Handbag battle on history’s faultline
March 22 2009
We British can seem an ungrateful lot. We had in Margaret Thatcher a prime minister who, even her detractors would agree, had a profound impact on the country’s postwar politics, economy and society. She played a huge international role, in partnership with US President Ronald Reagan – giving shape to a more liberal form of capitalism and an aggressively ideological approach to foreign affairs that, some say, helped to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet the British never really took her to their hearts. She had her true believers, but it was her own Conservative party that ousted her from office without her ever having lost a general election as leader. For many others she was – and remains – a divisive figure, at best a necessary evil. David Cameron, today’s Tory leader, will attempt to gain power next year with a softer brand of Conservatism.
It often takes outsiders, usually Americans, to sing her praises. Here comes a book by Claire Berlinski, a California-born journalist and novelist, who lives in Istanbul but lived in the UK for the latter half of the Thatcher era. She is an admirer of the Thatcher-Reagan revolution but not an uncritical one. She manages to be quite perceptive about Baroness Thatcher without ever having met her.
This is a difficult book to categorise, It is neither a conventional biography nor a straightforward analysis. It is weak on the British political context, including the divisions on the left that helped keep Mrs Thatcher – as she then was – in office. It is mainly a series of conversations with figures from the period – those close to her and others such as Lord Kinnock, her Labour opponent, who loathed her.
These are often entertaining and sometimes illuminating. The author’s personality intrudes into the book almost as much as Lady Thatcher’s, which some readers will find irritating. We travel round with her, from meeting Sir Bernard Ingham, the former press secretary, over coffee at the Institute of Directors, to seeing Sir John Hoskyns, former policy unit head, over lunch at the Travellers’ Club, and Lord Powell, former foreign affairs adviser, in his Georgian mansion.
Large chunks of these conversations are reproduced verbatim, including conversations with waiters about the food and drink. In one exchange her interviewee – Andrew Graham, master of Balliol College, Oxford, and the author’s former economics tutor – scarcely manages to get a word in edgeways. The book is strong on Lady Thatcher’s use of her femininity – including her abrupt way with other women. It is strong too on her behaviour and motivation. Berlinski’s judgments are thoughtful, particularly her central insight that what underlay Lady’s Thatcher’s hatred of socialism was not only that she found it economically inefficient, or that communist regimes had drenched the world in blood, but that she believed it was morally corrupting.
That sense of morality runs through everything. Berlinski writes: “Free-market economics and Thatcherism are often held to be synonymous. This is nearly true, but there is an important additional dimension to Thatcherism – a faith in the morally redemptive power of the free market that goes well beyond standard economic claims.”
Berlinski’s assessment of Lady Thatcher’s economic record is balanced. She does not take at face value the claim that Lady Thatcher single-handedly reversed Britain’s economic and geopolitical decline – and says it is “not sure that it has been permanently reversed”. This turns out to be a wise caveat in the current climate, which she was unaware of while writing.
She acknowledges the heavy price paid – an 18 per cent decrease in the income of the poorest 10th of the population, soaring rates of welfare dependency, child poverty and crime. “She argued that free markets were morally ennobling. Although Britain is a far more prosperous society now, it is not clear to me that it is a more moral one – in fact, the ubiquitous British underclass is a degraded, disgusting spectacle,” Berlinski writes. But she says most of the costs were inevitable.
There will be many books on Lady Thatcher this year, the 30th anniversary of her coming to power. I doubt this will be the best of them, but it is an idiosyncratic and interesting contribution. It is a pity it was written before the economic crisis, which makes its judgments provisional.
In her conclusion there is, however, a clue to how Berlinski might have viewed the present questioning of the Thatcher-Reagan legacy. Lady Thatcher matters now, she says, “because her battles are not over...socialism was buried prematurely”. It is on the march again, she suggests, and “will be the fault line of the coming century”.
The writer is the FT’s UK business and employment editor