I cannot decide which is more compelling: Lady Thatcher's memoirs, this great intriguing gorget of a book, an artifact one holds in the hand--two hands, really--ever protective of its author's throat, or the range of reviews that have appeared in the British press, lengthy, opinionated, vituperative or self-serving statements that seem seldom to speak of the book, but rather to the self-image of the reviewer. There can be few memoirs in this century that are so open to attack by those who profess to inside information, yet are so consistently fascinating even for readers who, due to modesty or perhaps simply honesty, must read nearer to the surface level.

This is not an autobiography. Only once does Margaret Thatcher permit herself use of the word. She has, she is clear, written a memoir, which is (whatever the lazier dictionaries may tell us) quite a different matter. The scholar of self revelation, Roy Pascal, has argued that the only successful books within the genre are those in which the reader can detect the author changing in the course of the autobiographical reexamination of the life being recorded--an author caught by surprise by the act of reconstructing a personal vision of the past. Lady Thatcher is never by herself surprised, and one can find not one instance in these 914 pages where she suggests that, in writing those pages, she changed her mind. What we have here is a memoir, perhaps a very fine one, but neither more nor less.


The Downing Street Years is a shrewd construction. The British reviewers could not agree on whether it was readable--surely some found it not so, for the first "considered" reviews of this massive volume appeared in less than 24 hours after it was handed out to salivating reviewers--or whether it tells readers anything they do not already know. The answer to these two rather inconsequential questions is yes, and yes: the book is immensely readable, beautifully constructed, and except for one fairly long section (on the Westland affair) is quite clear even to the point of offering up primer-level asides on Keynesianism, or grant-maintained schools, or the community charge, which is Lady Thatcher's term for the poll tax that contributed to her downfall. By nuance and shadow, by curl of lip and rise of eyebrow, if no more, it tells us a good bit we did not know, though at which we might have guessed. This book is that rare object: a political memoir of real force, not baked meats at the funeral parlor, not desiccated curriculum vitae put into orderly prose.

If the contents are persistently shrewd, and thus interesting, the concept of the book itself is equally shrewd. Here we have the first volume of a memoir that covers only the time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister--from May 4, 1979 until November 28, 1990--and that so whets our appetite that we will actually buy and read volume two when it appears, in which she promises to tell us of her first 50 years, from grocer's daughter to leader of her party. More than 300,000 copies were bought in Britain in the first few days. More astonishing, 25,000 audio cassettes of the book, read by the Baroness herself, were snapped up by those who presumably wished to hear her voice as they drove to work this gloomy, frustrating autumn. Here is shrewd marketing worthy of the book's subject.


American readers may not find The Downing Street Years quite so engrossing, despite efforts to cater to their needs. Footnotes explain esoteric matters and provide cross-references to sections in which a particular story is taken up again. The index is full, revealing, and rich with American reference points. There is a chronology; a full list of members of the cabinets, so that the seemingly endless preoccupation with shufflings in and out of favor can be referenced as the cast of characters grows too long for mere memory to contain; and most important for Americans, there is a list of 135 abbreviations, from ABM to WEU, for usages throughout the book. While attentive students of Britain will know what QUANGOS are (no? quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organizations), not all as they march across the pages will recognize IGC, NIS, or even CHOGM.

Most of the subjects American readers will hope to find covered by these memoirs are here, and often illuminatingly so. Lady Thatcher tells us that the Falklands War (no Las Malvinas here, and why should there be?) was the most significant event of her prime ministership, and she tells her story commandingly. Of Caspar Weinberger, the American defense secretary, she writes, "America never had a wiser patriot, nor Britain a truer friend." She has unkind thoughts for Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who attended a gala dinner given by the Argentinean ambassador as the Argentine invasion of the Falklands was in progress. She says nothing particularly biting about Alexander Haig, the U.S. secretary of state, while managing to reveal exasperation with him, especially when the British ambassador, Nico Henderson, informed Haig of the British resolve to recover South Georgia "in the near future" and Haig said that he believed he must give the Argentine junta advance notice of the operation. "We were appalled. Nico Henderson persuaded him to think better of it," she observes with customary dry precision. Here, of course, one will wish to compare the view from Downing Street with Mr. Haig's own account of events.

Lady Thatcher provides less detail on the Anglo-American response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in good measure because the invasion occurred when her own world was being turned upside down, and in further measure because she "was not allowed by the Conservative Party to see through the campaign to throw Saddam Hussein out." She confides that with President Bush she learned "to defer...in conversation and not to stint the praise," which she was happy to do if a little humble pie would secure Britain's interests. (She does this with the Chinese too but does not think of humble pie while doing so.) She always found Vice President Dan Quayle "well briefed and with a good political sense"; she disagreed with Secretary of State James Baker in his insistence that U.N. authority was essential to military action in the gulf but does not appear to have disliked him for his views. And she is unstinting in her praise of and admiration for President Ronald Reagan. She found it "impossible not to like Jimmy Carter" but thought his analysis of the world around him badly flawed, while she remarks upon President Reagan's "warmth, charm and complete lack of affectation," his inspirational self-confidence and his grasp of the larger picture.

