on 18 November 2005
Thatcher intermingles in-depth policy discussions with informative accounts of her relationships with other MP's and associates in this interesting account of her years as Prime Minister. With Thatcher leading a revived Tory party conservative policies are given an authority that they did not always have with Heath or Major (though to be fair, their periods in office were somewhat different.) Persuasiveness matched with occasional flashes of keen insight characterize this book's better moments. What she truly did well is here - a crusader against the Soviet Bloc, moderating union power, and privitizing nationalized industry. Explanations of these and other issues are intertwined among a broad spectrum of historical narrative.
Margaret whipped some unnecessarily bureaucratic mindsets into line, and more streamlined governing was the result - one interesting proof of that shift can be seen after Blair came to power; he moved the labour party right, abandoning several of His parties far left ideas which Thatcher's successes discredited.
Margaret generally made good headway during her tour as PM, but she never really had absolutely clear sailing - we are given several glimpses of what seems to be a rotating set of her own MP's displeased with some aspect of her leadership. Its a sad and fast paced accounting that Mrs. Thatcher gives of her final period days in Number 10. We would all hurry through our embarrassing moments, but to her credit she lingers long enough to give the story - of her Downing Street Years - a proper and not-so-happy ending. Her words just before the final vote - "I fight on, I fight to win," - I remember well.
Some will perhaps underestimate Thatchers ultimate influence. This work is a good, though not perfect, reminder of that influence and history. It is interesting to read of her late night debates with Gorbachev at Number 10, Husband Dennis' advice, her relationship with Mr. Reagan, speech preparation and policy "white papers", and her rotating inner-circle. As I have mentioned in another review ("Path to Power") it is a bit sad to read of several of her Tory MP confidants falling out of her favor. One is given view's of a variety of policy battles in "Path," while there tends to be more expression given to policy formulation and refinement in "Downing Street". All the narrative on her travels and relations with foreign leaders has its place, but it never seems to overshadow her most effective role as policy maker and communicator. In "The Downing Street Years," Mrs. Thatcher extends that role in a thought provoking and memorable way.
on 19 September 2015
Margaret Thatcher's 'The Downing Street Years' is, in my estimation, one of the greatest political memoirs of all time. The book satisfies all the basic criteria: it is well-written, informative and thorough. Thatcher doesn't necessarily go in for critical self-analysis, but on the other hand this is a conviction politician who entered office with a definite and clear purpose and a coherent programmic theoretical framework. Her passion is palpable and it is obvious that she really did want to change Britain, for the better. Personally, I do not on the whole sympathise with Thatcher's politics, but I must hail 'The Downing Street Years' as a literate and well-crafted memoir, the type of book that a graduate chemist and barrister is well-qualified to write. And you can tell she really did write this: the prose is missionary, trenchant and punchy.
The book is organised thematically. This has become a modern fashion which few political biographies veer from, though in my opinion it often works out badly. But not for Thatcher, who manages to pull it off well and the book just flows. The chapter headings are entertaining, at turns witty, prescient and amusing. I think the highlights are the sections on the Falklands War, the crisis that could (perhaps should) have brought her down early ['The Falklands War: Follow The Fleet' and 'The Falklands: Victory]; the Westland Affair, a relatively trivial Cabinet tussle trumped-up into a minor constitutional crisis that almost did lead to her resignation [pp. 423-437]; the Miners' Strike ['Mr. Scargill's Insurrection']; later relations with the then-European Community ['The Babel Express']; and her eventual resignation in the midst of a leadership challenge ['Men In Lifeboats']. There are also some great colour pictorial sections interleaving the book, and the index is thorough and helpful. Some reviewers seem to think that the book is too long. I have to confess, this point never before occurred to me. If anything, I should have thought the book could have been much longer, and I for one would not have minded in the slightest.
What else to say? Well, I suppose a useful exercise would be to compare this highly-literate memoir with the inferior products being churned-out today. An honourable exception would be John Major's, which stands up very well, but the others are poor, especially Blair's half-literate, jumbled mess of a book. I think this drop in literary standards among political biographies tells us something about the material we propel into public life now. Speaking as one of the generational group that sociologists call 'Thatcher's Children', you could say I am one of her 'wayward sons': I could wax lyrical about my points of disagreement with Thatcher's politics. Nevertheless, I must acknowledge her superior intellect and observe that it would be unmatched were she around today. This is not some kind of neo-oldfogeyism. Lots of things have improved since the 1980s, but we have also regressed in many areas. The debates that took place in Parliament in Thatcher's era and before were much more thoughtful and literate than those of today. In a sense, Thatcher belongs to a divisive but more colourful and principled era of politics, and it is no coincidence that most of the interesting figures in politics today on both the Left and Right emerged from, or were touched-by, the Thatcher years. A sad and unfortunate paradox is that it was Thatcher herself who presaged the decline and brought us the awful persiflage of Blairism: she began the media management techniques that would later coarsen British politics and introduce the boring, drippy, compliant personalities who get "elected" today.
