There Is No Alternative

Why Margaret Thatcher Matters


By Claire Berlinski

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Great Britain in the 1970s appeared to be in terminal decline — ungovernable, an economic train wreck, and rapidly headed for global irrelevance. Three decades later, it is the richest and most influential country in Europe, and Margaret Thatcher is the reason. The preternaturally determined Thatcher rose from nothing, seized control of Britain’s Conservative party, and took a sledgehammer to the nation’s postwar socialist consensus. She proved that socialism could be reversed, inspiring a global free-market revolution. Simultaneously exploiting every politically useful aspect of her femininity and defying every conventional expectation of women in power, Thatcher crushed her enemies with a calculated ruthlessness that stunned the British public and without doubt caused immense collateral damage.

Ultimately, however, Claire Berlinski agrees with Thatcher: There was no alternative. Berlinski explains what Thatcher did, why it matters, and how she got away with it in this vivid and immensely readable portrait of one of the towering figures of the twentieth century.



Boudicea, with her daughters before her in a chariot, went up to tribe after tribe, protesting that it was indeed usual for Britons to fight under the leadership of women. "But now," she said, "it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman's resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves."

Thanks to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation—to whom every scholar of Thatcher is indebted—much of the archival material to which I refer in this book is now online. Many of the speeches and interviews I describe are on You Tube. Where possible, I have tried to guide the reader to original documents, video clips, audio files, and photographs on the Internet. On my Web site,, you may listen to samples of my interviews with Thatcher's friends and enemies. I encourage the reader to think of this as a multimedia book and to treat my notes as hyper-links. This is why I have used footnotes, not endnotes. I don't want to hunt and rifle through endnotes while I'm reading. I don't know why anyone else would.
The use of ellipses in quoted text indicates that I have shortened a quotation, but readers who wish to consult my unedited interviews will be able to do so. Following the paperback publication of this book, I will donate my recordings and transcripts to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. I will also give them to the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, where they will join the Thatcher Papers.
For consistency, I have changed British to American spelling, even when quoting British source material, although I have not changed proper names (such as the "British Labour Party"). For brevity, and because British honorifics are generally meaningless to Americans, I have mostly eschewed them—I refer, for example, to "Thatcher" rather than "Lady Thatcher," or "Baroness Thatcher" as she has in turn been titled. I mean no disrespect by this, only warm American informality and an eagerness to get straight to the point.

This is not a conventional biography of Margaret Thatcher. I do not chronicle her life from cradle to coffin. Nor is this an insider's memoir. Although I lived in Britain during the latter half of the Thatcher era, I did not know her and have not met her. I have created my portrait of her from biographies, from archival documents, and above all from speaking to people who did know her.
She is one of the most controversial figures of the second half of the twentieth century—worshipped, loathed, feted, mocked, her significance alternately exaggerated beyond reason and scornfully dismissed, sometimes by the same person in the same sentence. Everyone connected to her, it seems, has his or her own vividly imagined and almost supernatural Margaret Thatcher. No two Thatchers are exactly alike. I emphasize in this book the divergence of views about her rather than the similarities. I also emphasize the historiographical challenges of judging her impact upon Britain and the world. I do this not to advance an obscure post-modern thesis, but to illustrate the complexity of her personality and legacy.
My own view? I find her fascinating. I believe she was enormously significant. In fact, I believe she changed the world, and mostly for the better. I am nonetheless skeptical of some of the more hagiographic claims made on her behalf. But if this book is not a single-minded defense of Thatcher, this is in part because there is no need for one. She was, after all—far more than most people—exceptionally capable of defending herself. She has done so very ably in her autobiography. When she passes, the army of her devout will carry the torch and will need no help from me.
My aim instead has been to offer a portrait, seen through a prism, of an extraordinary personality and towering historical figure—a woman whose influence extends far beyond Great Britain and far beyond her moment in power.
I have also attempted to answer two questions. How do some people become larger than life?
And why, in particular, did she?

