By White, Michael
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 138, No. 4938
Margaret Thatcher has been battered more and more, personally and politically, during the almost two decades since her vertiginous fall from power in late 1990. The hubristic collapse of the free-market model of capitalism that she promoted has dealt her another blow. Who was it who first removed the seat belts and airbags from the safe-but-boring Volvo that the west built after 1945?
But what about the lava flow of books written about her life and achievements: 150 of them, by some counts? How do they stand up to the passage of time? From the moment in 1975 when she unexpectedly overthrew Edward Heath as Tory leader and Russell Lewis knocked out a celebratory 164-page biography ("a rather superficial book", scolded Fritz Stern in Foreign Affairs), more has been written about Thatcher than about any British premier since Churchill.
It is not hard to see why: she was the first woman to lead a major western democracy (since then, only Angela Merkel has joined the list); the first neo-market evangelist to take significant office; the "first unashamed English nationalist to occupy Downing Street", as Hugo Young would later write; the first British leader to scold the Kremlin and go to war (against Argentina) in a long time. Love her or hate her, she was always good copy and she changed the political weather.
As the late Patrick Cosgrave, another early biographer, admiringly predicted in the revised edition of Margaret Thatcher: a Tory and Her Party, issued after her first election victory--3 May 1979--"whatever else happens, Margaret Thatcher's Britain will be a bracing and challenging place to live''. And so it proved.
Yet since Thatcher was overthrown in that party coup she has slipped from being one of the most sharply defined public figures in the world, hated and feted on all five continents, up there with Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, into a twilight haze where her reputation has become much more tentative.
All that may be about to change. The 30th anniversary of 3 May looms. As the former prime minister, now in need of full-time care, edges to wards her 84th birthday in October, the obits are being updated. The BB[C.sub.2] drama Margaret (see page 50), in which Lindsay Duncan's Thatcher is curiously sympathetic, is one such.
A few months older than the Queen, Thatcher is paying the price for a more stressful life. Retirement has been unkind, much as her friends knew it would be. John Campbell, another of her chroniclers, describes her as an "unemployed workaholic". As she lambasted the inadequacies of John Major, George H W Bush ("Don't go wobbly, George," she told the president during the first Gulf War) and pretty much everyone else, I recall likening her to Gloria "Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" Swanson in the closing reel of Sunset Boulevard. It was the movies, not her, that had become small.
Like so much else about her, the Thatcher bibliography is polarised. On the one hand, there have been committed writers such as Cosgrave (whose career as an adviser reputedly crashed after he vomited on her shoes when drunk) and Russell Lewis writing on the respectable side of the hagiographical territory occupied by Olga Maitland (1989) and Patricia Murray (1980). Lewis is still on the case. Barak Obama, he wrote recently, is "America's first socialist president", an oblique admission that Thatcher's mission to destroy the creed had not succeeded.
Then there are the foreigners, admiring Americans, German and French conservatives, wondering whether this "Ikone des Neokonservatismus" (they sometimes include a question mark) had anything to teach the exponents of European Christian Democracy. As time wore on and her Euroscepticism became more strident, they were inclined to think not.
Yet Thatcher's problem with her more substantial British biographers remains the obvious one. Journalists such as Young or Peter Jenkins, academics and very readable professional biographers such as Campbell, tend to be literary and intellectual liberals or lefties, the kind of people with whom Thatcher enjoyed a mutual disdain. …