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This book is not about Thatcher the person but Thatcher the project. But the word ‘project’ implies a coherence of aim and method that Thatcherism did not have. Vivien examines some of these paradoxes. He examines some of the assumptions that were made about Thatcherism at the time, and since. People assume that she shattered the post-war consensus of a mixed economy and the welfare state and rolled back the state. But public spending was higher at the end of her term than it was at the beginning. This was not merely on account of having to pay high unemployment benefit. Much of the welfare state was left untouched – above all the NHS. In Northern Ireland, monetarism was never applied. The 1970s never ended as far as economic policy in Ulster was concerned, like subsidies to over manned and inefficient smokestack industries to keep them going to wall (compare and contrast the approach to coal mines in the 1980s).

Thatcher did nothing to reverse the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed she herself voted for liberalising divorce laws and homosexuality as a backbench MP. The government’s approach to tacking AIDS was informed by medical advice, not Mary Whitehouse; these examples demonstrate that the government at the time was not a doctrinaire upholder of Victorian Values.

Perceptions have been distorted by retrospect or by the lingering influence of contemporary polemics. Thatcher’s first term saw a ‘radical’ experiment in monetarism but previous wage agreements under Labour were honoured, and the government backed down from several industrial confrontations. During the Thatcher years, economic policy seemed to favour services over manufacturing and the decline of manufacturing. But Thatcher’s economic acolytes, speaking and writing in the 1970s about Britain’s ‘decline’, were thinking, among other things, of this country’s industrial decline. But manufacturing decline continued nonetheless (as it did in most advanced capitalist countries) and Nigel Lawson insouciantly remarked that a pound earned by services was the same worth as a pound earned by manufacturing. Few among his party seemed to notice the shift.

The same observation applies to Europe. Thatcher became synonymous with Euro-scepticism and the issue was to tear the Tories apart in the 1990s, as it threatens to do so today. But in the early 1980s, Thatcher was broadly pro-European, Labour was firmly opposed. Its opposition to Europe won it no credit in 1983 (I recall a Tory party political broadcast in 1982/3 that featured Labours anti-EC stance prominently, claiming that Labour taking the UK out of the EC would cost over 2 million jobs). Thatcher changed her tune in the late 1980s but in the first part of the 1980s, it was Labour who challenged the consensus over Europe, not the Tories.

It has often been observed that Thatcher never commanded an absolute majority of the popular vote. But the conclusion often drawn from this, that if only the anti-Thatcher vote had united, then she would never have had a taste of power, over simplifies the difference between those who voted for her and those who didn’t. It is based on a fallacy that the people who voted against her were all voting for the same alternative. In 1983, they were not. Labour, SDP/Liberal Alliance were voting for different alternatives, not the same, and in some aspects there were overlaps on Tory positions. On Trade Union reform, the SDP and voters were broadly sympathetic to Tory aims (as were most Tory wets, many of whom were to overstate their ideological differences with Thatcher on the essential issues). Labour’s unilateralism was a minority position. British people expressed sympathy when polled for collective values but voted differently.

In the last analysis, however, Thatcher did alter some aspects of the post-war consensus. And even if she did not remake Britain in the image of a property-owning, share-owning democracy, as the council house sales and privatisation was supposed to do, then she refashioned the post-war consensus that modified but did not overthrow the old one. But she could only go so far. Once a new consensus had been settled upon, she found herself superfluous and lost touch.