The Shrine of Mother Margaret
Daily Telegraph
July 27, 2007
WASHINGTON—Republican presidential candidates are flocking to see Britain's icon of conservatism, Margaret Thatcher, in the hope that her blessing could help to secure them the presidency.
Rudy Giuliani, the Republican front runner, will become the latest 2008 candidate to kiss the former prime minister's hand when he travels to London in September to deliver the inaugural Margaret Thatcher memorial lecture to the Atlantic Bridge think tank. He follows in the footsteps of Fred Thompson, poised to announce his presidential run and already running second in the polls, and Mitt Romney, ahead in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mr. Thompson, a former senator and Hollywood actor, dropped in on her in London last month, saying he wanted "to remind her of America's affection for her and pay our respects." Mr. Romney took the opportunity to burnish his conservative credentials with a Lady Thatcher audience last fall. It is Mr. Giuliani, however, who is perhaps best placed to capitalize on nostalgia in America for Lady Thatcher and her close friendship with Ronald Reagan, who is still lauded for winning the Cold War and restoring hope and confidence in the country.
Several weeks before the article above was published, I too was in London, chatting with Sir Bernard Ingham about his memories of Margaret Thatcher. Sir Bernard spent the years from 1979 to 1990—almost all of her time in power—as her chief press secretary at 10 Downing Street. He saw everything.
I joined him for coffee at the Institute of Directors on Pall Mall, a street of elite gentlemen's clubs in the heart of London. Most of these clubs now admit women, but this is a recent development. Nearby, the archly Tory Carlton Club maintains its traditional gentlemen-only policy. Its members were in an awkward position when Margaret Thatcher was elected, for London's preeminent Conservative club could hardly exclude a Conservative prime minister, but conservatives—in the technical sense of the word—couldn't rush about changing things with every passing fad. At last they settled upon a solution. They declared her an honorary gentleman.
The Institute of Directors is a grand, flag-waving London landmark. Its marmoreal Doric and Corinthian columns sprout arrisbeads of laurel leaves; gas-flambeaux lamps line up like solemn soldiers along its stone balustrades. These days, the members of the club are, as its name suggests, captains of industry, but the Institute was once the United Services Club, and its membership, according to Dickens's Dictionary of London, was restricted to "officers not under the rank of commander in the navy, or major in the army." Inside, the marble busts of long-forgotten noblemen commune quietly with oil portraits of their long-forgotten friends, reminiscing about the Crimean War, appalled by the sight of businessmen scuttling about the club with their ghastly cell phones, looking as if they'd have no idea which end of the rifle to shoot from.
Sir Bernard and I are sitting in the Morning Room, where we chat for a while about Britain before Thatcher ("totally shabby") and the privatization of British industries ("astonishingly successful"). He is a bluff, meat-featured man who becomes passionately exercised at the thought of the British Left—"a nasty, scheming lot, crawling out of their holes in the grrrrrrround!"—and when he says this his voice booms and his brandy jowls shake and his Rs rrrrrrroll in the manner of a Yorkshire clergyman on the pulpit. He was and is Thatcher's devoutly loyal friend. But he hardly strives to conceal the degree of her current infirmity.
Bernard Ingham: Her memory is so unreliable now—[Waiter interrupts]
Waiter: There we are, Sir!
BI: Thank you very much. I mean, she doesn't have a short-term memory anymore!
CB: Is that so? Because I've heard conflicting accounts of this—
BI : No, she doesn't.
CB: That's very sad.
BI: Yes. [To waiter] Thank you. Do you take milk or not?
CB: I do. Thank you. I suppose that's why she doesn't give interviews . . . she's really not—
BI : She's not up to it.
CB: I had heard from, I don't know if you know Ambassador Middendorf,1 who was a friend of hers, the American ambassador to Belgium during her time in power; he spoke to her last year and reported that she was in wonderful form, so I had hoped that perhaps the reports of her incapacity were exaggerated, but I guess—
BI : Well, she can be in wonderful form, if you only have her for five minutes! HAH! HAH! HAH!
I believe Sir Bernard. He has no reason to exaggerate. Others who visit her regularly told me the same, in so many words. When I called her office at the House of Lords to see if it might be possible to meet her, her secretary politely told me I shouldn't even dream of it.
Thatcher has now had several strokes. On good days, say her oldest friends, she remembers who they are. Sir Bernard visits her faithfully, and when he does he pretends to brief her on the issues of the moment, the way he used to when she was the most powerful woman in the world. She enjoys this but often can't remember how the conversation began.
