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Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins

20 July 2008

Another book that I found a bit tricky to review in full. I think I’ve managed to summarise most of what I wanted to say, but I’d be happy to elaborate in comments if there’s something it seems I’ve left out.

Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins

The coming year will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 General Election, called after Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost a vote of no-confidence — by one vote — on 28 March 1979. That election brought the Conservative Party back into power for the first time since 1974, and brought Margaret Thatcher into office as Britain’s first female prime minister. So much has changed since 1979 that it’s often difficult to pinpoint where and when those changes took place, which makes it equally difficult to fully study how those changes have shaped how we look at recent history. Political journalist Simon Jenkins (formerly of the Economist and the Times, now a Guardian columnist) has taken it upon himself to delve into this recent history and thoroughly examine Thatcherism, its theory and practice, and the permutations it has gone through in the years since the Lady was unceremoniously ousted from power in 1990.

In Thatcher and Sons, Jenkins identifies not just one, but two Thatcher ‘revolutions’: the first involving an ideological shift from the ‘commanding heights’ of a mostly socialist economy to wholesale privatisation, and the second involving a massive push to centralise the government’s control over more and more aspects of British life. As he looks into these revolutions, Jenkins traces the line from Thatcher through John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown, showing how Thatcher’s ‘sons’ have embraced (in varying ways, and with varying degrees of eagerness) the murky ideological underpinnings of Thatcherism. He also shows how Thatcherism has permeated the structure of Whitehall, especially in terms of the power that has built up in the Treasury in the past three decades. But most of all, he attempts to describe how the seemingly contradictory aims of privatisation and centralisation came together to drive the revolutions forward, in a manner that eventually made it difficult for their proponents to control.

At its strongest, Jenkins’ prose is clear and sharp and almost damning in its thoroughness, particularly in his overview of Tony Blair’s rise to power in the various Labour Party upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s. (For those who were too young to remember the specifics as it happened, or paid very little attention to Labour’s persistent navel-gazing in Foot-Kinnock-Smith years, the book is worth reading for this section alone.) He does his best to examine and weigh the merits of many commonly held beliefs about Thatcher and her successors, but there are times when his analysis misses the mark. To take one example, he criticises Thatcher’s insistence that she owed very little loyalty to the Tory establishment because, in her words, ‘They had fought me unscrupulously all the way‘. Jenkins hints, quite openly, that this attitude smacks of ingratitude. After all, didn’t she owe many of her rapid advances in the party to her position as that rare and wonderous bird, the female Tory MP? There’s more than a touch of chauvinism in that approach, as Thatcher herself might be first to claim. She was all too aware of the fact that her sex was both her greatest weapon and her greatest weakness, and it is hardly surprising that she should have felt insulted that her advance in the party often had less to do with her political or intellectual merits and more to do with the need to have some sort of token woman on the front bench. And with so much attention paid to the similarities between Thatcher and her ‘sons’, especially Thatcher and Blair, it seems odd that Jenkins should have trouble explaining some of their differences in opinion over points like European integration.

Jenkins concludes his book by declaring that the only possible means of countering the worst excesses of the Thatcher revolutions is to encourage a third revolution to strike back at Thatcherite overcentralisation: ‘localism’, by which he means a devolution of power and responsibility from Whitehall to strengthen the local government institutions that were either weakened or abolished by the Thatcher revolutions. Jenkins heaps praise on the strength of local government as it appears in the United States, particularly the town-hall meetings held in the New England states, as well as on the strength of local civic life in France and the Scandinavian countries. Yet there is something about this third revolution that fails to sound convincing, perhaps because it veers too close to an outright political manifesto at times. As the lessons of Thatcher and Sons indicate all too well, one more all-encompassing solution that is guaranteed to fix Britain’s economic and social ills might not be what the public wants or the country needs. As this kind of manifesto, the book falls rather short — but as a work of very recent political history, it is a useful point of reference.

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