The clock is counting down in England. Brexit (the exit of Britain from the European Union) is set to officially begin at 11 p.m. on Friday, 29 March 2019. Theresa May, Britain’s second female Prime Minister and the Conservative Party’s representative, is at the helm of this departure. There is a realistic fear that Brexit will drastically alter the political, social, and economic landscape of Britain. It may, advertently or inadvertently, send a number of messages to European allies and the populace of Britain—Britain as a superior nation, or a palpable desire to alter the current socially progressive identity that unites Britain to continental Europe in favor of a more traditional perspective. These possibilities may seem far-fetched given the discussion of successors if May is asked to step down, and given May’s own ideology. However, a number of factors make this situation intriguing. Even though the decision to exit the European Union has created political, social, and economic conflicts, this is nothing new for the small yet formidable country. Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013), England’s first female Prime Minister (1979–90), dealt with similar scrutiny amid a rash of issues facing twentieth-century Britain. Perhaps it is serendipitous that Meredith Veldman’s biography of Thatcher has been added to the field of study. What better way to understand the UK’s current dilemma than to study similar circumstances from nearly fifty years ago with the meteoric rise of Britain’s first female PM.
The relationship between British progressives and conservatives is well documented. After World War II, Britain attempted to recuperate some semblance of normalcy through the tenets of social democracy. In short, hope rested on a drastically different postwar society that would mend a war-torn nation. The redesign of British society focused on the government’s increased role in the assurance of full employment, an array of welfare services, and health care. The Conservative Party under Churchill was hesitant towards the implementation of social democracy (favored by the progressive Labour Party); they lost their position and the power struggle over British identity began. For the next thirty years, the Labour Party and Conservative Party traded Prime Ministers, at times accepting one another’s reforms, but the relationship remained tenuous based on the social and economic realities of the country. Veldman approaches the life of Margaret Thatcher through two parallel biographies—Thatcher’s personal biography and Britain’s social biography. She masterfully describes how one directly informed the other, especially as Thatcher moved from being influenced by national issues to influencing the direction of the nation.
The purpose of the biography is commissioned by a thematic series—“The World in a Life.” History is a narrative of people, not necessarily ideologies or ancillary factors. This series commits to the focus on the complex activity of key individuals as they dealt with extraordinary circumstances in their private and public lives. The structure of the biography is meant to trace the complexity of private and public life as history unfolds. The telling of history from the study of “great people” is often overlooked in current discourse for the more in-vogue perspectives of ideology, race, gender, and ethnicity. Veldman’s solid reputation is on display as she crafts a biography focused on Thatcher, yet provides insight into the realities of Britain and Europe during the period as well.
The narrative is provocative without chastising; informative, but not seduced by the charisma of the subject of study and the strong political identities involved. Veldman does not let Thatcher’s legacy trade on the novelty of being the first female PM, but treats the subject as any other PM dealing with tectonic shifts in cultural identity within a country that has historically looked to its government and leadership to usher in new ideology—one of success and failure. In Thatcher’s revival of Conservatism into what Veldman and others have deemed “New Conservatism,” the biographical information points out the Iron Lady’s benevolent character as well as her heavy-handedness. Thatcher’s desire for what was right for Britain did not always reflect the majority opinion of the populace and yet she pushed her agenda through, for better or for worse. Veldman’s explanation of Thatcher’s life allows the reader access to information not privy to those who lived during the period under study.
Veldman structures the book in order to provide parallels to the formation of Thatcher’s “New Conservatism.” The political, economic, and social history of postwar Britain is complicated. Veldman’s organization simplifies the relationships between these three governing factors, so Thatcher’s role is clearly defined in how she was formed by the proceedings to her eventual formation of said factors. The book begins by setting the tumultuous stage of postwar Britain and its “Social Democratic Consensus.” Through the chapter “In the Middle, Yet on the Edge: 1925–1947,” Veldman explains Thatcher’s unique “middle” disposition (political, economic, social, geographical) that led to the surprising success of a blue-collar, female, conservative growing up in the Midlands. Despite Britain’s socially progressive mentality, there were still a few traditional attitudes that remained—most notably gender roles. Thatcher was able to maneuver within the stark realities of British society. Veldman focuses more on what formed Thatcher in relation to her eventual “New Conservatism,” saying: “But the fact remains that during her most formative adolescent years, Margaret experienced the state as an all-powerful, intrusive, frequently overweening force.” The strong work ethic, no doubt passed on by her father, led to the reliance on her own gumption—something that would take her through Oxford and on to a career in politics with the hope of changing the dynamic between the State and citizen.
Chapters three and four establish the fortitude of the Iron Lady. She labored first as a laboratory researcher during unsuccessful campaigns for a parliament seat on the Conservative ticket in the strictly Labour town of Dartford. One of many examples provided by Veldman, it shows how put off many Brits were by the idea of a hard-working young single woman. Set against the background of the Age of Affluence and other drastic societal shifts, the private and public life of Thatcher is chronicled to show the symbiotic impact of one on the other. For roughly thirty years she clawed her way to the top of the Conservative Party. The strength of Veldman’s research and writing lies in how she presents the subject matter. She positions Thatcher squarely amid a series of events unfolding, rather than a hindsight view justifying the eventual outcome. This methodology showcases the complexity of British society along with its Iron Lady.
The next three chapters focus on Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister. It is not a list of accomplishments and accolades, but a truthful and vulnerable look at the British social dynamics as evidenced by its leader. Veldman organizes Thatcher’s time at 10 Downing Street into three categories: faltering start (1979–83); triumph (1984–87); defeat (1987–90). In each chapter the biography of British society and Thatcher share the spotlight. Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister was eventful, to say the least. She slowly instituted conservative policies in both domestic (welfare and healthcare reform) and foreign (Cold War and European Community) policy. Veldman does not simply champion Thatcher’s decisions, nor does she merely report cause and effect. She points out Thatcher’s dichotomous tendencies as well (e.g., desire for small government, but increased central government; pro-Americanism and anti-Europeanism). Some would fault Veldman on the grounds of pronouncing judgment on conservatism or overstepping the historian’s role, but the writing is in no way egregious or polemic.
The final chapter, “The Victory of Thatcherism,” is particularly intriguing given the current issue of Brexit. Veldman presents the possibility that despite Thatcher’s defeat as her party’s candidate in 1990, her chosen successor John Major and subsequent Labour and Conservative Party Prime Ministers continued the policies (or variations thereof) of the Thatcher Revolution. They shaped new policies and reshaped existing policies, but Veldman describes the presence of the invisible hand of Thatcher’s Revolution. Is Brexit part of the Thatcher Revolution due to her vocal concern for the EC/EU and the idea of European superstate? Current Prime Minister Theresa May has openly discussed breaking away from Thatcherism (particularly from right-wing, free-market capitalism). But what message does May send through Brexit? In any case, Margaret Thatcher was not a typical politician and Veldman’s biography suggests that Thatcher’s private and public life has had a lasting effect, even posthumously, on Britain.
Chris Butynskyi holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from Faulkner University’s Great Books program and is a Lecturer in the History Department at Eastern University.