Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in three Acts (Allen Lane 2006)
Simon Jenkins is a clever, insightful and careful writer. I read this volume after the considerable publicity following the thirtieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s historic election in 1979. It was one of those books that I bought a few years ago following reading an enthusiastic review in a Sunday newspaper. I tried a couple of times to read it but without success. Sometimes you need to be in the right mood to read a particular book!
To my surprise I could hardly put this down. Lucid, well researched, sharp and witty judgements characterise the pace and course of the argument. What emerges is a picture of the murky, unpredictable and at times just sheer nasty business of politics.
The history of Britain for the last three decades have been dominated by one figure- Margaret Thatcher. Jenkins shows that the sheer force of her leadership over her cautious party transformed both the country and the nature of democratic leadership. There are many who admire the strength of her vision and the energy of her determination that turned the country around. Some are thankful of the liberation of the rich from high levels of taxation. Her triumph in the Falklands War gave her an international status that attracted the admiration of world leaders.
I remember the effects of her policies on the industrial north. The widespread attack on the traditional industries of the north east took the heart out of many communities including the one I was born and brought up in. I worked in Consett following the closure of the steel works in the mid 1980’s to discover a depressed and impoverished community deprived of hope and a future. To my surprise when I moved to Oxford I met a senior executive of British Steel who dismissed my concerns as liberal hand wringing – ‘one day you’ll understand that this decision was complete economic sense’ were his parting words to me.
Alas Jenkins fails to offer a balanced view of the Thatcher legacy. The polemic, though entertaining fails to offer any substantial wisdom to this reader. What I unrealistically need out of political analysis is the contextualisation of politics and personalities into a wider social and moral view how what people need in order for us to thrive.
This is only part of the thesis of this book. Behind Thatcher march three men – John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Jenkins argues that these three men are her sons – indeed that Blair is the most Thatcherite of the three, privatising far more relentlessly that Thatcher herself. We are led to believe that the Iron lady treated all these men, with varying degrees of conviction, as her heirs.
These three Prime Ministers have worked together across the traditional political tribalism of Britain to give us some kind of prosperity combined with a perplexing uncertainty ( brought to an astonishing head in the present economic downturn); offering us choice but leaving our society more divided and less equal; inflicting upon us a target driven culture overwhelmed by bureaucracy. In all this we have more spin and information combined with less substance in politics.
Jenkins reserves the sharpness of his pen for the centralisation of democracy. While Europe has succeeded in developing a local and empowered approach to governance we have set on an impossible desire to control from the centre. It is no wonder that we become disappointed with politics and politicians.
Whether the new compassionate Conservatism of David Cameron can deliver is form all this remains to be seen. In this book Jenkins establishes himself as a commentator of coherence and intelligence. His turn of phrase has the power to fill any writer with envy!