Overall, the book is a solid thematic overview of the paradoxes and contradictions of Thatcher’s government, without any overt ideological axes to grind. It mostly covers politics and to a lesser extent economics, with no little discussion of culture. It is not a complete history of the 1980s and it is not a ‘verdict’ on Thatcher or her government. She and her administration are neither vindicated nor condemned. Some readers may find the author seems to sit on the fence. But I think that the author, after having perhaps examined ‘Thatcherism’ for a neat definition, found that there is no such easy definition. This is fine by me. Life is messy and books should not necessarily be written to impose tidy explanatory schemes on the vagaries of human experience. If this makes people rethink some of their preconceptions about Thatcher then this is no bad thing. It makes things more interesting. Five stars.
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on 31 May 2009
I really enjoyed this book. As a Thatcher loather I thought it was about time I took a more objective view of her place in our lives and this book has helped me do just that in a broad and intelligent way (a biography would still be too much to stomach). I was in my twenties in the eighties, politically despairing and never really thought about the wider context or cared about how she had got to be where she was. This book has helped me understand the phenomena and made me more objectively alert to the impact that she is still having. I recommend it to anyone who wants to be made to reflect on Thatcher in an accessible and highly readable way.
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on 30 July 2009
This is a good book on the nature of, and tensions within, Thatcher's political theories and key policies. It is not very helpful in describing 'Thatcher's Britain' in the wider sense of cultural, social and political developments in the 80s. It is also much more detailed and interesting on her economic policies and influences (her neo-liberalism) than it is on her social policy agenda (her neo-conservatism).

I don't think it's the most impressive introductory text on Thatcherism/Thatcher's Britain. It's the kind of book to come to after reading other books on the 1980s and on Thatcher herself. It felt a little patchy and unsatisfying, though Vinen's remarks about the internal inconsistencies within Thatherism and the difference between Thatcher's tough rhetoric and her often more cautious politics are interesting, incisive and nuanced. These are important points to make and distinguish this book from the all-to-often 'black & white' textbook accounts of Thatcherism.
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on 3 June 2009
I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Vinen some many years ago. Well known for some excellent work on French and European modern history. This move into the recent UK is most welcome. Readers should do one thing and ignore the title - I fully agree with the Sunday Times review (well worth reading) of some months ago - a badly chosen title - the book is about Lady Thatcher and the political environment she was in, much more so than the social or economic that might be guessed from the title. Some lovely stories add a richness to the narrative - I was struck by the analysis of Enoch Powell, for instance.

I think this is an excellent analysis, one of the few on the topic, by a high quality professional historian, without the usual political bias of the contemporay. It would be interesting to get Professor Vinen's insights on our current dilemas.
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on 28 May 2009
A highly intelligent, humorous and accessible book which challenges several widely held historical orthodoxies and misconceptions about Thatcher. This book is ideal as an introduction to the Thatcher era for students, and is a sparkling contribution to the existing literature on the woman who defined 80s Britain.

Particularly impressive is the nuanced perspective Vinen provides on the contradictions in Macmillan's politics, on Thatcher's views on education and his brave point that Thatcher's gender actually worked to her advantage by the time she entered parliament. The book deals delicately with the oft- hashed case of the miners' strike and sheds new light on Thatcher's fall from power. Its attention to detail with regard the characters who surrounded Thatcher while she was in power, the centrality of journalism to Thatcher's reputation and the effect unemployment had on the British nation during Thatcher's premiership is breathtaking. It is political history at its best.

In its intellectual sensitivity, honesty and non-partisan approach, this salient and sophisticated account surpasses recent contributions to the Thatcher debate. It has already become a central text for all British history students, and sets an extremely high standard for future accounts on Thatcher.
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on 30 May 2009
Professor Vinen's book was a revelation - there are plenty of books out there which simply re-state what Thatcher did, with the usual `The Iron Lady was a Goddess/she was the Devil Incarnate' slant. But Thatcher's Britain really got to the root of what made the country go the way it did, and why. The author also really captures why people either love or hate Thatcher.

If you want a Thatcher biography, this isn't it. But if you want to understand Thatcher and why her premiership went the way it did, with its highs and its lows, then I can't recommend this book enough. What we get is a sense of perspective. Now that the time is ripe for reassessments, I suspect its judgments will last.
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on 30 August 2015
This is a comprehensive study of the policies pursued by Margaret Thatcher, a figure so powerful in 1980's Britain that she became an -ism that lived on long after the politician had gone.

