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.


Claire Berlinski's There Is No Alternative
"Often entertaining and sometimes illuminating . . . idiosyncratic and interesting . . . Berlinski's judgments are thoughtful, particularly her central insight that what underlay Lady Thatcher's hatred of socialism was not only that she found it economically inefficient, or that communist regimes had drenched the world in blood, but that she believed it was morally corrupting."
Financial Times
"Fresh, original and extremely well-written."
Washington Times
"Claire Berlinski has written a much better book about her than one of those door-stop biographies that are now the destiny of almost every public figure. . . . The book is all the better for being a work of synthesis as well as analysis. Without being hagiography, it is about as powerful a defence of Thatcher's record as is likely ever to be written."
Globe and Mail (Toronto)
"Berlinski has crawled through the archives and interviewed many of the principals of the Thatcher era. . . . She asks the pertinent and the impertinent questions and challenges the assumptions of the players and their own conclusions about what happened and why."
World Affairs
"Entertaining. . . . Berlinski often expresses herself with verve. . . . Berlinski's account of the case for free markets is—as a primer for the non-economist—lucid and lively. . . . She's colorful—thanks in part to some enjoyable inside track from Charles Powell—about Thatcher's relationships with Gorbachev and Reagan."
American Conservative
"Berlinski, who has written insightfully about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism . . . shows now how capable statesmanship can redirect history's seemingly irreversible tide."
Claremont Review
"[An] excellent look back at Margaret Thatcher's significance."
Human Events
"Berlinski shows commitment and energy as an author . . . Her encounters with Neil Kinnock are tactical masterpieces, where she draws the Welsh windbag out and then deflates his woolly thinking with as much cool, perhaps cruel, precision as Thatcher herself did."
The Scotsman
"Berlinski argues for the enduring importance of Thatcher by casting her as the great scourge of socialism at a time when financial crises have led many governments to take a larger role in controlling their economies. Everywhere we turn these days, the state is advancing and private initiative is discouraged and denigrated. But that's only for now. Thatcher proved socialism's gains aren't irreversible by trampling them underfoot."
Regulation: The Cato Review of Business and Government
"Claire Berlinski's There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters is a delightful biography of a prime minister who charmed visiting leaders with her feet curled up under her. Berlinski's writing is also charmingly unconventional: Instead of ruthlessly cutting to stay on topic, she shows personalities by displaying dinner table repartee and dining choices."
World Magazine
"For delightful reading, few biographers or historians can match this book. Why Margaret Thatcher Matters is equal parts of each genre. . . . Claire Berlinski's prose sparkles with wit, insight, and charm. There is little doubt that those attributes helped to lubricate the many interviews she conducted with Thatcher's friends and enemies, and with those affected by her policies. Berlinski is clearly enthralled by her subject, but she is not blind to Thatcher's failings."
American Thinker
"Where Berlinski stands out—the real added value of her account of Thatcherism compared to others—is her elaboration of how, above and beyond all else, it was a moral crusade."
British Politics Group Quarterly
"Claire Berlinski has written one of the finest biographies of 2008 . . . Superbly written . . . There Is No Alternative should be read by anyone wanting to understand geo-economics and party politics . . . A masterpiece."
"The lesson of Berlinski's timely book is that capable statesmanship can redirect history's seemingly irreversible tide."
PowerLine blog
"Claire Berlinski's insight into Margaret Thatcher's character makes this book fascinating, and her intellectual seriousness and rigor make it compelling. It is a perfect marriage of author and subject: Berlinski's Thatcher is painfully real and human, yet simultaneously larger-than-life."
—General Brent Scowcroft,
author of America and the World
"Finally the Iron Lady gets her due. Claire Berlinski brilliantly lays out how Margaret Thatcher's strength and conviction changed the world. Without a Prime Minister Thatcher there might not have been a President Ronald Reagan. And Berlinski reminds us how the whole world would benefit from a new Thatcher today."
—Peter Schweizer, author of Reagan's War


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 YouTube. 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 hyperlinks. 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.

