Like many politicians on this side of the Atlantic. Margaret Thatcher made herself out to be the nobody that she wasn't when she ran for the premiership of Britain.
Just as Jimmy Carter fostered the image that he was a poor farm lad and not the heir to rural gentry, in an effort to identify himself with grass-roots America, so Thatcher tried to create an image of herself as a disadvantaged provincial girl in order to dissipate the stuffy odor of privilege that surrounds her Tory party. She got where she was, she said, simply through hard work -- and nothing else, especially not the use of her sex. "What I have and where I am is the result of continuous effort and the courage to take the first step," she said.
That Thatcher was not privileged in her early life and that her sex was not an asset in a country full of sexist stuffed-shirts is a lot of baloney, and there is plenty of evidence for this in Allan J. Mayer's well-written, fastmoving biogrpahy. The book shows that, although there was nothing luxurious about Margaret Roberts' upbringing, there was enough cash and comfort to set her up nicely to be an MP -- if not PM. Moreover on the way to the top, she encountered several fairy godmothers, if not godfathers, to help turn her political pumpkin into the state limousine that carried her to No. 10 Downing St. last May.
Consider the facts. While it is true that she is the daughter of a shopkeeper from a market town in the north of England, it is true that Thatcher's father was something of a local mogul. Alfred Roberts spent 25 years of his life on the town council (an elective office), become chairman of the finance committee and, finally, the town's mayor.
Margaret Thatcher, arriving at Oxford, was thus already used to rubbing shoulders with the professional classes at mayoral functions, and she moved effortlessly into the more rarefied atmosphere of the university's Tory club. Two early campaigns to get into Parliament were unsuccessful, but during a break from the hustings she met Denis Thatcher, the wealthy owner of a family paint business. The day they married, the new Mrs. Thatcher became not just "quite well-off by British standards," as Mayer puts it, but dead rich. (Denis sold his company to Burmah Oil in 1965 for the equivalent of $1.5 million.)
Her husband's wealth provided her with a freedom of movement that other poorer women could not afford. It also gave her the opportunity to make a number of simplistic assertions about the role of women in society: whether a woman can cope with having a career and being a mother "depends on the kind of woman you are," was one such nonsense.
Mayer is quick to point out the flaws in such equations, but he is less sure of himself when it comes to the reasons for Thatcher's remarkable ousting of Ted Heath for the leadership of the Tory party. A key question is, of course, how much her sex helped her and, admittedly, it is a difficult one to answer. A London political reporter told me recently that he gets on well with the prime minister because she likes him flirting with her. But phlegmatic Tory cabinet members don't readily offer that kind of information.
Mayer avoids the question. For example, in 1961, after two years in the House of Commons, Thatcher was brought onto the Tory front benches as a junior minister. "It is not precisely clear why she was promoted so soon," writes Mayer. "Most likely it was because she was a woman. Both parties liked (and still do) to have a few women scattered through their front benches and she was replacing one who was dropped."
Again, in 1967, when Thatcher was brought into the full shadow cabinet for the first time, Mayer's story leaves the reader wanting to know more. "The reasons for her rapid rise during this period are not immediately discernible," he writes. Then he quotes a Tory journalist as saying that Thatcher might be regarded as the "Evita of the Troy Party"; that she moved up the ladder so quickely "not despite but because of her sex. . .it was not so much her own birlliance as the chronic shortage of Conservative women MPs that insured her rapid promotion." Mayer does not linger to evalute the statement. Instead he goes straight on, "Whatever the reasons. . ." Well, was she a token female or not?
Finally, Mayer, a master of news-magazinese, sprinkles the unfolding election drama with so many minutiae that the reader is left wishing he knew less about what Thatcher had for breakfast, the make of her car, what she wore when the queen opened Parliament (and, indeed, what the queen was wearing) and more about the truly alarming feature of Thatcher's personality: she is so incredibly self-assured that she can still believe she got where she is by courage and effort alone. Basically, she beat Heath because other contenders dropped out and she beat Callaghan because Britons were fed up with the Labor Party and his leadership of it.
Unfortunately, this route is never fully explored.
It is timing of the book that, in the end, limits its value. It closes three months after Thatcher took office as prime minister, and the real stuff of Thatcherism is happening only now with the beginning of her confrontation with the unions. Mayer himself admits, near the end of the book: "What made her truly significant and worthy of the worldwide attention she received was not the fact that she was a women -- though that certainly made her interesting -- but that she was determined to succeed where both Churchill and Heath had failed [and] reverse the apparently inexorable process that for the previous three decades had been transforming Britain into an increasingly socialist state. . . . " For the result of that crusade, we will have to wait. In the interim, students of Thatcherism have a basic primer -- although they will moan and groan over the fact that there are no notes no bibliography and not even an index.