I particularly liked the comparative analysis of Thatcherism and Powellism. While both Thatcher and Enoch Powell strove to reverse Britain's post-war decline through monetarism, Thatcher was an Atlanticist seeking closer cooperation with the US whereas Powell, who never got over the loss of Empire, was a fierce critic of the Atlantic Alliance, deeming anything non-English to be uncultured. Powell was also scathing in his criticism of Thatcher's approach to education bent on educating citizens in such a way as to maximize their return on the capital invested. In that regard, the notions of conservatism and nationalism are adequately addressed and put in perspective.

The author also pinpoints the contradictions within Thatcherism: cultural chauvinism and 'Englishness' versus a free market rhetoric coupled with state asset sell-offs to overseas interests; the plea to roll back the frontiers of the state versus the extension of central governmental powers; economic liberalism versus social conservatism, thus echoing the often heard criticism that Thatcherism was just a minority interest of global elites, tarted up with some English populism. Because of these contradictions and the purported lack of policy consistency in favour of political pragmatism, he argues that Thatcher's legacy has been flawed by the law of unintended consequences.

The conclusion is that Britain came out of the Thatcher years a lively, less inefficient, relatively lean, union-cowed, reasonably performing, not-quite-so bureaucratized, still hopelessly subsidized and benefit-demanding, class-ridden society facing the uncertain realities of freed Communist states, most of whom quickly adopted Thatcherite practice.
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on 28 May 2009
I have always been fascinated by the political changes that occurred in the eighties and Margaret Thatcher's role in them. This book provides a rare neutral look at Thatcherism that neither glorifies its success nor belittles its flaws. Richard Vinen analyses Margaret Thatcher's role in British politics and the effects that Thatcherism had on Britain and the British public as well as the wider world. In particular there are detailed chapters on the two defining events of the Thatcher government; the Falklands war and the miners strike. The conflicting arguments in these events are both analysed and presented fairly for the reader to make their own conclusions. Vinen skilfully presents his argument that Thatcherism was of its time and adapted to changing circumstances, by showing the changes in thatcherite policy which occurred in response to the Thatcher government's victories and defeats.
All in all, any one interested in Thatcherism, whether born before or after the Thatcher government, will find this book thought-provoking and a fair appraisal of thatcherite policy. As well as an interesting look at one of the most iconic and divisive figures in political history.
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on 2 June 2009
I thought this was an excellent and insightful book. Its narrative on the Thaturite era was both interesting and compelling. The book wonderfully captures the political landscapes of the time and Thatcher's influence in an often troubled Britain. It's a terrific insight into one of Britain's most famous Prime Ministers and a great look at an eventful period of modern British history.
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on 27 August 2011
Richard Vinen might have regretted the title of his book since this book has little on the social History of the 1980s (for that read the excellent Rejoice! Rejoice! by Alwyn Turner) and little or nothing on the culture of the 80s. However, with that caveat recorded this is a smart and savvy discussion of Thatchers political journey; of the origins of Thatcherism. Vinen sets out to write a political history that avoids the vitriol and high emotions that Thatchers name inevitably generates. He wants to write for a generation with no personal memories of the 1980s. His aim at a dispassionate view of the Thatcher era is perhaps useful since its easy to be overwhelmed by the 'damage' done by the Thatcher era and the scars left (even today) by her policies.
He is particuarly strong on influences (very interesting for example on Enoch Powell and Powellism) and very good
at describing,Thatchers reliance on advisors and political expediency to drive policy. He does give her due credit for managing to become a Tory candidate in the male dominated party and in managing to become leader. The text is very good on providing a balanced discussion of different aspects of her rule including an interesting take on the traditional view that 1979 marked the end of consensus and also, interesting points about her lack of ideology at times. This book needs to be read alongside other books
but will provide a useful counterbalance to any obvious polemics. He provides a good chapter on sources and is brave enough to admit that some judgements could already be out of date. I think it goes alongside Thatcher & Sons by Simon Jenkins ( a book Vinen seems to have little time for) and the previously mentioned book by Alwyn Turner.
This book is purely political- but this isn't a bad thing. However, the title could be misleading. Overall, well worth a read.
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