The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher. (1995). 615 pp.
Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs are contained in two volumes; The Downing Street Years (1993) cover her time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and this volume, though published second, largely covers her life prior to that point. The book starts off with her childhood and upbringing, her time at Oxford, and then very quickly moves into politics; she is elected to the House on page 100, less than a sixth of the way into the book.
This is very much a political autobiography; you won’t learn much about Thatcher’s personal life, hobbies, or interests. So don’t read this book unless you’re interested in British politics. If the terms three line whip and Hansard are unfamiliar to you, this book probably isn’t for you; the author doesn’t stop to explain these things and you’ll be frequently at a loss when she mentions red boxes or tells how she wondered whether it was constitutionally possible for Alex Douglas-Home to become Prime Minister.
Many will find the path that Thatcher took to power to be interesting. She never held any of the three principle offices or shadow offices (Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Minister, or Home Secretary) before becoming Tory leader in 1975. She was Education Minister in the Heath Government, and then shadowed various departments in opposition before deciding to oppose Heath for the party leadership. Throughout the book her disagreements with other Conservatives is a constant theme and she often critiques her colleagues who were less keen on market forces and more willing to engage in socialist policies. However, she rarely, if ever, has any criticism of herself which makes the book less interesting than it otherwise might be.
Some, especially those on the left, may be annoyed at the frequent sniping she does at Labour, almost as if the book were a political speech and not an autobiography. But she writes “of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show.” Most of the compliments she has for other Labour members are of the “he was a good speaker” variety. I am forced to wonder if this book would have turned out any differently if Thatcher hadn’t written it so soon after leaving office. Perhaps her analyses would have been different.
Something I found interesting was the view of British government from the inside—how the opposition and government are at each other all the time, how frontbenchers interact with backbenchers, how various politicians rise and fall. A disappointment that I had was that the book doesn’t really describe any of the debates and exchanges which happen in the House of Commons. Anyone familiar with Prime Minister’s Questions will understand my dissatisfaction at this omission. (Hint for those not in the know: debate in the British House of Commons is very different in tone that that on the floor of the U.S. Congress.)
Anyway, the last 140 pages or so cover her activities after leaving 10 Downing Street. In the final pages she becomes somewhat more reflective and also comments on how her early life experiences shaped her political and other views. Rest of the second part is only slightly autobiographical and tends to be more an exposition of her views on the European Union (she was skeptical or closer political integration), traditional values and the family (she was socially conservative on such issues), and the need to continue opposing socialism in all its guises. Those seeking more information on her foreign policy views should check out her more recent book Statecraft. Those wanting more on her views on social policy, fiscal policy, and how they interact should read The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher, which covers her entire time in politics.
To give you a bit more of the flavor of the book, here are some not necessarily representative quotations and fragments that I found interesting for one reason or another. The second one seems quite Randian to me.
Market forces operating within the right framework make for fairness, and … even beneficent state control only makes for equality. (228.)
All collectivism is always conducive to oppression: it is only the victims who differ. (406)
So many people and so many vested interests were by now significantly dependent on the state—for employment in the public sector, for Social Security benefits, for health care, education and housing—that economic freedom had begun to pose an almost unacceptable risk to their living standards. And, when that finally happened, political freedom—for example the freedom to join or not join a union or the freedom to have controversial views and still be entitled to teach in a state school or work in a government department—would be the next victim. (440)
The primary duty a free country owes, not just to itself but to countries which are unfree, is to survive. (365)
Youth cult of the 1960s whereby the young were regarded as a source of pure insight into the human condition. (186)
That one mortal sin in the eyes of mediocrities—he had shown “lack of judgment”, i.e. willingness to think for himself.
As indicated above, I would not recommend this book to most people, only those interested in politics and who have some background in British government. For those who are and who do, I would recommend this book. It has me interested in checking out it’s companion volume, The Downing Street Years.