Book review: Margaret Thatcher, A Life and Legacy
David Cannadine has produced an excellent, concise and incisive biography.
Margaret Thatcher has been the most commented on, researched, and written about prime minister since Churchill. Dozens of books have been produced about her, many of them are partisan. The two best sets of biographies are by John Campbell and, as yet uncompleted, most recently by Charles Moore.#
This biography is unusual in that it is a mere 33,000 words or one hundred and thirty six pages. Professor Sir David Cannadine is a distinguished academic who has written widely in cultural and political affairs. He is now the General Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and two years ago his colleagues suggested he should contribute the entry on Margaret Thatcher – it would be the largest entry for any twentieth-century prime minister since Churchill. It was then decided that the entry would be published as a short stand-alone volume.
Cannadine has produced an excellent concise and incisive biography which sets in a wider context “the dominant British public figure of her generation”. He was aware that public reaction to her was divisive, and this would help judge any biography. In writing this biography Cannadine sought to be as even-handed as possible, viewing her with what he regarded as a necessary and deserving combination of sympathy and detachment.
It is based upon published sources and would not claim to have discovered new, original ones, but rather has an interesting assessment which makes the reader think. One of the greatest strengths of the Cannadine book is his appreciation of Thatcher’s feminine qualities as well as her negative ones. It is hard for us today to recognise just how difficult it was for a woman to succeed in any career or profession even forty years ago.
Quite rightly, he emphasises her fortune in being married to Denis who provided her with both physical and financial support which enabled her to concentrate on her political career. Cannadine shows that leadership in politics or businesses often has a ten year cycle, and if you survive longer than that then hubris overtakes you and mistakes are made. Her downfall was brought about as much by her own mistakes and character as by the machinations of a mutinous parliamentary party.
As a historian Cannadine in his appraisal is able to put Thatcher’s life and role into context. She was an outsider like Disraeli, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Macdonald, Callaghan and Major. But Thatcher enjoyed two large advantages – an Oxford education and a wealthy spouse. In a strange way her early adoption as a parliamentary candidate meant she had more in common with Heath and Wilson – not that either of them could welcome that comparison.
Cannadine concludes that throughout her premierships she was the dominant figure in British public life, and she not only made the political weather, but went some way towards changing the political climate, too. There was no one – until the premiership of Theresa May – who she could be compared with. But as Cannadine shows she was neither the first nor the only long serving female prime minister in the twentieth century – Indira Gandhi, Gold Meir and Benazir Bhutto. But Thatcher didn’t just dominate domestic UK politics but, increasingly, international politics.
In Britain the shift from a northern-based industrial economy, with a manual, unionised working class, to a consumer-orientated, white-collar service economy increasingly concentrated in the south east of England might very well have occurred whoever was prime minister. But she changed the weather.
Cannadine concludes that even after her death in 2013, British politics on both the right and the left was largely played out in her shadow. A large part of the electoral success of Tony Blair was due to the fact that he abandoned many of the old Labour/TUC strengths and weaknesses and embraced what had become called “Thatcherism”; which was a political phenomenon rather than a coherent philosophy.
After her downfall she haunted the Tory Party and spent years travelling the world and seeking the adoration of her admirers. As Peregrine Worsthorne observed, she sought to make the world safe for the Victorian values of her father, yet she actually made it safer for the more suspect ethics of her son.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland.