BOOK REVIEW / A nasty piece of work: A Prime Minister tells it like it was: Robert Harris reviews Margaret Thatcher's memoirs, a book spluttering with 'rage, malice, contempt and hatred'
Sunday 24 October 1993
It is not the structure of Lady Thatcher's memoirs which makes them unique, nor their scope. It is their tone. However bitter the controversies in which her predecessors were involved, however violent the clash of personalities, they usually contrived to be generous towards their enemies. Thus Churchill could write of Neville Chamberlain: 'The motives which inspired him have never been impugned, and the course he followed required the highest degree of moral courage.' Or Callaghan could pay warm tribute to Barbara Castle even as he described how he sacked her: 'I admired her courage (and) great intelligence.' Where generosity was, in all conscience, impossible - as in the case of Macmillan and Nigel Birch, say, or Eden and Randolph Churchill, or Wilson and Tony Benn - there was, if not magnanimity, then at least a dignified silence.
Ah, yes. Magnanimity and silence. Not words one associates with Lady Thatcher. It comes as no surprise to find that her autobiography is shot through with malice, contempt, rage and hatred like no political memoir since - well, since Mein Kampf, actually, to which it bears more than a passing resemblance. But neither the leaks in the Daily Mirror nor the serialisation in the Sunday Times quite prepare one for the splatter-gun of personal abuse, directed chiefly at her own side; indeed, at the very people she appointed to office.
John Biffen turns out to be 'rather less effective than I had hoped'. John Nott's 'vice was second thoughts'. James Prior is 'the false squire'. Norman St John Stevas 'turned indiscretion into a political principle'. Mark Carlisle was 'not a very effective Education Secretary'. Francis Pym was 'a gloomy Whig'. David Howell 'lacked creative political imagination and practical drive'. Baroness Young 'lacked the presence to lead the Lords'.
On and on and on it goes. Leon Brittan was 'better at mastering and expounding a brief than drawing up his own'. John Gummer 'did not have clout or credibility . . . he seemed to have gone to sleep on the job'. Patrick Jenkin's 'inability to put over a case' caused a 'constant haemorrhage of political support'. Poor Tom King: 'Detail was not at all Tom's forte.' 'Jeffrey (Archer)'s political judgement did not always match his enormous energy.' Lord Cockfield was 'the prisoner as well as the
master of his subject'. Malcolm Rifkind was 'sensitive and highly strung . . . His judgement was erratic and his behaviour unpredictable.' Geoffrey Howe was 'insufferably smug'. Nigel Lawson 'threw away our success'. John Major is 'defeated by platitudes'. As for Norman Fowler: 'When the Norman Fowlers of this world believe they can afford to rebel, you know that things are bad.'
Yet even with friends like these Lady Thatcher still needs enemies. There is in her book a great deal of vulgar abuse of 'loony lefties', 'sandal-wearing unilateralists', media pinkos and 'dismal' civil servants. She clearly retains a visceral loathing of Neil Kinnock - 'he never let me down; right to the end he struck every wrong note' - which suggests he succeeded in getting under her skin more often than she cares to admit. Most foreign leaders are similarly despised: Kohl, Giscard d'Estaing, Garret Fitzgerald, Papandreou and, of course, the Demon Prince, Jaques Delors. Hate, hate, hate: the woman practically has the word tattooed on her knuckles and forehead.
But hate, in a politician, is a quality not to be despised. While decent liberals flop along from day to day, trying to see the good in everybody, knowing that there are two sides to every question, the politician who is filled with hate moves purposefully forwards in a straight line. At the outset of her memoirs, Lady Thatcher quotes her great 18th-century predecessor, Chatham - 'I know that I can save this country and that no one else can' - and claims that in 1979 she, too, felt 'a similar inner conviction' (the fact that Chatham subsequently went mad does not appear to concern her).
In this endeavour she prays for the help of just 'six strong men and true' (although 'very rarely did I have as many as six'). The lines are so ham-Elizabethan one is at first tempted to laugh. But Thatcher's supreme gift as a politician - and the quality, incidentally, which her successor so signally lacks - is precisely this ability to dramatise: to project upon the real world her inner demons and fantasies. Her premiership was turned by her into a series of battles, and her genius was to persuade enough people to share her vision that these really were struggles between good and evil, with herself in the role of heroic saviour. No wonder the tabloids loved her. She could always be relied upon to turn a crisis into a drama.
