government. The TUM was permanently hobbled, uneconomic pits were closed, and Mrs. Thatcher won over the greater part of public opinion. As the years progressed (due largely to the continued efforts of Norman Tebbit), the TUC was no longer in a position to cripple industry or public services with strikes. And, despite the rhetoric which sough to cast Labour and the unions as noble defenders of the working man, many of the Thatcher government’s reforms were undeniably beneficial to workers’ rights—e.g., state-subsidized mail ballots, which prevented union leaders from intimidating workers into supporting strikes with public votes.     

Mrs. Thatcher’s great gamble—and the one time when her thinking was not reflective of the majority of the British public—was her attempt to dispense with property taxes used to fund local government and replace them with a so-called “community charge” (which in the popular vernacular quickly became known as the “poll tax”). This was a fairly shameful act of hubris, whereby the Thatcher government called on every adult to pay a flat-rate per capita tax, irrespective of property value or personal wealth. Mrs. Thatcher laments in her memoirs that she did not take adequate measures to prevent Labour councils from hiking up the charge in order to damage the government, which she blames for the resulting fiasco. Indeed, here she concedes to a perverse undermining of her own guiding principle: stronger powers should have been allotted to central government. In reality, the policy itself was patently absurd and strongly suggests that by the later years of her premiership Mrs. Thatcher’s ego was turning her into a real version of the caricature her enemies had always painted. In her memoirs she claims to regret that the policy meant that “the very people who had always looked to me for protection from exploitation by the socialist state were those who were suffering most.” At the time, however, she refused to relent until it was already too late. The public outcry bridged political ideologies, and the fears of Conservative backbenchers and her cabinet members alike that a public rebuke at the polls was brewing proved the underlying force behind Mrs. Thatcher’s ouster in late 1990. Her successor, John Major, announced the abolition of the community charge the following year and the Conservatives won their fourth consecutive general election in 1992.                              

Mrs. Thatcher vs. Communism

All my reading and experience has taught me that once the state plays fast and loose with economic freedom, political freedom risks being the next casualty.

The Soviet aim, only thinly disguised, right up until the time when a united Germany remained in NATO, was to drive a wedge between America and her European allies. I always regarded it as one of Britain’s most important roles to see that such a strategy failed.

By the time Mrs. Thatcher came to power, the Cold War was more than 30 years old and Europe had experienced a shift in public opinion. In the decades of peace which followed the end of the Second World War, Western Europe had grown prosperous and complacent. American-financed security had allowed for wide scale investment of public monies in the development of generous welfare states, which naturally entrenched the reflexive bent toward socialism and the Leftist worldview. Though heads of government recognized the need for (and in many cases covertly supported the preservation of) American military patronage, the publics were under the sway of a programmatic anti-Americanism, and the zeitgeist called for the disentangling of Western European affairs from American foreign policy and perceived warmongering.

Mrs. Thatcher attributed much of this rhetoric to the success of Soviet propaganda. As an unabashed anti-communist, she was by the 1980s an odd woman out. While the rest of Western Europe distanced itself from the United States, she sought to foment closer ties in the trans-Atlantic partnership. To that end, she was aided in her much lauded friendship with Ronald Reagan. At a time when even many American conservatives were calling for unilateral disarmament, Mrs. Thatcher was a stolid proponent of the Reagan Administration’s aggressive military posture against the Soviet Union, and she welcomed a larger, state-of-the-art American nuclear arsenal stationed in Europe.

[This section under construction: More to come soon…]   

Mrs. Thatcher vs. the European Community

I had said at the beginning of the government ‘give me six strong men and true, and I will get through.’ Very rarely did I have as many as six.

As an evangelist for free markets and trade, Mrs. Thatcher was a natural proponent of Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. It was only when federalists like Jacques Delors seized control and began pushing the Community toward EMU that Mrs. Thatcher became the most outspoken of Euroskeptics. Of course, she had gotten off to a rough start in European relations: at her first EEC conference in 1979 she had obstinately demanded (and eventually won) a rebate for Britain’s excessive contributions to the Community’s budget. But she was nevertheless committed to the project on economic terms. It was not until she discerned the early trappings of the European Union that she turned outright hostile, and by then it was too late.

