David Cannadine’s Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy was initially (and solely) intended as an entry to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It was upon realizing the relatively vast length of the completed item—shorter only than the entries for William Shakespeare and Elizabeth I—that Oxford University Press published it as a stand-alone text.1 At 33,648 words, Cannadine offers a concise account of Margaret Thatcher’s life, understood in four broad stages: her early life, her political career pre-1979, her premiership, and the period after she left Downing Street. The perspective it offers will not be new to scholars of Thatcherism nor will it challenge their thinking; indeed, the approach taken and the ground covered make it more appropriate for a general readership. It offers breadth, not depth. Despite this, Cannadine’s biography is to be welcomed (and, considering the multiple positive reviews already published in the broadsheets, it has been). When Cannadine began writing about Thatcher’s legacy, he could not have known the extent to which his subject would have returned to the forefront of political discussions by the time of its publication. Over the past year and more, we have seen Thatcher’s influence discussed in relation to the UK’s decision to exit the European Union and the subsequent rise of its second female Prime Minister, Theresa May. Although Cannadine does not discuss these two debates (not least because they are ongoing) his biography is—by coincidence—more timely because of them. Nonetheless, sustained discussion of Thatcher’s influence on the development of Euroscepticism is noticeably absent, despite it being of clear significance even before the 2016 European Union referendum. Although Cannadine does refer to Thatcher’s criticism of ever closer union among European Economic Community (EEC) members—and her related regret over previously supporting Jacques Delores’ presidency of the European Commission (p. 89)—this does not do justice to the extent to which she shaped the development of Euroscepticism in the Conservative Party and the UK more widely. Without question the opening chapter of the biography, focusing on Thatcher’s early life, is the weakest. Readers are informed of the already well-established influence of Alfred Roberts, Thatcher’s father, on the development of her so-called Victorian values. Cannadine is right to trace Thatcher’s politics back to her early life, but he turns down the opportunity to highlight significant moments which are generally overlooked by Thatcher scholars. The influence of Robert Menzies, Australian Prime Minister and Liberal Party founder, is one such example. In Thatcher’s Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, given in 1981 at Monash University, she described listening to Menzies speak in London shortly after graduating from Oxford and his influence upon her. Most academic perspectives on the development of Thatcherism prioritize the more direct impact of Keith Joseph and Friedrich von Hayek on Thatcher’s thinking (and are right to do so). But Cannadine commits a section of his biography to Thatcher’s early life and fails to use it to say anything new or substantial. Ultimately, the chapter reads like a warm-up act for the biography’s subsequent chapters—and this need not have been the case. Throughout the biography, Cannadine highlights instances of civic nationalism (used interchangeably with ‘patriotism’) in Thatcher’s politics. This is something which other studies of Thatcher have overlooked, generally defining Thatcherism instead in predominantly economic terms. Cannadine rightly frames nationalism not just as a key aspect of Thatcher’s discourse but as a significant motivation for her actions. The book details Thatcher’s early commitment to a specific idea of Britishness informed by Winston Churchill and the Second World War. This commitment is sustained into later life, such as when, as Prime Minister, Thatcher sought to ‘make Britain great again […] but she had little idea of how to go about doing so’ (p. 34). Cannadine suggests that the Falklands War provided such an opportunity: in the aftermath of the conflict, Thatcher reinvented her image (and dramatically improved her popularity ratings) as well as the nation’s. Cannadine convincingly argues that it was then, not during her first term in office (1979–82), that what we now know as ‘Thatcherism’ was truly born. However, despite pointing to the importance of these instances of nationalist thought, Cannadine does not bring them together in a coherent manner. There is no sense that Cannadine sees these as a major part of Thatcher’s political philosophy; instead they are represented as discrete coincidences rather than related articulations of Thatcherite nationhood. The image of Thatcher used on the book’s cover is one in which she looks fragile and vulnerable. This portrait is at odds with the legacy and achievements which Cannadine describes. His is a fair assessment of a divisive figure, pointing out her personal achievements and flaws in equal measure. It is an enjoyable read which contains some interesting trivia, such as Thatcher’s place in (and attitude towards) the governments of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. In spite of this though, the biography features errors of various kinds, ranging from the misspelling of ‘the’ to giving the wrong date for the 3-day week, for which Cannadine alone is responsible. Overall Cannadine’s biography casts Thatcher as a political outsider who fought to become the dominant figure in an otherwise male-dominated sphere. Even after her death, he concludes, her image and ideas continue to influence British politics. The biography works well as an introductory text which offers a general sense of who Thatcher was and what she achieved. It is not by any means a unique contribution to the study of Thatcher—and those already working in this field should not expect to gain anything new from it. Footnotes 1A decision no doubt influenced by the fact that the entry’s author also edits the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB). © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jul 21, 2017
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