But this is a memoir which benefits from casting aside parochialism, which invites one to abandon mining the index for tidbits about one's own preoccupations and steadily draws the reader away from grazing and into the central subject, the same manner in which the Thatcher governments put an end to the steady drift, even by the Tories, toward ever more centralized government. What makes this book truly compelling reading is the author's account of her battles (for so she poses them) to restructure British industry, to reform trade unions, housing, education and the National Health Service, and, by privatizing public companies, to undo that which the Labour Party had wrought since World War II. Even the long sections on cabinet shufflings are made interesting by tracking the prime minister's choice of words as she shows where a person--Nigel Lawson, Michael Heseltine, Sir Geoffre Howe, Douglas Hurd, John Major--stood in her estimation throughout these infinitely subtle, infinitely devious jugglings.

To this reader the best chapter is on "Mr. Scargill's Insurrection," the year-long miners' strike of 1984-85. She can scarcely restrain herself as she describes Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers. She is so adept at demonstrating Scargill's apparent low cunning, she actually casts doubts on her own skill in handling the crisis, for one is bound to wonder whether Margaret Thatcher won or Arthur Scargill created his own defeat. She misses no opportunity for pouring scorn on Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party, who at best was "ill-advised," equally often engaged in a "fundamentally discreditable enterprise," and often was simply obtusely foolish. This chapter, unfolding in a tone of military urgency, can scarcely be put down, however one may feel about the principals.

Above all, Margaret Thatcher was, by her own words, "perhaps...[the] principal cheerleader in NATO," and she never deviated from her fundamental belief, even when America's leaders failed to accept her point of view, that the United States is "the greatest force for liberty that the world has known." Her apparent affection for America and Americans, her ability to enjoy the company of a relaxed and informal president despite her own high degree of formality, her belief that there still was a special relationship between the two nations even as she dismissed the phrase, infuse her memoirs with a resonance that should make all that she has to say--whether on the miners' strike, her "little local difficulty" (the poll tax riots), or on South African policy--of interest to American readers.


What then of those reviewers? Virtually all professed to know whether this or that portrait as drawn by Lady Thatcher was "fair," "just," "generous," and the like. A historian wonders how they could possibly know, unless they were present at the scene described; even when some reviewers were, what basis have we hapless readers for knowing precisely what Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe, Roy Jenkins, or David Owen mean by such judgments? The Downing Street Years is not calculated to change anyone's mind: it is calculated to fix a particular view upon history as it will be recorded. There may be commentators brave enough, foolish enough to speak up now, but those with any bottom will wait a bit. Nigel Lawson, the chancellor of the exchequer and author of an equally massive memoir, told the readers of The Evening Standard that, "History will judge her more kindly than historians will this book." I believe he is wrong. Roy Jenkins complains of her "bland prose" in The Observer, and read against his own memoir perhaps he is right. I think he isn't. (If he wants bland, let him read Douglas Hurd's early spy thrillers.) The historian has only three requirements of any historical source: that it be interesting, that it be significant, and preferably that it be true. These are the tests The Downing Street Years must pass.

The first two tests are easy. The memoir of the most revolutionary Tory prime minister of postwar Britain is by definition significant. An author who can write a 50-page chapter entitled "Putting the World to Rights" without an apparent self-deprecatory smile is surely interesting. So is this also a reliable memoir? Is it true?

Of course not. There is much that is not here: no Oxford, indeed no academics; no emotion, no friends, no good meals described with pleasure, no trips relived with joy, and except for the logistics of how to change dresses between engagements, no apparent pleasure in clothes. This is the story of a politician, of a person who explains people's failures by noting that they were businessmen not politicians, the story of a political figure who (except for a passing reference to enjoying reading Frederick Forsyth and John le Carré), both dutifully noted in the omnivorous index) seems not to have read books, gone to the theater, enjoyed music, or played bridge. This is a book by and about an intense patriot who refers to Britain as "the mainland," who rightly views any compromise with terrorism as treachery, who puts Britain above all else and, because at times she may confuse herself with Britain, is ever mindful of her own position. Even the photographs appear to have been chosen to flatter: a handsome woman driving a new Challenger tank, a gracious lady shaking hands with a markedly stiff President Bush, an attentive listener casting an admiring glance at President Gorbachev at Brize Norton in 1987, a soign?)e lady walking next to an awkward Barbara Bush--everything here is contrived to create an impression. It is an impressive performance, an act of theater to which the question, "Is it true?" seems almost irrelevant.

