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A Ringside View
on 25 October 2013
After the recent biography by Charles Moore (vol 1)one might wonder what is the point of another book about Margaret Thatcher, especially so soon. In fact Jonathan Aiken demonstrates in his latest book there is a point.
His book is a far more personal account of Margaret Thatcher. The reader is given a ring-side seat to view her strengths and weaknesses.
Aitken's key aim is to describe what she was like as a person and prime minister, especially what she was trying to do and why, and to assess the consequences. He was a member of her cabinet and for a while very close to the Thatcher family-for 3 years he dated Caroline Thatcher before he ended the relationship. His political career ended when he was jailed for perjury (he has written two splendid books about his time in prison).
In this account Aitken describes warts and all the deceased character. She could be charming, kind yet rude, abrasive and cold. he argues, as have others, that her achievements were major, the Falklands, ending the miners strike, and getting President Reagan and Gorbachev to meet and talk.
He is very critical of Howe and Heseltine for their attack on Thatcher which eventually led to her downfall. He quotes her press secretary as saying:'probably the most tactless woman I have ever met in my life'. Aitken says she was never a fan of cabinet government (neither was Blair or Brown), 'consensus had no appeal for her'. At one cabinet meeting she told Howe (foreign secretary) 'your paper is twaddle. complete and utter twaddle'. Understandably, such outbursts in front of other ministers, no matter how accurate, caused dismay and anger. After her retirement from politics she lambasted Howe and co as traitors. Even her chosen successor, John Major, did not escape her sharp tongue.
Aiken says she was a towering figure that polarised, and still does,public opinion. Like other recent accounts (Moore, and Harris) he believes she changed the course of politics and government in her country for at least a generation. A Britain that was in decline rejoined the ranks of powers with influence in the international arena. She boosted the economy, restored our military credibility, and reinvigorated our diplomatic authority. She, he argues, gave this country pride and purpose again.
Aiken says she often said she made up her mind about people within 30 seconds, and '99 times out of a 100 I am right'. Her father told her never to go with the crowd. Never, never. She said she always followed that advice in politics.
Aitken tells us about her upbringing, the great influence of her father, the strained relationship with her mother, her unhappy time at school and, for a time, at university. She never seems to have had any fun as an adolescent. Her first steps in politics is described, her very happy marriage, her children, time in opposition, then as secretary of state for education, and then winning the leadership and becoming the occupant of No 10.
This 700 page book is an honest account, warts and all, of a very remarkable politician. It is balanced and fair. It is a shame that her opponents are still for ideological reasons unable to adopt the same objective stance.
As a true insight into Margaret Thatcher this book is unlikely to be bettered.