In the Iron Lady's Looking Glass

MARGARET THATCHER'S account of her premiership appears three years after her Conservative Party colleagues decided to replace her. It is a pity she could not have waited longer. Much of her resentment about the manner of her removal might have had time to drain away, and the book might not have been permeated in its latter stages by a flavor of bitterness that does little justice to her achievements.

By any standards Mrs. (now Baroness) Thatcher was a remarkable leader. Even a short account of her dozen years in Downing Street could not fail to persuade an objective reader that she was a formidable politician who forced Britain to rethink its national priorities.

In compelling detail, Britain's first woman prime minister describes how, when elected leader of the Conservative Party, she had already decided that socialism was a dying creed. She was certain that the time had come for government intrusion into the lives of citizens to be heavily curtailed.

This was the core belief of what came to be known as ``Thatcherism,'' and it led her into a huge array of initiatives, all the way from privatizing state-owned industries, such as British Airways and British Telecom, to enabling tenants on council estates to purchase their homes, instead of paying rent to local authorities.

Her powerfully held convictions also gave her the determination and stamina required to defeat Arthur Scargill, leader of the coal miners, when he called a nationwide strike with the declared aim of toppling the government. Lady Thatcher calls this episode ``Mr. Scargill's insurrection'' and remarks with obvious relish: ``What the strike's defeat established was that Britain could not be made ungovernable by the Fascist Left.'' The miners' president had ``demonstrated just how mutually dependent the free economy and a free society really are.''

Lady Thatcher's confrontational style was legendary. When Argentina seized the Falkland Islands, many, including leading figures in the United States, assumed that after a flurry of protests Britain would accept what had happened. Instead, the prime minister ordered the immediate dispatch of a battle fleet to the South Atlantic.

At that time her popularity was at a low ebb. She understood that backing down would have further undermined her standing. By confronting the junta in Buenos Aires she was responding to aggression, defending the national interest, and seizing the political initiative. Very quickly the media were calling her the Iron Lady.

Thatcher notes that the significance of the Falklands war was ``enormous, both for Britain's self-confidence and for our standing in the world.'' What she does not say is that this victory rescued her premiership from possible oblivion and set the stage for a defeat of the Labour Party in the general election that followed.

During the Falklands war, Thatcher's relationship with Ronald Reagan became one of intense mutual admiration. Some of the most fascinating passages in her memoirs detail their exchanges.

When President Reagan, at a summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, came close to giving up America's strategic arsenal, Thatcher was appalled. ``Somehow,'' she writes, ``I had to get the Americans back onto the firm ground of a credible policy of nuclear deterrence.'' So she invited herself to Camp David, flew the Atlantic, and spent several hours bending the presidential ear. Of the result she says: ``I had reason to be well pleased.''

There is evidence aplenty in the memoirs of her affection for America and her belief that the ``special relationship'' was the cornerstone of Britain's foreign relations. But there is also proof that in her dealings with European governments she could be dogmatic, unyielding and totally insensitive. Here the confrontational style that had impressed Gorbachev and captivated Reagan helped to persuade France's Francois Mitterand and Germany's Helmut Kohl that she was an obstacle to European unity and a rather unpleasant person.

The memoirs demonstrate that her unpopularity with European Community leaders and the eventual crumbling of her support within her own cabinet were connected. It is no coincidence that the resignations of Nigel (now Lord) Lawson, her chancellor, and Sir Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe, foreign secretary and later deputy premier, were both directly related to European policy. It was Howe who, in a devastating resignation speech, unleashed the Conservative Party leadership contest that resulted in Thatcher's resignation.

For the woman who had never lost a general election to be evicted from Downing Street in this way was - and still is - a humiliation. She describes how, one by one, cabinet colleagues who owed their positions to her, came into her room and, almost to the man, told her she had to go.

Why had she so alienated them? Why had the woman who was once ``the strongest man in the cabinet'' persuaded them that she was a political liability? The reason is in her memoirs, but it is latent.

The Thatcher dominance in the end began to seem like arrogance. She could not understand why her chancellor objected to her taking economic advice from a personal adviser rather than from him. She apparently could not see that by speaking scornfully of her foreign secretary in his presence she was giving him grounds for what she now regards as his betrayal of her.

Even allowing for the self-justifying content of any memoir, ``The Downing Street Years'' is remarkable for its failure to concede that from time to time the Iron Lady got things wrong, and that in the closing stages of her premiership she failed to notice that she had allowed herself to become an isolated figure in her own administration.

Too bad Margaret Thatcher cannot see herself as others do. Her memoirs may persuade future historians that she was a flawed character, too ready to blame others, and unable to understand why old friends came to believe they had no option but to tell her that her time was up.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.