It has already received a fair sneering from critics who complain that the rare jokes - the description of Jim Prior, say, as 'the false squire' - probably were not written by her. This is misconceived as a criticism, even if literally true: however many the hands, the whole text feels like her, just as her famous 'lady's not for turning' declaration, penned by Ronald Millar, felt like her. This is an authentic account, the right stuff.
Since the comparison cannot be avoided, it should also be pointed out that the book feels more like the real Thatcher than her own startling appearances in the excellent BBC television documentaries. Her weakness for striking poses means that the television performance treads the margin of camp self-caricature. But her book is firmly pinned down to detail and events.
The first impression is of breathless bustle, a never-ceasing flurry of meetings, decisions, speeches, minutes and arguments that last from Mrs Thatcher's first moments in Downing Street to her final days there. From paragraph to paragraph, the finger never stops wagging; chapter in, chapter out, those heels go click, click, click. It is as if she becomes a sort of Thatcherite decision-taking robot, a mechanic gobbler-up of red boxes and red- faced ministers, with little autonomous existence. And indeed perhaps that is what it felt like it.
This impression is reinforced by the relentless surge of sub-chapter headings ('The Ottowa G7', 'Melbourne CHOGM and Visit to Pakistan'); and by the choice of photographs - all those relentless arrivals, flurries of handshakes, wild waves and surgings past clusters of alarmed-looking males. Barely a hint of relaxation. Rarely a flicker of reflection. It is pretty exhausting. I would not advise an extended plunge through this without a pile of vitamin pills to hand.
And yet this is not a smoothly-surfaced or evenly-paced affair. The best chapters by far are those not based on official government papers and the arch jokes of her aides. They are the account of the Falklands campaign, deriving from Lady Thatcher's diaries at the time, and the story of her fall from power, still freshly painted on her memory. Both are vivid, fast-moving and skilful narratives that rise high above the remainder of the book. Other highlights include her long war with the European Community: she pulls the reader right inside her frustration and xenophobic suspicion in summit after summit. She really couldn't stand them, all those long-winded Germans and Frenchmen. And she writes well enough, I'm afraid, to make the reader rather sympathise.
But though she is good at the action, Lady Thatcher proves to be a dreadful scene-painter. Her travelogue descriptions would disgrace an in-flight magazine: 'Dubai is enchanting. Like the other Gulf states that I visited, it is full of flowers, kept absolutely perfectly and tended every day.'
More seriously, Thatcher the author has no more imaginative sympathy with opponents or other points of view than Thatcher the politician had. She managed to go through her long period as British Prime Minister with virtually no understanding of Scotland or Ireland, just a series of bland, unprobed assumptions. Her failure to grasp, even in retrospect, why the poll tax outraged so many of her own natural supporters and her contempt for local government remain shocking, even now.
Many local councils were guilty, apparently, of 'straightforward malice . . . High-minded talk of local democracy must not be allowed to obscure the low-level politics of the people we were up against'. Speaking of the Trafalgar Square riot, she praises the poll tax itself for dragging back (her expression) 'a whole class of people - an 'underclass' if you will - back into the ranks of responsible society . . . to become not just dependants but citizens'. For a humbug-ridden description of a disastrous and inequitable tax, that is in a class of its own.
Another jaw-dropper, given how she undermined and destroyed dissident ministers, is her bland assertion that 'I prefer to debate my opponents rather than to undermine them with leaks. I do not believe that collective responsibility is an interesting fiction, but a point of principle'. This may have been put in to give some former ministers a good belly-laugh: but I have a horrible suspicion that it was dictated with a straight face.
And yet, and yet . . . This partisan, self-justifying aspect of the work is part of the reason why it rings so true, and works so well. Complaining that Lady Thatcher is fair-minded is to be guilty of what logicians call a category mistake.
She would point, no doubt, to her generosity to fellow politicians with whom she disagreed. Certainly it is one of the surprises of the book to come across warm words of praise for President Mitterrand, Michael Foot and Nigel Lawson, even when the criticism which comes later overwhelms the praise. But the further she strays from the closed world of professional politics, the more her imagination fails her.
There are plenty of people who feel written out of her account, or downgraded. For whatever reason, she seems embarrassed by her once- close association with Sir Alfred Sherman, the one-time adviser who gets only a single, passing reference. On a host of policy issues, the mistakes are always other people's - so many incompetent ministers, so few 'stout hearts'] A shrewd reader in, say, 2050, will find this heroic and self-justificatory tone difficult to take at face value.
The people who are most hardly used in these pages are the unThatcherite Tories, both the 'wets' and the latter-day Judases who form the current Cabinet. The art of the rapid-response memoir was perfected long before Lady Thatcher shook hands with Rupert Murdoch, but there is no doubt that her angry self-justification makes government more difficult, and equally little doubt that she doesn't give a hoot.
If a Prime Minister can do this, so fiercely and so quickly, every member of the Cabinet must wonder who is keeping notes and what vicious descriptions of themselves are being primed for a few years' time. The plain meaning of her account is that most members of the Major Government are treacherous drones. It is hardly a supportive thing to have done to a weak and unpopular administration: even if the Daily Mirror's use of The Downing Street Years during the Tory party conference was malicious, it wasn't unfair.
This then is a damaging book, a partial book, an unreflective book, a book which is sometimes dull and is often exhausting. But beyond all that, it is what it sets out to be, the Thatcher book, a clear and indispensable insider's history of the most extraordinary period in post-war British history. She was a unique and courageous politician cut off in what she considered her prime, and her wounds still bleed. The fact that she is unable to assess her career with the detachment of retirement makes the memoir the more interesting and useful. If you loved her, this is an experience you will not deny yourself. If you couldn't stand her, it is one you ought not to flinch from.
'The Downing Street Years' by Margaret Thatcher is published by HarperCollins, pounds 25
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