Thus her memoirs unfold as a series of epic tableaux: the subjugation of the unions, the routing of the wets, war against the Argentines, the humiliation of the miners, the vanquishing of socialism, the humbling of the Evil Empire, the last stand against European federalists.
Even her downfall has been woven into epic myth - the great leader brought low by the intrigues of lesser men - and is here recounted in careful detail. Too proud to campaign for her own job, she arranges to be with other world leaders when the plotters strike. She flies back to be confronted by her pygmy ministers at the dead of night, each pledging his personal support while urging her to stand down. Her contempt is magnificent: 'What grieved me was the desertion of those I had always considered friends and allies and the weasel words whereby they transmuted their betrayal into frank advice and concern for my fate.' Abandoned, betrayed, alone, the warrior-queen presses the asp to her breast. The stage clears. The lights dim. The curtain falls.
A further Shakespearian touch is added by the presence of a handmaiden named 'Crawfie' (a nice echo of royalty, this), who appears at dramatic moments throughout the story - praying with her mistress after the Brighton bomb, buying the outfits for the trip to Moscow, administering painkillers at 4am during the 1987 election campaign, ducking under the hair dryer with the unbelievable news that Lawson is about to resign ('Oh no dear, you've got it all wrong'), and finally fussing over her Ladyship's appearance as she prepares to leave Number 10 for the last time ('Crawfie wiped a trace of mascara off my cheek, evidence of a tear which I had been unable to check').
If The Downing Street Years were all on this level, it would at least have good entertainment value. Unfortunately - and again Mein Kampf comes to mind - it is a tedious book to read, crammed so full of acronyms ('I had also to make a statement and answer questions on the outcome of the Kuala Lumpur CHOGM') that a four-page appendix is required. There was supposed to be a ghost writer on the project but he is all too ethereal a presence. Instead we are left with the authentic voice of Lady Thatcher:
I set up 'E' (ST) as a new sub-committee of the Economic Committees of the Cabinet which I now chaired. This replaced 'E' (RD) that had been chaired by Paul Channon as Industry Secretary. I also set up a Cabinet committee of officials and experts - ACOST - to replace ACARD which had been shadowing Paul Channon's committee.
The publishers might have done better to have hired fewer ex-policemen to protect the text and more editors to get it right. Some sections of the book are frankly unreadable. A chapter on foreign trips ('Putting the World to Rights') is of such tedium that one can only assume it has been inserted to boost sales in the various countries mentioned. The chronology is confusing: the Brighton bombing in 1984 is followed by an account of the IRA hunger strikes of 1981. No attempt has been made to interleave the various crises which brought about Thatcher's downfall - the faltering economy, the poll tax, Europe - with the result that the narrative lacks pace at the moment it should be most compelling.
And there are some curious omissions. There is no mention of the Spycatcher affair, for example, and the chapter on Westland is suspiciously abbreviated when it comes to the leaking of the Solicitor-General's letter and the subsequent inquiry. All in all, the accompanying television series gives a much better picture of the Thatcher years, does not cost pounds 25, and allows the colleagues she traduces to answer back.
For that is what is missing from this book: any sense that the years 1979-90 were about anything other than one woman. Lady Thatcher claims the credit for whatever went well; whatever went wrong is always the fault of others. Nigel Lawson is held solely to blame for the economic mess that began to develop in 1988: the notion that the Prime Minister, as First Lord of the Treasury, might have failed in her job is not addressed. The poll tax, too, is blamed on Lawson, for refusing to pour in billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to shore up a fundamentally misconceived project. Scorn is also heaped upon the Exchange Rate Mechanism - yet who was the Prime Minister who sanctioned British entry? Time and again Lady Thatcher shows herself to suffer from the very vice for which she excoriates the British people: a refusal to face up to her own responsibilities.
Presumably her aim in writing her memoirs was the same as her predecessors': to safeguard her reputation and to make a pile of money. The second ambition has been amply fulfilled. But the first? I somehow doubt it. This is a nasty piece of work, spawned by bitterness and frustration. It is overlong, overhyped, deluded and disloyal, and one finishes it relieved that the experience is over. To that extent, at least, Lady Thatcher's autobiography is a fitting monument to her years in office.
'The Downing Street Years' by Margaret Thatcher is published by HarperCollins at pounds 25
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