Perhaps one issue that might irritate the politically-literate reader of this book is Thatcher's quite shameless revisionism over Europe. She doesn't exactly hide her role in selling-out Parliament to Brussels, but she does not really take proper responsibility for it either, preferring to blame shadowy forces and pressures for her own cowardly decisions. Those in favour of Europe as an integrated political concept will be inclined to disagree with Thatcher's rather Manichean attitudes to the project (without realising, perhaps, how pro-European she once was, even as Prime Minister). Those against Europe will feel frustrated that she said so much on the issue but did so little to preserve Britain's sovereignty during a crucial period of the Community's evolution. In fact, Margaret Thatcher practically signed-away parliamentary sovereignty in her first few years as Prime Minister, continuing a political movement that would eventually (under Major-Blair) leave our Parliament bereft and purposeless. She signed the treaty that created the European Single Market and her government pushed the Single European Act through Parliament ruthlessly. Lest we also forget that earlier in her career, under the Heath premiership, she was one of the most vocal Tory Cabinet ministers campaigning for Britain's entry into what was then called the European Economic Community, something that probably made her cringe later. In short, if Margaret Thatcher was a Eurosceptic, then she was a pretty tepid one. And she was certainly no Nationalist.
Her supposed 'regrets' about Europe and increasing Euroscepticism towards the end of her premiership are part of the mythology of Thatcher: the Iron Dream, if you like. The myths do harbour some truth - she probably really did regret it all - but I think the real story is that when Thatcher started baiting 'Europeans', she was just being an astute politician. She was keenly aware that most Britons - certainly most of the English - are disinclined towards the notion of a federal Europe as they value our island identity. Furthermore, the southern English - more conservative than the social-democratic northern English - see Europe as a Continental 'social' project. Having apparently rejected Butskellism herself and shifted the Conservative Party to the Right (supposedly), it was a natural progression for Thatcher to come to reject Europe, at least conceptually. At first, though, she saw no need to do so. With large majorities, she could govern Platonically on the overarching issues such as Europe, without popular ratification of her unpopular decisions. But as the Tory Party declined in popularity and it became clear that her premiership was threatened, she adopted Euroscepticism not as a through-going rejection of Europe, but as a strategic ruse. Had she survived in office, the Labour Party would have been painted as pro-European and Quisling by the tabloid press and that would have formed the basis of a Tory general election campaign in 1991/92. It is true that as part of the War generation, Thatcher understood that Europe was, ontologically, a Continental project and, essentially, an extension of German power over Europe that earlier Germans had been unable to achieve militarily, but I am not convinced she was completely genuine in her concerns over the submergence of British sovereignty and identity: she had already given away more of those than any prime minister in the Nation's history.
In a sense, Thatcher wrote this book to contribute to her own mythology. The way the book is written projects her as a kind of heroinic persona. Even the book cover is almost Stalinist in its subliminal appeal to the cult of personality, but this Iron Dream that Thatcher was a kind of modern Boadicea who stood up to Europe before being deposed by a group of Quislings is false. She was just another chiseler, albeit one with a bit more principle and scruple toward the end.
This book is one of the most interesting political autobiographies I have read (and I've read many of them). I must confess that interest was intensified due to the fact that I worked in the House of Commons during her tenure in office, and indeed worked during the 1987 General Election for two Conservative Members of Parliament (David Amess of Basildon and David Evennett of Erith & Crayford--yes, I know, you've likely never heard of either of them).
This is actually the first volume of Margaret Thatcher's books to be published; the prequel is 'The Path to Power' and there is a follow-up, 'The Collected Speeches', but for those interested, 'The Downing Street Years' is the book to have.
It begins with the 1979 General Election, and carries forward to her resignation as Prime Minister a decade later. In this volume are her perspectives on all the various Cabinet intrigues, shuffles and reshuffles; her attempts to find civil servants and other helpers who were not of the old guard but of a new mentality, often asking, 'Is he one of us?' by which she meant, not is he a Conservative, but rather, will he get something accomplished, is he a do-er?
Thatcher's perspectives on the various scandals and inter-Cabinet fighting makes for interesting reading -- she is candid in her likes and dislikes among her Cabinet colleagues. Her final row with Geoffrey Howe, who delivered a scathing speech in the HoC that mostly prompted the leadership crisis, is enlightening. (I've not seen his version, if one exists--it would be good to compare the two sides.) She was very disappointed at the end when she thought she had the continued support of the party, but each of her ministers and 'friends' told her in turn that while he supported her, others would not. She saw the writing on the wall, and after having won the first ballot for party leadership but not by a sufficient majority to avoid a second ballot, she resigned in favour of John Major (whose autobiography, recently issued, is also well worth reading, particularly for his comments about how Thatcher tried to maintain a controlling influence over him from behind the office).
