Book Review: Margaret Thatcher: The bully they called the ‘Iron Lady’

Book Review: Margaret Thatcher: The bully they called the ‘Iron Lady’
Updated 07 April 2017

Book Review: Margaret Thatcher: The bully they called the ‘Iron Lady’

Book Review: Margaret Thatcher: The bully they called the ‘Iron Lady’

Former French President Francois Mitterrand famously described her as having “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” But Margaret Thatcher is still widely remembered as “the Iron Lady,” a nickname that was given to her by the Russian media much to her delight.
The former British prime minister herself said, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” For most of her public life, she was a woman in a world dominated by men. But why was Thatcher such a divisive political figure in the UK and on the international scene?
Historian and biographer David Cannadine has written an extraordinarily concise summary of Thatcher’s achievements and failures. Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy was initially meant to be included as an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It ended up as the longest entry for any 20th-century prime minister since Churchill. Oxford University Press then decided to publish it as a book in view of its outstanding qualities. Cannadine has succeeded very well in highlighting all the stages of Thatcher’s astonishing career and does so in a marvel of compression.
From the very first page, we learn from Shirley Ellis, a childhood friend, that Margaret Thatcher “always stood out because teenage girls don’t know where they’re going. She did.” She was also serious, competitive and hard working — qualities that were nurtured from a very early age with many of her character traits coming from her father, Alfred Roberts. He was from a large family and was forced to leave school at the age of 13, but he was determined to improve himself, be successful and to help his fellow citizens. More than anything, he wanted his daughters to have the education he had been denied. While her sister trained to be a physiotherapist, Margaret, who was brighter and more ambitious, went to Oxford. Besides obtaining a second-class degree, she became president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. This prepared her for a political career.
Although she worked for a time as a research chemist, she had a passion for politics. She met Denis Thatcher at an electoral meeting in Dartford and they married in 1951 after a two-year courtship. The connections she made at Oxford, combined with her constant attendance at party conferences, would pay off. But she had to wait until 1959 before she was finally elected Conservative Member of Parliament for Finchley.
Two years later she was appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of pensions, a post she held for three years. Then in 1964, the rival Labour Party won the elections. From 1964 to 1970, during her years in opposition, she held six shadow posts.
During those years, her husband suffered a nervous breakdown and her marriage broke down. Her husband eventually left her and went to South Africa. He came back and sold his company to Castrol for a very large profit and it then employed him. He retired in 1975, the same year his wife won the Conservative Party leadership. From then until his death he continued to be her most loyal supporter “for virtually the whole of their marriage…he had played the part of prime ministerial consort to perfection, and he was the best and perhaps the only friend she ever had,” wrote Cannadine.
During her early months as the head of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher was eager to improve herself. Gordon Reece, a former television producer advised her about her clothes and she also trained with a voice coach to lower her pitch and soften her tone.
When the Conservatives were voted back into power in 1979, she became prime minister. “Yet, despite her confident manner and determined public demeanor, she was genuinely unsure of herself now that she had obtained the supreme office,” wrote Cannadine.
She was elected on the promise of implementing new policies; however, those policies increased the problems. But at the Tory Party conference in October 1980 she declared: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”
In April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and everything changed. Thatcher immediately appointed a small war Cabinet but was annoyed with Reagan who refused to support her because the US had friendly relations with both Britain and Argentina.
On May 21, the first amphibious landings took place on the Falklands, and on June 14 British soldiers recaptured Port Stanley. Soon after, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, head of the military junta in power in Argentina, resigned.
The victory boosted her popularity. Just a year before, Thatcher had been the most unpopular prime minister but by July 1982, her ratings were 51 percent. She had taken huge military and political risks, but she was resolute in staying the course. She proved herself once more to be the Iron Lady.
In 1983, she won the general elections for the second time and it was during this second term that her economic policies, dubbed “Thatcherism” or “popular capitalism,” showed good results. One and a half million council houses had been sold, which brought £28 billion into the Treasury. According to Thatcher, increasing the number of homeowners would strengthen conservative values. Thanks to privatization, former national industries were more competitive. Between 1981 and 1987, average wages rose by 3 percent a year. Financial deregulation triggered a credit boom; the use of credit cards became widespread; shops stayed open later and people spent more and Britain had become what Thatcher called, a nation of consumers.
She won the elections again in 1987. By May 1989 she had been in power for 10 years and was the 20th century’s longest serving prime minister. At the party conference, she was feted and adulated to the words of “10 more years, 10 more years.” No one then imagined that within one year, she would be gone.
The economic situation was beginning to show a darker side. The boom times had not benefited the entire nation and inequality had increased sharply. Many homeowners who had recently bought their council houses were worse off. Thatcher was also becoming increasingly critical of the European Community. During her final months in power, the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 showed her declining influence on the world stage. George Bush was then in power and he, unlike Reagan, was not going to be intimidated by Thatcher. He was in charge of setting up an international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
The Tory party was becoming increasingly divided over Europe and the economy was not in good shape, but Thatcher did not seem to care. She made a strong speech to the party conference reiterating her decision not to join the single European currency. Soon after, Howe, the only surviving member of her first Cabinet quit because he could no longer reconcile his loyalty to the prime minister with Britain’s real interests.
“It was a devastating performance, and all the more so coming from a mild-mannered and long-suffering minister, who was taking his belated revenge for the decade of bullying and humiliation he had endured at Thatcher’s hand,” wrote Cannadine
This unexpected resignation created an opportunity to challenge Thatcher for the Tory leadership. On the first ballot, she fell short of the majority required. Her Cabinet colleagues told her that she could not win on the second ballot having failed to gather the requisite votes. Thatcher then decided to withdraw. She showed extraordinary courage and dignity when she faced her enemies on both sides of the house for the last time. During this solo battle, she defended her record, refuted all interruptions and reiterated the fact that she had halted and reversed Britain’s decline.
But she had served her purpose, it was now time for her to leave. “The country had had enough of the bullying and berating, the hectoring and handbagging,” wrote Cannadine.
Thatcher left 10 Downing Street on Nov. 28, 1990. She would always feel bitter and resentful about the way she was suddenly and irreversibly discarded.
She was never really happy when she retired and she remained very much “herself.” She never forgave Oxford for not having awarded her an honorary degree and donated her massive archive to Churchill College, Cambridge. She wrote her memoirs, which were published in two volumes. As expected, the narrative was devoid of humor and she relished in describing everyone who opposed her in unflattering terms to say the least.
Her last years were sad and lonely. The first indication of her mental deterioration began in 1994 when she lost consciousness during a speech in Chile. She then began to experience memory losses and in 2002, following a stroke, it was announced that she would no longer make any public speeches.
In December 2012, she moved into the Ritz Hotel and she died the following year, following another stroke at the age of 87.
Cannadine’s book is a regal portrait of one of the world’s most famous women. It is incisive and full of interesting details. Thatcher is mostly remembered as being aggressive and uncompromising but there was another side to her. She was “a devoted and appreciative wife,” a loving mother who cried in public when for six days she had no news from her son who was taking part in a trans-Sahara race. She always did her best to look as attractive as possible. In that respect, the book’s cover photograph is awful and does not do her justice. She was always superbly coiffed with high heels to show off her legs and she changed her clothes several times a day. I can perfectly imagine her as Cannadine humorously describes her, “She also exploited her gender, treating her Cabinet colleagues in a way which no male prime minister could have done: brushing fluff from their shirt collars, straightening their ties, and buttoning (but not unbuttoning) their jackets.”
Brilliant and entertaining as this book is, I hope Cannadine is seriously considering writing a biography of Theresa May.

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