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Monday, May 6, 2013

“The Downing Street Years”, by Margaret Thatcher

912 pages, HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN-13: 978-0060170561

This first volume of memoirs by the late Margaret Thatcher frankly recalls the former British prime minister's dealings with U.S. presidents, the Falkland War, and her election victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. She also details the back-stabbing and eye-gouging that the British call politics. It may be a little less corrupt than politics in some other countries I could name, but it sure ain't an arena for the faint of heart! There were never any gray areas with Thatcher: the British either worshiped the ground she walked on, or detested her every word. There was nothing in the middle, because Thatcher was not given to taken the middle course. “There's nothing I like more than a lively discussion”, she would say (what she meant, of course, was that she loved a damn good argument!) This first part of her autobiography is as outspoken as she was: she pulls no punches, and her unequivocal opinions about world events she participated in and world leaders she encountered leave you wondering how she survived eleven years as Britain's Prime Minister. But would we expect anything else from Thatcher as she explains and defends her controversial policies, which caused the dismemberment of socialism and Britain's resurgence as a world power after many years of liberal misrule.

Mrs. Thatcher's memoirs of her decade-plus as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom are a very illuminating look at the 1980s, which were perhaps the most critical decade for Britain – and the rest of the Western world – since the Second World War. This is a massive, 800-plus page tome. But if you're interested in recent British history, or in the 1980s or the late Cold War, this book will reward your time and effort. Mrs. Thatcher may have been controversial: loved by many and hated by nearly as many, but one thing you can't accuse her of is failure to lead.

All of the important events of her tenure as PM are covered. Some of it is tedious (such as minute details about tax policies, for example, although these do, however, illustrate Mrs. Thatcher's impressive ability to understand the complexities of important issues). But the wonderful thing about this book is that it's organized simultaneously chronologically and topically. I particularly liked the parts dealing with the Falkland Islands War and those dealing with the Cold War. In the case of the former, I've read several military accounts of the conflict, but Mrs. Thatcher's detailed chronicling of the diplomatic aspects added greatly to my understanding of it. It was amazing how much the US, in the form of Secretary of State Al Haig, meddled in it to try to achieve “compromise”, despite the fact that Argentina was clearly the aggressor.

The parts on the last phases of the Cold War were the strongest parts of the book. It's neat to get an insider's account of all the personalities and the diplomatic wrangling. Mrs. Thatcher was the Churchill of her time – she was instrumental in using real leadership skills to help hold together an alliance against aggressive dictatorships. The combination of her leadership with that of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the first Soviet leader who seemed to genuinely have good intentions, despite his continuing belief in communism, was a major factor in bringing about the end of the Cold War. I believe that as time goes by, Mrs. Thatcher will only be more vindicated, both for her contributions to the West's Cold War victory, and for starting the process of revitalizing Britain.

Yes, this book is biased and one-sided; Mrs. Thatcher, atypically for a European leader, speaks (and writes) in a very straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is, here's-what-I-think-and-why-I'm-right fashion (she almost seems like an American, with a habit like that!) But remember, these are memoirs. Memoirs, especially by former political leaders, are ALWAYS biased; they're not meant to be objective. Instead, they're meant to be one person's account, one person's case. If you keep that in mind, this is a very good book – huge and dense, perhaps, but worth the effort if the subject matter interests you.

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