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Book Review: Margaret Thatcher, Volume II – The Iron Lady by John Campbell

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Before coming to power, Margaret Thatcher paid a visit to Yugoslavia, where she had a meeting with President Tito. The conversation turned to China, where Chairman Mao's widow had recently been stirring up trouble for the leadership. Tito remarked that he disapproved of women interfering in politics. "I don't interfere in politics, " declared his guest, eyes ablazing, "I AM politics."

Therein can be found both the secret of Margaret Thatcher's success and the seeds of her downfall. Her supreme confidence helped overcome widespread doubts that a woman could lead her party and her country, but in the end her arrogance alienated the very people she needed to retain power.

Thatcher's story presents a unique challenge to political biographers, largely because her overpowering personality and strident views make a fair assessment difficult to achieve. The writer has to tread a fine line between hagiography and demolition job. Happily, John Campbell's book manages to avoid these pitfalls, and his account of Thatcher's life and times is even-handed, thorough and highly readable. The first volume of Campbell's biography — The Grocer's Daughter — covered Thatcher's early life and career, concluding with her arrival on the threshold of Number Ten. Margaret Thatcher, Volume II: The Iron Lady concentrates on her entire eleven-and-a-half years as mistress of Downing Street, as well as the aftermath of her removal from power.

The first thing to say is that it's a huge read – over 800 pages. But this is no more than the subject deserves, given Thatcher's dominance, not only in her role as Prime Minister, but also as an inveterate meddler in the work of her ministers. From health and education to local government finance and foreign affairs, there was barely an aspect of policy which Margaret Thatcher did not seek to influence.

All the important events of her premiership are there – the three election victories, the Falkands, Westland, the miners' strike, the Poll Tax, and her dramatic departure at the hands of her own party. But the book goes beyond the big stories to put her premiership in a wider context. Take housing: Campbell shows that Thatcher's policy of encouraging council tenants to buy their own homes, while prohibiting local authorities from building new houses with the proceeds, led to a massive shortage of affordable housing, and by extension to large numbers of homeless people on British streets.

Campbell's thorough research shines brilliantly throughout the book, but many may find the depth of detail just too much information to take in. During some passages, even my eyes started to glaze over at so many references to obscure events and personalities from Britain's political past.

Of greater interest are the sections covering Thatcher's dealings with Ronald Reagan. Thatcher apologists often claim that Britain's standing in the world grew taller as a result of her strong support for the U.S. President. But Campbell makes good use of Reagan's archival papers to reveal the true relationship of these political soul-mates.

While they undoubtedly got on well, the President rarely let their friendship get in the way of his policy objectives. Thatcher believed they were working as partners to save the world from tyranny, but Reagan failed to consult her even on such important matters as the invasion of Grenada (a British Commonwealth territory) or his suggestion to Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit that the US and USSR should abolish all nuclear weapons. Even so, Thatcher never lost an opportunity to catch the presidential ear. Campbell recounts Reagan breaking off from one of her many telephone rants to observe: "Isn't she marvellous!"

One of the most enjoyable sections of the book focuses on the burnishing of the Thatcher image, especially in the later years of her premiership. Campbell documents the change from the clothing of a "middle-class mimsy" to the power-shoulders of a leading lady, and her increasingly imperial airs. The regal touch was most memorably on show when she emerged from Number 10 to announce "We have become a grandmother." But the author also offers a reminder of her qualities as a consummate actress. In 1990 she delivered a conference speech in which she compared the new bird of freedom logo for the Liberal Democratic Party to the dead parrot from the Monty Python sketch. She had never seen the routine, but delivered it with perfect timing to laughter and cheers from her audience. The following month, she was an ex-Prime Minister.

Margaret Thatcher's fall from power was pure political theatre, and those of us who watched it unfold on our television screens will never forget those dramatic days. The big question in my mind was: could Campbell's account rise to the occasion? The answer: a resounding yes. Every twist and turn of the spectacle is followed, without recourse to melodrama or purple prose, and what could easily have been a disappointing damp squib of a section turns out to be a fine account of a political career in meltdown.

For me, the most intriguing part of the book describes Thatcher's life after leaving Number 10. Politically-speaking, she was dead in the water – there is no role in the British constitution for an unemployed prime minister. But Campbell is astute enough to highlight the human aspects of her new situation. Only days earlier, she was being feted by President Mitterrand at Versailles. Now, shorn of the Downing Street machine, she had difficulty even using the telephone to find a plumber. Thatcher's refusal to adapt to her new situation caused her successor much grief, and the book relates the despair which John Major felt at her off-stage sniping , especially when he was trying to rebuild bridges to Britain's European partners.

Having already documented the lives of two former Prime Ministers — David Lloyd George and Edward Heath — Campbell is able to view the Thatcher years with a historical perspective. The conclusion of this book, however, is disappointing. A work of this magnitude deserves a resounding finale, but instead it runs into the sand, offering little more than a couple of pages to sum up Thatcher's impact. It's not a bad ending, but I feel that the author could have done justice to the rest of the book by bringing together more effectively the various strands of Thatcher's life.

That said, The Iron Lady is a masterpiece of political biography, meticulously researched and written in an enviable style that both informs and entertains. It may be too soon to call it the definitive biography of Britain's first woman prime minister, but the next time an author sets out to write Margaret Thatcher's premiership, this is the first book they should open.

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