One might be tempted, if not really into politics and not reading this for scholarly purposes, to skim over various minor issues that are gone into great detail. Historians are appreciative, but I seriously ask myself how many non-political scientists and historians will read through all the detail of what are now minor bits of history?
In all, a brilliant career, the first woman head of government in a major Western democracy, and well worth reading on the whole.
on 1 January 2002
It is often said that hind sight is 20/20, and the Ex-Prime Minister has made good use of this theory when writing.
Her recollection of the events frequently tie badly with the recollections of others, and of the media at the time. The book is self justifying, and unfortunately often finds her so desperate to vindicate criticism against her that the actual history is lost. I would not suggest that this is deliberate, but rather a product of a person completely convinced of her own correctness.
There can be no denying that Thatcher was a strong and highly driven leader. The reader follows the story from the start of her leadership experience, displacing Ted Heath as leader, following her through mounting confidence in her own decisions and ability to govern, and developing into an absolute belief in her own ability. The final chapters deal with a Margaret Thatcher so convinced of her own invulnerability, that she completely fails anticipate the seriousness of the plot against her, and is overthrown in the same manor that she overthrew Heath.
Any reader of this book will find illumination shed on the current state of the Tory Party, as the party loses all internal cohesion under Thatcher's and subsequently falls apart when she is deposed.
When read in conjunction with other books covering Thatcher's reign the biography sheds light more on the character of this world famous leader and the contest in which it developed than on any actual reliable historical record.
Readers may also wish to read Woodrow Wyatt's biography which displays a Thatcher racked by doubts and feeling besieged by enemies. Perhaps a combination of both characters may be more accurate!
on 23 June 2004
As a young student of politics, this was a seminal text which had to be read. The fact that I was already sympathetic to Thatcher helped in the reading, and anyone buying this book who expects a self-critical view of her premiership will be disappointed - yet who would think that? There are moments in the memoirs where she does get into the minutiae of economic policy at length, yet these are wonderfully juxtaposed by the exhilarating accounts of, for instance, the defeat of Argentina, the epic struggle with the miners, the election campaigns and the last great battle over the poll tax. This book contains levels of emotion that rival Horace and Virgil. An epic account of an epic Prime Minister and a must for anyone who wishes to understand post-war Britain.
on 15 May 2005
Whilst the book is overlong and a slight step too far in the bid for self-justification, 'The Downing Street Years,' especially for politics undergraduates like me, is a book of useful knowledge not only containing the recollection of events which occupied her premiership, but also the inner workings of government and the decision-making process the public (especially during Labour's term) have been distanced from. If you can ignore or contain the ideology of Lady Thatcher herself, then you'll find she has a great deal more to say
on 4 March 2015
I gave it 5 stars, because it's Magaret's OWN book. I sure could have read many other books but I want to see Things from her point of view. It is about 800 pages long and normally I read one book at the time, but in this case I won't. because it's so long. But, i bought the book of plain curiosity, and I DO adore Maggie's stubborness and strength, which says a lot about integrity. Well - I DO agree her reluctance to privatize the Royal Mail is justified, but still time will only tell if privatizing Railways, mines etc done still good, despite our disagreement(most people)...This book is not emotional. Many facts in it, and she explains her own convictions, and this could only be done in this book. Worth Reading! Even just to get to know who she was, and what set of beliefs made her try and change the society the way she tried.
on 2 October 2004
There are rises of humour in a territory that is unfailingly flat and at times arid. (It has occured to me that there is little in the book that goes beyond a perfunctory review of the characteristics of the people that Mrs Thatcher was involved with for so long.) It is a dull read. The writing is rarely gripping and often little more than functional - I wonder what input her staff had? There is little self-doubt in the book which stands in contrast to other accounts I have read of Mrs Thatcher as a worrier. Mrs Thatcher's belief in Britain is unfailing, an article of faith in her own life. Because of this, or because she has to present this to the British people (a patronising rule in most political memoirs) there is little inquiry into the rights or wrongs of history or of British policy. Certainly the murkier side of politics is ungazed at by the reader in this account.
There are some impossibilities about this book. It is impossible that things were quite as simple as Mrs Thathcher puts them, it is impossible to not admire her spirit, and it is impossible to read a second time (in quick succession except under the most urgent need) - life is too short.
on 9 April 2002
Great look back on the government that brought Great Britain back to the forefront of the world stage. Mrs. Thatcher describes how she and her government defeated the view that Britain was an empire in decline. Thanks to her, Great Britain is once again a nation that commands respect! I wish she could come and take over here on this side of the Atlantic!
on 25 July 2000
If you are a Thatcher fan then this is a must. This account is witty, honest, brutal and frank. It depicts a woman who broke the mould and changed the course of Britain's history forever.
From the Falklands, the Miners' Strikes, through the day she was deposed as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, this book grips you and won't let you put it down.