Given this, you have to ask: What could Rudy Giuliani hope to gain from a discussion with her? I have been told that she does at least recognize Giuliani, but I can only imagine that her response to the sight of Fred Thompson would be mystification. Was he accompanied by his spectacular young wife, the one who is always photographed in plunging décolletage? Thompson used to be an actor, like Thatcher's great friend Ronald Reagan. Perhaps he mentioned this to her, hoping to suggest that he, like Reagan, could readily slip into the role of leader of the Free World. I cannot imagine he got very far. Thatcher, said the satirists, stood for a Britain that was "proud, profitable and ever so prim." Whatever one may think about Nancy Reagan, she did not inspire jokes about pole dancing.
No, I doubt these meetings are greatly edifying to any party concerned. So why are they taking place? Why do the most ambitious men in America traverse the ocean to kiss her hand? Why is it she who grants them an audience? Why is her answer to the question Who, in your opinion, should lead the most powerful nation in the world? not only important to Americans, but somehow sanctified in a way no other living person's could be?
Why has Margaret Thatcher become a living shrine?
The answer to this question has three parts.
First, Margaret Thatcher was one of the most vigorous, determined, and successful enemies of socialism the world has known.
There are as many species of socialism as there are species of insects, and Thatcher loathed them all. I use the word "socialism" here as a shorthand for a system of government in which property is largely owned or controlled by the state, rather than by individual citizens, and in which wealth is redistributed to create a more egalitarian society. Equality is the ideal, coerced redistribution the means, the state the agent. I also use the word "socialism" to compass both weak and extreme versions of this system. Britain before Thatcher was a weakly socialist nation in that many of its major industries and utilities were nationalized and rates of taxation high—and by "high" I mean really high, with top rates of 98 percent—but most private property rights remained. In the Soviet Union, almost no private property rights remained. I use the word "communism" to refer to the latter system, which I classify as a species of socialism.2
It is almost hard to remember now, but it must be remembered that when Thatcher came to power, in 1979, socialism, communism, and doctrinal Marxism were still taken extremely seriously, not only in the Eastern bloc but in much of the West and the developing world. The Soviet Union presided over a vast, miserable, subjugated empire. The 1970s had been a banner decade for international communism: In Southeast Asia, communist regimes had seized Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam; pro-Soviet factions had captured Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Grenada, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and South Yemen. Spain and Portugal were lurching leftward.
Britain's Labour Party, which since the inter-war period had either been in power or been by far the largest party in opposition, remained committed to Clause 4 of its constitution:
4. To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
I repeat: common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Although these words were written in 1918, they are not ancient history. Clause 4 was not abandoned until 1995, two years before Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair took power. Unless you are still in elementary school, you were alive when this was the official platform of what is now Britain's ruling party.
The final decade of the twentieth century was marked by a dramatic, global disenchantment with Marxist theory and experiments. This disenchantment had many causes, not least among them the poverty of the theory and the failure of the experiments, but Thatcher's anti-socialist revolution in Britain, combined with the impact of her personality on the international stage, contributed to it significantly. By setting a domestic example of socialism reversed, she proved a point: The forces of history did not inevitably lead to socialism, as Marx had predicted, nor was it true that once socialism arrived, there could be no going back. She thus prompted observers around the world to ask a crucial question: Why must we have socialism? After all, Britain got rid of it.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. The Warsaw Pact countries adopted broadly capitalist forms of government. By the end of the 1980s, more than fifty countries on every inhabited continent—Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Turkey—had set in motion privatization programs. Countries that remained nominally committed to socialism, such as China and Vietnam, discreetly reduced their public sector. Even the United States took its cues from Thatcher, embarking on schemes to denationalize public monopolies. In 2001, Peter Mandelson, a Labour MP closely associated with Tony Blair, famously said, "We are all Thatcherites now." The current Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, once her sworn enemy, has recently decided that in fact he is a politician in her mold.3