Mrs. Thatcher’s vociferous opposition to EMU and her Cassandra-like warnings that Germany was effectively conquering Europe via economic Anschluss might be dismissed as the ravings of a xenophobe whose anti-German prejudices were forged in the fires of her WWII-era girlhood.* But this misses the point entirely. She was just as conscious that EMU would be ruinous for the Germans. What Mrs. Thatcher instinctively perceived (and amazingly she was one of the few who did) was the bipolar makeup of Europe: the debt-prone countries of the South (she prophetically hones in on Greece in particular) would inevitably find themselves debtors to the wealthy North—and, due to its large population and industry (what Mrs. Thatcher calls its “preponderance”), Germany in particular. Likewise, with all of Europe shackled to a single currency, profligate governments could not be allowed to fail. Thus it would fall again and again to German tax payers, whose prosperity had been won through the diligence of their work-oriented culture, to squander their hard-earned wealth on propping up degenerate socialist economies. Surely not even the most fervent Europhiles or anti-Thatcherites would now deny the soundness of this analysis, or indeed that so much of what she predicted has come to pass.

And yet it was the members of her own Parliamentary Party—and her cabinet especially—who pressed for greater European integration. Why was this the case? Mrs. Thatcher lays much of the blame on the Foreign Office. Across Western Europe, foreign ministers relished the prospects of greater power and prestige for their own offices should EMU come to pass. An integrated European economy would lead to increased political clout, allowing European politicians to rival their American counterparts in global influence. According to Mrs. Thatcher, as Foreign Secretary, “Geoffrey [Howe] harbored an almost romantic longing for Britain to become part of some grandiose European consensus.” If this meant surrendering some of the sovereignty of national parliaments, none of these men seemed to care very much.

Mrs. Thatcher recalls her battles with (and the double dealings of) Howe and Lawson in particular—each of whom was clamorously calling for Britain’s entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). She admits that her use of vague language (always maintaining in public statements and cabinet meetings that Britain would join “when the time was ripe”) was a stalling tactic. By the late 1980s, she had become convinced that Britain should never join, but she knew that hers was a minority position within her own government, and that she couldn’t hold off the pressure forever. Tellingly, Mrs. Thatcher writes about these events in military terms—e.g., “the assault at Madrid.” Isolated and under fire, she capitulated and the pound sterling entered the ERM in October 1990, one month before Mrs. Thatcher’s own downfall.

Mrs. Thatcher’s political career was mortally wounded when both Lawson and Howe resigned, ostensibly over the ERM debate. She suggests that Lawson, who favored the ERM but was equally opposed to EMU, quit the Treasury because he knew he’d wrecked the economy with soaring inflation by subverting her own traditional economic strategy, which called for interest rate manipulation and monetarism. He left the mess for someone else to clean up. Howe, by contrast, was a zealous Europhile, but his resignation was just as much predicated upon the personal enmity that had developed between the two of them over 11 years of close partnership. Howe addressed his resignation in a speech before the House that was a carefully crafted exercise in character assassination. If he had hoped to bolster his own image, history has not been kind. As Mrs. Thatcher sums up the spectacle:

…Geoffrey Howe from this point on would be remembered not for his staunchness as Chancellor, nor for his skillful diplomacy as Foreign Secretary, but for this final act of bile and treachery. The very brilliance with which he wielded the dagger ensured that the character he assassinated was in the end his own.

As her troubles mounted, Mrs. Thatcher was challenged for leadership of the Conservative Party by an old foe: Michael Heseltine. She missed the required majority of 15% to defeat him in the first round by just two votes. She announced her intention to stand for the second ballot, but one by one her cabinet minsters turned against her. The last chapter of the book has the quality of a Greek tragedy as Mrs. Thatcher and her lone band of supporters (foremost among them Tebbit and Michael Portillo) frantically beseech old friends and colleagues for support, while all the while it becomes increasingly clear that the PM has been abandoned and her days are numbered. John Wakeham was incapable even of putting together a campaign team to support her in the second ballot. Mrs. Thatcher knew it was the end, writing that in the immediacy of the moment it was not so much her fall from power as the duplicity of the men whom she had lifted up with her that stung the most:

I was sick at heart. I could have resisted the opposition of opponents and potential rivals and even respected them for it; but what grieved me was the desertion of those I had always considered friends and allies and the weasel words whereby they had transmuted their betrayal into frank advice and concern for my fate.   

