Claire Berlinski sets the scene: “By the mid-1970s, Britain was widely regarded - choose your favorite cliche - as the Sick Man of Europe, an economic basket case, ungovernable…”
In 1978, the year before Margaret Thatcher came to power, “Britain, upon whose empire the sun never set, endured the Winter of Discontent. Labor unrest shut down public service, paralyzing the nation for months on end … Rubbish was piled high on the streets of Britain that winter, and so, at one point, were human corpses. The Soviet trade minister told his British counterpart, ‘We don’t want to increase our trade with you. Your goods are unreliable, you’re always on strike, you never deliver.’”
The ultimate insult, but well deserved.
Britain, apart from that strange alternative universe of Eastern Europe, was indeed Europe’s sick man. Margaret Thatcher had the cure. The illness was socialism, and to fight it she took a sledgehammer to the postwar jerry-built structure erected by the Labor Party with little Conservative opposition. From 1979 to 1990, she oversaw the privatizing of state-owned industries, reduced welfare and faced down the miners unions, thereby effectively ending widespread labor strikes.
At the center of her effectiveness and unyielding determination was a nearly religious detestation of all forms of Marxism: “In the mid-1980s,” Miss Berlinski writes, “the prime minister was urged … to receive a notorious Congolese communist at 10 Downing Street … she fixed him with an acid glare [and] introduced herself with these words: I hate communists.”
This hatred of Marxism grew from a bedrock belief that it is inherently sinful, a violation of the defining religious principle, as she once put it, “that the individual is an end to himself, a responsible moral being endowed with the ability to choose between good and evil.”
This, in large part, is why Margaret Thatcher matters. As a result of her anti-socialist crusade, Britain was restored to economic good health, setting an example for a world that had been drifting toward socialism. In a larger sense, along with President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, as described in John O’Sullivan’s splendid study, “The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World,” Margaret Thatcher contributed significantly to the ultimate collapse of communism
Finally, says Miss Berlinski, Margaret Thatcher “matters because she is a woman. She achieved things that no woman before her had achieved, and she did so in a remarkable fashion, simultaneously exploiting every politically useful aspect of her femininity and turning every conventional expectation of women upside down.”
“What was the source of her charisma?” Miss Berlinski asks the master of Balliol College, Andrew Graham, a man of the left. “Well,” he says, “I didn’t think this … but quite a lot of people - some men - found her quite sexy.” Francois Mitterrand, Miss Berlinski says, “called her Brigitte Bardot with Caligula’s eyes.” Charles Powell, a senior adviser from 1983 to 1990, tells Miss Berlinski: “She was always very conscious of being a woman. This was a tremendous part of her political personality, and she played it for what it was worth - which was a lot … and it was very sensible to do that - after all, there were enough strikes against her as a woman to justify making the most of the advantages of it.”
Geoffrey Howe, Mrs. Thatcher’s first chancellor, describes her after her 1979 election victory, arriving to address a meeting of Conservative members of Parliament: “She was flanked only by the all-male officers of the committee. Suddenly she looked very beautiful - and very frail, as the half-dozen knights of the shires towered over her. It was a moving, almost feudal occasion … this overwhelmingly male gathering dedicated themselves enthusiastically to the service of this remarkable woman.”
William F. Buckley Jr. (who, inexplicably, is not included in this book) on whose “Firing Line” show Mrs. Thatcher appeared twice, greeted her victory with an ebullient column titled “Margaret Is My Darling.”
It may be true that there is a unique advantage here - that an attractive, articulate, intelligent and single-minded woman with a political purpose has a natural advantage over her male counterparts, who frequently can be persuaded to behave - or speak - in ways they wouldn’t consider when dealing with other men.
A corollary of this might be that an attractive, articulate, intelligent and single-minded woman with a literary purpose - and a recorder - frequently can persuade old male adversaries of Margaret Thatcher - especially verbose old Laborite Neil Kinnock - to run on in ways they might later regret - but that readers of this fresh, original and extremely well-written book will greatly appreciate.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.