The Iron Lady.
good and revolutionary things for England.
The Washington Monthly has long championed the cause of honest book reviewing. In particular it has mocked the practice of friends reviewing books by friends without revealing the connection. But reviewing by enemies, especially ideological enemies, can be just as corrupt. Paul Johnson, who writes the press column in the British Spectator, made this point in a recent article. Yet the most fantastically dishonest book review I have ever read, I think, appeared recently under this same man's byline in The Wall Street Journal. The victim was The Iron Lady,* a biography of Margaret Thatcher by Hugo Young, the political correspondent of The Guardian, Britain's leading liberal newspaper.
Johnson, a prominent British writer, is an extreme version of an American neoconservative. Extreme in the speed of his political conversion (he dashed the same distance across the political spectrum during a couple of years in the mid-1970s that the leading American neocons traversed in a couple of leisurely decades). Extreme also in his fanatical insistence that no decent person could hold views he himself held for most of his life. Johnson's review of The Iron Lady argued that the book is a typical example of left-wing snobbery toward Mrs. Thatcher by "those who consider themselves her social and intellectual equals." The danger of cultural snobbery among liberals is another favorite theme of The Washington Monthly. But Young's book is a poor illustration of the thesis since-as every other review has pointed out-the book (unlike the review) is scrupulously fair and, on balance, even reluctantly admiring.
Even in describing the Falklands adventure of which he is generally critical, Young writes, "Through the weeks of turbulence and political fear, Mrs. Thatcher behaved like the best kind of soldier. She was calm and ... clear-sighted." Young's most vicious thrust is reserved not for Thatcher but for her worst political enemy-who is not Labour leader Neil Kinnock but her Tory predecessor Edward Heath. |N~obody any longer cared what Heath had to say," Young writes about one of Heath's petulant speeches. "The fate he brought on himself was to be patronised and insulted from his own backbenches, by |real~ estate agents and car salesmen who were still at school when he was prime minister." You could read that line about "estate agents and car salesmen" as snobbish if you were determined to, though in context it is clearly mocking such snobbery.
Reagan's better half
One of the best parts of the book, in fact, is Young's own discussion of Thatcher's intellect and of intellectuals' attitudes towards her. "Of all postwar prime ministers," Young writes, "she both used intellectuals and exhibited a studied interest in political ideas to a greater extent than any other... Compared with |Harold~ Wilson she was an aesthete, compared with |James~ Callaghan a personification of the higher sensibilities." Callaghan and Wilson were her Labour predecessors.
Or, of more direct interest to American readers, what about this comparison? "Mrs. Thatcher had all the important qualities of a high-flying American business executive, being hard-working, singleminded., fascinated by detail and a swift master of every brief . . . . Reagan, by contrast, had most of the vices of a languid upper-class Englishman, of the type Mrs. Thatcher spent years trying to exclude from her cabinet."
Young's only note of intellectual mockery about thatcher is a comment that rather than read a novel, "She would as soon to to bed with a fat government report." Shades of Michael Dukakis taking Swedish Land-Use Planning to the beach. But hardly an example of left-wing intellectual snobbery.
Thatcher and Reagan were both enormously successful conservative politicians who dominated their societies during the 1980s. But the differences are crucial. To start, the Britain of 1970s really was a stultified, dispirited nation in decline, and it really was transformed during the 1980's. America, by contrast, grew faster in the 1970s than it did in the 1980s. The late 1970s certainly was a time of spiritual depression (or "malaise," as it was called) in the United States, but we never suffered the same degree of actual economic decay.
Advanced democracies seem to have two characteristic political problems. One is special-interest gridlock: the ability of organized groups to serve their own interests at the expense of the general interest. Of course interest-group members are members of society as a whole, too, and lose more from the gridlock than they gain from their specific group protection. This was the burden of Mancur Olson's influential book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. A second problem goes by the name of "short-term time horizons" or what Richard Darman cloyingly calls "now-nowism": an unwillingness by everone in society to sacrifice today for a payoff tomorrow.
America has suffered form both these problems. Britain was being destoyed by them. Reagan never addressed either one. Thatcher addressed both. In fact, she positively relished her role as disciplinarian. "The result of buying off trouble," she characteristically lectured, is "simply decline on the installment plan." Young identifies "good housekeeping. . . with its connotations of thrift, prudence, and balanced budgets" as one of the key values thatcher came to stand for in her own mind and the public's. Certainly that is a concept you do not associate with Ronald Reagan. And Thatcher actually has balanced the British government budget-turned in a surplus, in fact.
Thatcher is in trouble in the polls these days, and many say that the end is in sight. Her problems also provide an illuminating contrast with Reaga. One is her personality. As Young notes, despite three election victories and a good line in populist rhetoric, she has never been personally popular. After more than 10 years, what Young calls her "familiar role of Amazonian scourge and moralist" is getting tiresome to more and more of those who didn't find it grating all along. Reagan's damned amiability, by contrast, could smother even the most determined ideological opponent.
Thatcher's second problem is ideological hubris. What Young calls her "inspirational certainty" sometimes inspires her more than it inspires other and leads her to carry even her good ideas too far. It's what it might be like to have Charlie Peters running the government. For example, having decided that privatization is a Good Thing, and having successfully privatized various nationalized industries such as steel, British Airways, and the telephone company, she is now busy privatizing the water system.
The hallmark of the Reagan administration was not ideological hubris but ideological hypocrisy. Reagan never let conservative zeal stand in the way of his popularity. He convinced the voters they were against "liberalism" and "big government" but didn't actually cut any government program that served the broad middle class. Whereas Thatcher might read a radical proposal from some think tank and then actually propose legislation to implement it, there was little danger that Reagan would ever do either of those things.
Thatcher's greater commitment to ideological principle is ironic since, as Young points out, she came to politics with little more than vague ambition and found her principles thereafter. Reagan's history is the opposite. But when Thatcher found her principles, she stuck to them. That's why, for people who don't share most of those principles-like Hugo Young and most readers of this magazine-reluctant admiration is just the right atitude to have.