Mrs. Thatcher resigned before the second ballot and Major was elected Leader, thus becoming her successor as Prime Minister. He secured a fourth consecutive general election victory for the Conservatives in April 1992, albeit with a reduced majority. Five months later, unable to keep the pound from depreciating below its agreed limit, he was forced to withdraw sterling from the ERM. The treasury estimated the cost at more than £3 billion, while trading losses were estimated at £800 million. The economy entered recession and the housing market crashed. However, now free of the ERM, the Major government decamped to the old standards of Thatcherism and, in large measure, righted the ship via inflation targeting. The economy was much improved by 1997 when Tony Blair and his “New” Labour Party swept into No. 10 in a landslide.          

*However, Mrs. Thatcher’s opposition to German reunification following the fall of the Berlin Wall does bely a fundamental (if historically practical) Germanophobia.                                      

In Conclusion

In all this, my problem was simple. There was a revolution still to be made, but too few revolutionaries.

To return to the question that opened my review: Was Mrs. Thatcher a conservative? Here is the definition of “conservative,” courtesy of Merriam-Webster:

a : tending or disposed to maintaining existing views, conditions, or institutions

b : marked by moderation or caution

Mrs. Thatcher was neither of these things. In fact, she personified the antonym of conservative: radical. Specifically, a radical liberal of the classical, Adam Smith variety. She writes as much when she states that “the one thing you never get from parties which deliberately seek the middle way between left and right is new ideas and radical initiatives. We were the mould-breakers, they the mould.”  

In All Must Have Prizes, Ms. Phillips writes: “The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher…institutionalized through its political program the no blame, no shame, no pain society. And in the process, it helped the disintegration of British culture itself.” It’s hard to argue against the notion that Mrs. Thatcher possessed a very limited idea of how the world worked: there was right and wrong, good and evil. This simplicity of focus could be a quality of great leadership—e.g., emboldening her decisiveness in times of war. But in more immediate terms it meant that she saw practically everything in terms of economics. She ran the economy of a G-7 nation based on the same logic of her father’s grocery, ever conscious that good business meant turning a small profit and keeping the books balanced. But even her staunchest defenders must concede that her rise to power coincided with widespread cultural unrest and growing discord, and at the root were problems which had festered for generations and could not be corrected by market forces. As the more socially conservative Ms. Phillips would have it, Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership further deteriorated the already eroding bonds of trust and fellowship in British culture, nor did it stem the advancement of secularism. Another conservative intellectual, Peter Hitchens, has targeted Mrs. Thatcher’s record on similar grounds, calling her a “noble failure” and criticizing specifically the carelessness with which she unleashed the markets, blinded in her fanaticism to their destructive effects on communities, culture, and other such intangibles.

If one accepts these critiques, then Mrs. Thatcher’s policies brought about a fearful symmetry between Right and Left: advancing the preeminence of the Individual over historically transmitted obligations to community and shared values. If either the market or the state is to prevail, then all forms of inherited tradition—family, education, morality—and external authority must be done away with. In both systems, it is a selfish, institutionalized individualism that reigns supreme. In Mrs. Thatcher’s society the shibboleth is “I want”; in that of her socialist adversaries: “I feel.” Both are empires of the first person singular.   

[This section under construction: More to come soon…

Epilogue: The Feminine Mystique

My experience is that a number of the men I have dealt with in politics demonstrate precisely those characteristics which they attribute to women — vanity and an inability to make tough decisions. There are also certain kinds of men who simply cannot abide working for a woman. They are quite prepared to make every allowance for ‘the weaker sex’: but if a woman asks no special privileges and expects to be judged solely by what she is and does, this is found gravely and unforgivably disorienting. Of course, in the eyes of the ‘wet’ Tory establishment I was not only a woman, but ‘that woman’, someone not just of a different sex, but of a different class, a person with an alarming conviction that the values and virtues of middle England should be brought to bear on the problems which the establishment consensus had created. I offended on many counts.

[This section under construction: More to come soon…

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