Thatcher's role in the great disenchantment was not limited to setting an example in Britain and encouraging others to follow suit. What she managed to do, more effectively than any other politician in history—including Ronald Reagan—was convey a very particular message about socialism. It was not only that socialism was an economically inefficient way to organize human societies. It was not only that communist regimes had in the twentieth century drenched the world in blood. It was that socialism itself—in all its incarnations, wherever and however it was applied—was morally corrupting. Socialism turned good citizens into bad ones; it turned strong nations into weak ones; it promoted vice and discouraged virtue; and even when it did not lead directly to the Gulags, it transformed formerly hardworking and self-reliant men and women into whining, weak and flabby loafers. Socialism was not a fine idea that had been misapplied; it was an inherently wicked idea. This was Thatcher's signal contribution to the debate. It was a point she emphasized again and again: "In the end, the real case against socialism is not its economic inefficiency, though on all sides there is evidence of that. Much more fundamental is its basic immorality."4
Now, this point had been made before and made by many. Of course it had. It has its intellectual origins in classical liberalism; among political philosophers it was most famously expressed by Friedrich von Hayek. But it had never before been made by a politician with Thatcher's skill at conveying this aspect of the case against socialism or by a politician with her dramatic presence and magnetism. Nor had it been made by a politician who was not American and whose message was not therefore inextricably conflated with what many imagined to be the American imperial project. Nor had it been made—most importantly—by a politician with her ability to project something unique onto the world stage: a radiant aura of unswerving moral certainty. Reagan shared her convictions about socialism, of course, and led a vastly more powerful nation. But Reagan's was a relaxed and genial personality; hers was an intense and wrathful one. He was thus unable to convey something she conveyed in full: a scorn and fury of Old Testament proportions with socialism and the moral corruption it wrought.
How much precisely did she contribute to the world's disenchantment with socialism? The answer to this question cannot be quantified, but roughly speaking, a lot. In doing so she affected the lives of billions, literally billions, of men and women.
Second, she matters because she is widely perceived to have reversed the terminal decline of Britain. To understand the significance of this claim, it is necessary first to grasp what Britain once was: the rump of the greatest empire in history, the cradle of capitalism (in Max Weber's phrase), and from roughly 1815 to 1870 the world's only industrialized power. In 1870, Britain produced nearly a third of the globe's industrial output. In the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm,
An entire world economy was thus built on, or rather around, Britain, and this country therefore temporarily rose to a position of global influence and power unparalleled by any state of its relative size before or since, and unlikely to be paralleled by any state in the foreseeable future.5
He is, by the way, not celebrating these circumstances; Hobsbawm is the world's greatest living Marxist historian, an unrepentant communist to this day. But about this he is quite right. Even America's dominance at the end of the Cold War pales by comparison. At the height of the Pax Britannica, a quarter of the world's population and land mass were under British rule. Let us not concern ourselves with the debate over whether this is a fact to be celebrated or lamented; important as this question may be, it is immaterial to the argument. The point is that for good or ill, Britain was by far the most powerful and influential nation on the globe. It was the world's undisputed premier naval power; it controlled the world's raw materials and markets; it had long been the world's leading scientific and intellectual power; it was the financial center of the world and the premier merchant carrier; it had invented the Common Law; it had invented modern parliamentary democracy. This list could be extended for pages; suffice to say that for most of the nineteenth century, Britain excelled its fellow nation-states in virtually every category of economic, military, and political endeavor.
Although the process of decline was in evidence by the beginning of the twentieth century, until the close of the Second World War it could fairly be said that if Britain was no longer the greatest power on earth, it was at least a pivotal one. But in 1945, bankrupt, bled white, and exhausted after fighting two world wars, Britain retreated into itself. Undefeated by Hitler, Churchill was defeated in Britain. Clement Attlee, an earnest socialist who promised to reward the nation for its sacrifices by building in Britain a New Jerusalem, won the 1945 general election. His Labour government was by no means one of Bolshevik extremism, but it nonetheless radically changed the character of Britain, nationalizing major industries and public utilities and introducing both the welfare state and the culture to which such a state gives rise. This transformation—known as the postwar consensus—was accepted by Britain's Conservative Party and remained unchallenged until Thatcher's ascendancy.