There has been much discussion in Britain about how this book was put together. Did Margaret Thatcher write it? She pays warm tribute in her acknowledgements to Robin Harris, once director of the Conservative Research Department, as her "indispensable sherpa" who ensured that her expedition reached its destination in good order "and even attired with some elegance." She tells us that John O'Sullivan, a former member of her policy unit, "tuned up the arguments, pared the prose and pushed forward the narrative." She thanks Chris Collins, "our researcher," which (unless she has lapsed into the royal we) suggests more than one author. Yet, if she did not write every line of The Downing Street Years, indeed if she wrote only a few of them, this is her book and, yes, it is true to her perception of her place in history and how she won that place.

She won that place through luck, hard work, dogged attention to detail when it mattered, the iron will that earned her a most appropriate sobriquet, much courage, far more flexibility than she has been given credit for, and a clear intelligence. She was not an intellectual; indeed, the few genuine intellectuals who pass through these pages receive very short shrift. She was, apparently and on the evidence here, almost never wrong, though at times she misjudged a colleague who, she suggests, brought her into trouble. She mentions none of her defeats except for the last, when her colleagues abandoned her in the face of sharply declined popularity. (Some underling was always letting her down, from lack of attention, commitment, sincerity, or true grit.) There are many good lines, amusing anecdotes, and ostensibly revealing asides here, as when she was "always" asked how it felt to be a woman prime minister, to which she would reply that she didn't know: "I've never experienced the alternative."

Unlike those reviewers who purport to know when Lady Thatcher is fair, generous, mean-spirited and the like, this reviewer must confess to a lack of direct experience, save for one instance. It is not an instance one would ever forget. Mrs. Thatcher, as she then was, was minister for education and science between 1970 and 1974, in Ted Heath's government. I was cultural attaché at the American Embassy in London, assigned to renegotiate funding levels for the Fulbright program in the United Kingdom. The minister came to the first meeting and opened negotiations directly; no doubt the embassy should have been represented by someone of higher rank, and she was irritated. I had spent some hours in preparation and thought I knew all there was to know about the subject. Whether she had spent hours or only minutes I shall never know, but she knew far more than I knew and in a matter of a few well-framed paragraphs of spoken prose (one cannot help but admire people who speak in paragraphs) she wiped the floor with me. She was not, I think, fair and certainly not particularly gracious, but she had the facts utterly on her side.


Many of those now commenting on The Downing Street Years have not, I think, actually read the book. There is no particular virtue, perhaps, in having done so, but by chance I read it, ever more closely as I found myself drawn into the cunning with which it is constructed, as I flew across the Atlantic and back this past October. A passing survey up and down the aisles of British Airways' manifestation of the Thatcher revolution revealed seven other readers, all equally intent on scribbling notes in margins and applying great, looping exclamation marks to page after page. Margaret Thatcher, for good or ill, with or without exclamation points and marginalia, proves the historian's contention that individuals do make a difference. It was she who defeated the wets and cast them (or most of them) from the Tory party; it was she who moved that party from being a clone of the earlier Labour Party, ready to accept as permanent the changes she was convinced had been destructive; it was she who rescued her political position through adroit handling of the Falklands War; it was she who saw the need to support Gorbachev, to draw close to Reagan; it was she who sought to put distance between her "mainland" and the large island of Europe, where a reunited Germany would, she was certain, forestall Britain's return to international greatness. For these judgments she will be praised and maligned, and the certitudes she set down so unreflectively in her memoir will provide abundant ammunition for either treatment. It would be wrong to suggest that she would not care about history's judgment: the bitterness, the longing, that breaks out on every page in her last chapter, as she recounts what she regards as her final betrayal by small men, shows just how much the Iron Lady is made of flesh and blood. A person who could lay on a French tutor so that she might get just right two paragraphs of ceremonial prose when addressing the Canadian House of Commons in French is not likely to be oblivious to her place in history.

This memoir is self-serving, certainly. It is incomplete, of course. It makes no attempt to tell both sides of the story. It is unforgiving of those who no longer would follow the gleam. It is almost devoid of abstractions, despite frequent references to the defense of values such as democracy, self-reliance, patriotism and courage. It is very revealing, perhaps when it least intends to be. In the end, as one closes these 914 pages, one is struck with two thoughts: how long, already, the author seems to have been gone, as the party she once led has staggered from one about-face to another. And how interesting it is to discover, in that voluminous, so thorough index, that there is no entry at all under Margaret Thatcher. Of course there could not be; she is on every page.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Robin W. Winks is the Randolph W. Townsend, Jr., Professor of History at Yale University, where he specializes in the history of the British Empire and its successor states. He was Eastman Professor at Oxford University for the 1992-93 academic year.
  • More By Robin W. Winks