I have now completed reading “The Path To Power”, Volume II of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs.
Thatcher’s memoirs are not chronological—“The Downing Street Years” constitutes Volume I and is intended to be read first—but I decided to read the memoirs out-of-sequence in order to follow in chronological terms Thatcher’s account of her own life.
My father told me I was making a mistake in beginning with “The Path To Power” instead of “The Downing Street Years”, but I am not yet prepared to admit error. Volume II, on its own terms, was a very happy beginning for me—but I admit it is possible that I may experience a change of heart after I read Volume I.
Much of the ground Thatcher covers in “The Path To Power” is exceedingly well-known, yet Thatcher’s own personal twist on people and events is essential if historians are to acquire a deep understanding of her years in power and her influence not only upon her own nation but upon international affairs.
In “The Path To Power”, Thatcher addresses practically everything of note that happened to her between 1925, the year of her birth, and 1979, the year she became Prime Minister.
Much of what she writes about her life is not inherently interesting. Thatcher lived a largely unremarkable existence until 1970, the year in which the Edward Heath government assumed power and she was given a Cabinet post. Thatcher’s discussion of the years 1925 to 1970 provides anything but gripping reading. Simply put, Thatcher was not cut out for domestic life, and her account of her first forty-five years is dutiful and no more, as if the author could not wait to move on to more important matters.
From 1970 through 1979, however, Thatcher’s life was one great drama, a prelude of sorts to the even greater dramas to come during her years in 10 Downing Street. Thatcher covers those nine eventful years with great skill—she was an excellent assessor of the people around her (both those for and those against her), a theoretician of some talent, a master tactician in the realm of party and parliamentary politics, and a woman whose talents all moved into high gear during the 1970’s, the decade in which she advanced from Member Of Parliament to Cabinet Minister to Party Leader to Prime Minister. It was during the decade of the 1970’s that Thatcher became “formidable”—as well as acquired the “Iron Lady” moniker that was to carry her around the world (an intended insult that first appeared in the Soviet press, “Iron Lady” became not a term of disparagement, as the Soviets had hoped, but an instant badge of honor).
The Heath years were not happy ones for Thatcher. The Heath government’s policies, in as much disarray as Britain itself, were a mishmash of Conservative and Labour positions, often espousing conservative principles in theory while advocating statist policies in practice. This was no solid foundation for a long-lasting government—it was a recipe for disaster (as well as bitter internal strife among Tories). The Heath government did about-face after about-face (“U-turns” in the parlance of the day) until no one had a clue what the Heath government stood for. In 1974, the Heath government was turned out in favor of Labour, even though the British public at the time had no more confidence in Labour than in the Tories.
Eight months after forming a government, Labour called a surprise election in order to solidify its power. The gambit worked: Labour achieved a majority.
The surprise election spelled the end of Heath’s political career. He had lost three of four national elections while head of the Conservative Party, and dissatisfaction with his performance had reached critical mass within the backbench of his own party.
Heath was too obtuse to realize that he had lost the support of the rank-and-file. He was taken by surprise when a challenge arose to contest his party leadership—and he was equally surprised to learn that his challenger, through a series of backroom maneuvers mostly involving other prospective candidates dropping out of the race, was none other than Margaret Thatcher.
Heath expected to defeat his challenger with ease, but the joke was on him: Thatcher emerged from the contest with an easy victory on the first ballot. Heath was forced to step down from the Conservative leadership the following day.
Thatcher’s support had come not from the aristocratic wing of the Conservative Party but from the middle-class wing of the Tories. The old-line aristocrats had lined up behind Heath, but they had been outnumbered—and outmaneuvered—by dozens upon dozens of backbenchers who believed that the Party’s denizens were no longer serving the nation’s interests and needed to be replaced. Thus was set into motion not only the modern Conservative Party but also an anti-Thatcher faction within her own party, a group of old-line traditionalists that could never accommodate itself to the notion that a woman, let alone “a grocer’s daughter”, had ended its monopoly on power. The aristocratic wing of the Tories was never to grant Thatcher its full support—and, years later, would prove to possess one of the seeds of her demise and subsequent fall from power.
By such events had Thatcher become, in February 1975, the first woman to lead one of Britain’s major parties. Having won the position as an outsider, Thatcher had no choice but to appoint Heath’s closest associates to her Shadow Cabinet. In consequence, during her early years as Party Leader, Thatcher was exceedingly cautious while she moved her party inch-by-inch to the Right.
Fundamental to her success in convincing her fellow Conservatives that they must represent something other than “Labour Lite” was a plethora of position papers supplied to the Conservative Party by various think tanks in Britain and the U.S., such papers advocating an abandonment of Keynesian economics as the key to Britain rising from its decades-long economic quagmire.