Britain retreated from the world stage. The United States and the Soviet Union now dominated the world. The Empire commenced inexorably to dissolve. In 1956, the humiliation at Suez made it clear that Britain was no longer even a great power, no less a superpower. It is not an accident that British literature of this century is known for such titles as Decline and Fall, not Rise and Shine.
By the mid-1970s, Britain was widely regarded—choose your favorite cliché—as the Sick Man of Europe, an economic basket case, ungovernable, and a living warning to Americans that the wages of imperial sin is death. "Britain," Secretary of State Henry Kissinger remarked to President Gerald Ford in 1975, "is a tragedy—it has sunk to begging, borrowing, stealing." It was "a scrounger." "A disgrace."6
In the year before Thatcher came to power, Britain, upon whose empire the sun once rose and set, endured the Winter of Discontent. Labor unrest shut down public services, paralyzing the nation for months on end. At the height of the crisis, Thatcher, as leader of the Opposition, delivered an acrid speech to the House of Commons. Although obviously partisan, it is also accurate in every particular:
. . . basic food supplies are being stopped. The Road Haulage Association confirms that picketing is affecting the supplies of essential goods. The Freight Transport Association also reports a new problem—shortage of diesel fuel, particularly in the South-West, because of picketing at the oil terminal at Avonmouth.
British Rail reports quite simply: "There are no trains today."
The British Transport Docks Board, the nationalized ports sector, says that, on average, traffic at its ports is down 40 percent in and out of Southampton. The rail strike has added to the burden.
The report from the Confederation of British Industry is that many firms are being strangled. There is a shortage of materials. They cannot move their own products. Exports are being lost. It says that secondary picketing, picketing of firms not in dispute, is very heavy all over the country. It is particularly affecting such items as packaging materials and sugar and all vital materials necessary if industry is to keep going. Lay-offs known to the CBI are at least 125,000 already, and there are expected to be 1 million by the end of the week. There are telegrams and telexes from many companies saying that their exports are not being allowed through and that they might lose the orders forever . . .
The strikes today are not the only ones we have experienced recently . . . We have had the bread strike, hospital strikes, strikes at old people's homes, and strikes in newspapers, broadcasting, airports and car plants . . . nearly half our factories [have] had some form of industrial conflict, stoppages, overtime bans and go-slows in the past two years; and nearly one-third suffered from all-out strikes.
This is the picture in Britain today.7
Britain had recently become the first country in the OECD to supplicate for a loan from the International Monetary Fund.8 This was an almost unimaginable indignity, hinting that Britain was now in the category of nations to which UNICEF donates mosquito nets.
Rubbish was piled high on the streets of Britain that winter, and so, at one point, were human corpses.9 The Soviet trade minister told his British counterpart, "We don't want to increase our trade with you. Your goods are unreliable, you're always on strike, you never deliver."10
This was what had become of the world's greatest trading power.
Sometime in this period—the date is unclear and varies according to the source, but the story is almost certainly true—a gray, timorous functionary delivered a paper on economic policy to a gathering of British Conservatives. Britain, he argued, must take a pragmatic middle path. In the middle of his speech, Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Opposition, interrupted. She stood up. She reached into her handbag, extracted a copy of Hayek's Constitution of Liberty, held it up before the audience, then slammed it on the table. "This," she said, "is what we believe!"
Britain is now the richest country in Europe, and London once again the world's financial capital. Thatcher is widely perceived to be the reason for this.


On Sale
Nov 8, 2011
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Claire Berlinski

About the Author

Claire Berlinski received her doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. She has since worked as a journalist and freelance writer throughout Asia and Europe. Her previous books include two novels, Loose Lips and Lion Eyes, and the nonfiction work Menace in Europe. She lives in Istanbul, Turkey.

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