Dr. John Shosky reviews Not for Turning:The Life of Margaret Thatcher by Robin Harris. John Shosky is a writer who lives near Washington, D.C. He has worked for three presidential administrations. He writes at www.thewordsofourtime.com
The Daily Mail called it “The political biography of the decade.” It lives up to the billing. Robin Harris has written a very readable, informative, balanced, and fair book about the late Margaret Thatcher. It is not strictly historical, although there is a lot of history explained and discussed. It is not merely a memoir, because much of the book covers years when Harris was an outsider looking in. It is not an overview of Thatcher, because there is deeper insight here. I think of this book as an “explanation” of Thatcher, a “reasoned defense” of her principles and policies, perhaps even an advocacy for her approach to government. In comparison to the many books about her, this is one of the best. I highly recommend it, both for its insight into the personality of Mrs. Thatcher, but also for its candor on the issues and personalities associated with her. In fact, the book is so candid that I worried Harris would be sued by some of the people in Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet or close political circles. Surely this book was vetted by the lawyers before publication. Some of the commentary must come razor-thin close to libel or slander under British law. Harris placed a priority on honesty in his assessments. His fairness and balance must have just held him back from crossing any legal lines.
Harris was a speechwriter, editor, and advisor for Mrs. Thatcher. He served with her in government. He worked for her on four of post-government books: the two volumes of autobiography The Downing Street Years and The Path to Power), the Collected Speeches, and the underappreciated Statecraft. He provides an insider’s account of her time as a Member of the House of Commons, her time in Edward Heath’s Cabinet, her leadership of the Opposition, and her time as Prime Minister. A substantial portion of the book is devoted to her years after government.
Harris takes us through the formative years in Grantham and in Oxford. Her humble background taught life lessons. Thatcher learned a “responsible individualism” (16) Mrs. Thatcher’s religious views gave her “a set of principles, virtues, and attitudes which had direct relevance to her political life.” (23) The Second World War gave her an appreciation of Winston Churchill as a political leader, an appreciation so strong and respected that she refrained from quoting him because she did not want others to think she belonged in the same rank. His particular example served her well in the Falklands War in 1982.
After two failed efforts for election to parliament, Mrs. Thatcher finally won in 1959. Representing Finchley, she paid her dues and eventually became a member of Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet, later his education minister with election victory in 1970. With his downfall and the defeat of the Conservative Party in 1974, Mrs. Thatcher became the Leader of the Opposition. During this time she became known for her extraordinary hard work, her thorough preparation, her articulation of position and principles, and her self-education. Harris notes “What made Mrs. Thatcher’s parliamentary performances so noteworthy, however, was her mastery of detail, and her marshalling of facts and figures within a clear framework of argument.” (58) I myself can testify to this. As a college freshman on study abroad in London, my tutor encouraged me to go to the House of Commons and listen to the debates. I went many times. Mrs. Thatcher was electric in opposition. Prime Minister Harold Wilson would start on a subject, virtually any subject, and then the opposition would start screaming “Go get him Maggie!” She would wait until Wilson was most vulnerable, caught up in the paradoxes of his own arguments. Then she would rise up and dissect his position, pointing out the fallacies and weaknesses, astonished that anyone would believe him, and offering alternatives that featured less government, lower tax rates, and citizen empowerment. Yet, she was very respectful; sometimes hesitant (Harris talks about this). Her performances were literally breath-taking, as in I couldn’t breathe afterwards. It was exciting, shocking, and entertaining to hear those amazing speeches.
Harris makes much of her background in economics. Mrs. Thatcher studied chemistry in Oxford. Then she took up the law. She became a politician with a scientific mind, always looking at the data. She forced herself to learn an amazing amount of economics. Then she surrounded herself with brilliant, dynamic, and articulate economic thinkers, like Keith Joseph (who becomes a profoundly important and constant influential force). There is also some valuable discussion of the influence of Enoch Powell (see pages 66-68). This book makes a strong case for Mrs. Thatcher’s substantial depth of understanding in economics. Her speeches become more enlightening when viewed as economic arguments. Her views are consistent with, yet independent of, the Friedman/Reagan arguments on the American side of the Atlantic. There was much cross-pollination by thinkers on both sides of the ocean, as Harris documents. Yet Mrs. Thatcher’s views were home grown in Grantham, Oxford, and London.
In 1979, the General Election brought the Conservatives back to power and Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. Harris believes that Labour’s missteps made this possible. Labour’s bloated government, high rate of taxation, and economic mismanagement set the stage. But nothing pushed the British public to the right like the numerous strikes and widespread shortages during the so-called “Winter of Discontent.” Harris claims “If there had been no Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, there would have been no shift in public opinion in favour of the Tories. So, very possibly, there would have been no Tory Government, or, at best, one with a small majority, which strikes would have sooner or later have threatened. Margaret Thatcher was a lucky politician, and never more lucky than when the reckoning came before, or after, the election.” (148) Again, I can testify to this myself. During this time the British public was brutalized by union strikes and Labour acquiescence. The 1979 election was primarily about whether or not the unions would run the country without democratic accountability. Mrs. Thatcher became the democratic alternative.
Mrs. Thatcher proved to be the right politician for the times. She was principled and unwavering, constant in her views. That is surely an important part of her legacy. As Harris argues, “It is above all this remarkable consistency, not her sex or background, which makes her unique among modern prime ministers.” (159)
Harris shows the strategic thinking at each key moment. Mrs. Thatcher knew where she wanted to go. Like a battlefield commander she assesses the potential to each speech or each action in Parliament to get the UK closer to her vision. The calculations are incremental; the clear vision the target. Current governmental officials could use this part of the book as a primer in constructive leadership.
For me, the most remarkable part of Harris’s book was his recounting of the vicious back-stabbing within the cabinet. I knew about it from other books. Harris makes it real and personal. He shows that is was intense, self-defeating, and ultimately fatal. Loyalty was almost totally absent. I was surprised at the intrigue among those who owed Mrs. Thatcher for their prominence and political position. Ultimately, after winning three General Elections, Mrs. Thatcher was brought down by an unruly and callous set of cabinet colleagues. Evidently, this was her own explanation for her abrupt loss of party leadership and her resignation as Prime Minister. Harris makes other explanations, such as voter fatigue, secondary.
Harris is settling scores with this book. By doing so he may be setting the record straight. This is a fascinating book about one of the great leaders of the second half of the Twentieth Century, told by someone who was there and participating in the discussions and message construction. The result is a thought-provoking, sympathetic, and enjoyable book. We see Mrs. Thatcher in triumph and tragedy. We see the emotion toll, especially during betrayal or uncertainty. Harris was there. This book is so immediate that historians may view it as a primary source. The reader will feel that she or he has entered the inner sanctum of 10 Downing Street.