The Conservative Party had four years in opposition to study these papers and to become convinced that such a course of action needed to be installed. Had not Conservatives enjoyed that four-year window out of power—four years in which to create and solidify an intra-party consensus about the need for economic and monetary reform—there would never have been a Thatcher Revolution.
As leader of the Opposition, Thatcher bided her time in public while working behind-the-scenes to gather support within her own party for the advancement of free-market reforms. While Thatcher shored up support for a radical rethinking of her nation’s policies, Labour dithered. The country went from crisis to crisis while Labour, holding a razor-thin majority in The House Of Commons, was content to serve as caretaker government. In a state of hubris, Labour watched Britain continue to deteriorate, seeing its role as nothing more than manager of national decline.
The winter of 1978-1979 saw a critical turn in the nation’s fortunes. That winter was marked by coal shortages, electricity outages, wildcat strikes and garbage piled high on the streets of London. That winter became known as the “Winter Of Discontent”.
Public dissatisfaction with Labour reached a peak in February 1979. Thatcher seized the moment: she introduced a Motion Of No Confidence in The House.
By a vote of 311-310, the Motion passed. Labour had to dissolve Parliament and call elections. Thatcher’s had been the first successful “No Confidence” Motion since 1924.
In an election campaign defined by the Conservative slogan, “Labour Isn’t Working”, the Tories amassed a majority of 44, the first Conservative absolute majority in The House Of Commons since the early 1960’s.
“The Path To Power” ends, suitably, with Thatcher’s great 1979 electoral victory.
Thatcher tells this story well, but she airbrushes a few items along the way. Of greatest significance, she fails to offer worthy accounts of her associations with Keith Joseph and former Prime Minister Heath.
Keith Joseph was one of the most important figures in the Conservative Party. He might have challenged Heath himself in 1975, but Joseph was under mounting criticism for a speech he gave in Birmingham, a speech that had called for a thorough review of government policies that provided public support for unmarried lower-class mothers. (Joseph’s speech was little different than Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s contemporaneous writings in the United States advocating a policy of “benign neglect”.) Effectively shoved out of the race, Joseph threw his support behind Thatcher. He was to serve as a key advisor to Thatcher for the next several years, first in the Opposition and later in the Government.
Thatcher mentions Joseph many times, but she fails to accord him the key role in the Thatcher Revolution to which he is entitled. He was the most analytical and most brilliant of the Tory leaders, instrumental in obtaining grass-root support for free-market reforms in and out of The House Of Commons. Thatcher nonetheless fails to acknowledge fully the vital importance of his work and dedication over the course of many years. Aside from Thatcher herself, Joseph may have been the most important figure in British politics during the latter half of the seventies and first half of the eighties.
Heath is an altogether different matter. Thatcher does not attempt to ignore Heath, which would have been impossible, but she entirely sugar-coats him, failing to point out—unlike so many others, who have provided truer accounts of Heath’s fall from power and the resultant bitterness he carried within himself until his dying day—that Heath acted badly after he lost his party leadership and did everything possible to undercut Thatcher for the rest of his life. Thatcher takes an unaccountably high road in her discussions of Heath, and this excessive nobility rings false—anyone willing to plow through the Thatcher memoirs already knows legions of stories about Heath’s public and private attempts to bring down the Thatcher government. Thatcher should, I believe, have swung her purse at Heath, and offered a truer account of Heath’s shenanigans.
At volume’s end, the reader is left with the impression that the private Thatcher is very much like the public Thatcher. A woman of no nonsense, firm in her principles and firm in her opinions, Thatcher was the woman to be called upon when a difficult job was at hand—and, when her country called for her, Thatcher was ready. She told the public what Britain needed, she did what she said she would do, and she told the public what she had done: THAT’S leadership, and she supplied it in massive doses.
History’s final judgment of Thatcher will come from the U.S.
Germans and Frenchmen cannot judge Thatcher soundly because Germans and Frenchmen do not understand the Anglosphere and because Germans and Frenchmen carry pro-statist instincts entirely at odds with the English-speaking world and its tradition of skepticism toward government dating back to the Magna Carta.
The British themselves cannot judge Thatcher soundly because the British Left is still caught up in virulent anti-Thatcher hatred while the British Right still has not decided what to make of the great lady, afraid to embrace the legacy but also afraid to cut the cords.
As a result, American historians will be called upon to render the final verdict. That verdict appears to be an easy one to make.
One of the guides in judging great leaders is first the realization and later the acknowledgement that their successors, for several generations, are always unable to measure up.
The task of judging Thatcher will be made considerably easier by the circumstance that she indeed has been followed, in comparison to herself, by a succession of nonentities.
Like Ronald Reagan, Thatcher stands astride the pygmies that followed in her wake.
I look forward to “The Downing Street Years”.