I wrote much of this book in 2007. Then, as now, Republican presidential candidates were eager to associate themselves with Margaret Thatcher's name.
Not long after I wrote the last sentence of the book, the financial meltdown began. The global economy is now sunk in a deep, prolonged recession, one so severe that many are asking whether the Left has been right about free markets all along. Even I have been tempted to wonder.
We all know the grim statistics. The United States now has the weakest job market since the Great Depression. Five million potential workers have left the labor force since 2007. The duration of unemployment has risen to record lengths. Many Americans were stunned and humiliated by the credit downgrade, but the downgrade reflected the facts.
In 2010—for the first time—the United States fell from the ranks of the economically "free" to "mostly free," according to the Index of Economic Freedom. There have been "notable decreases in financial freedom, monetary freedom, and property rights," the report observed.
As for Western Europe, those of us who have noted for years that its massive pension liabilities and social welfare programs could not be sustained, particularly given its demography, at least have the satisfaction of saying, "We told you so." But no one really wanted to be so right about that. That Europe's monetary policy has failed is now completely obvious. The economic collapse in the periphery countries—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain—is threatening to envelop the center. The rot and corruption in the peripheral states had only been disguised by debt accumulation.
It is hard to imagine a worse time, geopolitically, for the West and its ideals to look, literally, bankrupt, or for America to be so pathologically absorbed with its own problems. It is assuredly immensely dangerous.
Although it is politically predictable to put all the blame for this on Obama, it is also absurd. In retrospect, it is clear these problems have been decades in the making. In the past decade, in particular, Congresses and Presidents alike have assented to a surge of spending—the bulk of it non-defense spending.
Given the eerie similarity between the mood in America now and the mood in Britain at the time Margaret Thatcher came to power, perhaps there will now be a wider curiosity about who she really was and what she really achieved.
I have heard countless times since this book was published that America "needs a Margaret Thatcher." I am often asked if an American politician—so long as he is a Republican or he is a she—is "the next Thatcher," and I am told just as often that Thatcherism has been discredited by the world's recent economic travails. It is quite rare, however, that I meet anyone who knows all that much about her beyond having a strong feeling of some kind. That is a source of some frustration to me. In pessimistic moments, I worry that the lack of eagerness to explore her real record in depth might be evidence that slogans and entertainment have not merely supplemented but replaced all political thought, and that this might be, inevitably, the fate of all free societies. In more optimistic moments, I notice that, for slogans and entertainment, America is absolutely unrivalled—and for sure, no one else in the world is thinking more deeply about anything.
But there is no hope of defending—or criticizing—Thatcher's record in a serious way, or learning anything from her story that might truly be useful, if one is defending or criticizing a mythical caricature. When I am breezily assured by Americans that feral youths and rioters would not have dared to torch a British city had Thatcher been in power, I can only say that they're entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. To adopt Thatcher as a heroine without realizing that her first years in power were disastrous, that city after city went up in flames, that only extraordinary luck kept her in office at all, suggests a worrying indifference to history and to truth. It hints, too, at a longing for authoritarianism rather than for principled—or pragmatic—conservative leadership. That political discourse should often be about images and slogans are perfectly normal. When only empty images and slogans are on offer, I just have to hope that those offering them are secretly smarter than they sound.
Among the more muddled ideas now in vogue about Thatcher is that "Thatcherism" led to the financial crisis. The suggestion reflects significant confusion about what Thatcher stood for and what she actually did.
It is true that Thatcher promoted "deregulation," and that "failure of regulation" appears to have been a significant factor in the financial collapse. But to say this is almost meaningless. The deregulation she promoted had nothing to do with the regulations or lack of regulations variously mooted as the trigger of the meltdown on Wall Street. It is simply untrue that she favored free markets with no regulation at all. Quite the contrary. She was a strong proponent, indeed a passionate proponent, of proper regulation—the kind of regulation that makes free markets function properly. She was emphatically not an anarchist—and she certainly did not advance the notion that the best state is one without rules or their enforcement.
You will note that those who say "Thatcherite deregulation" is to blame never seem to point to a specific deregulatory failure connected to Thatcher. The laws and regulations she favored were generally good ones and remain good. Only someone who is really not thinking could blame shoddy subprime mortgages and complex credit derivatives on Thatcher: When she came to power, the financial instruments in question had not been invented.
What kind of deregulation did Thatcher promote? She eliminated the foreign exchange controls that had been in place in Britain since the Second World War. She opened the stock market to foreign and domestic traders. This was the essence of "Thatcherite deregulation" in the financial sector. No one in his or her right mind is seriously suggesting, now, that these reforms were a mistake, and no one is seriously proposing to reverse them. No one ever points to a specific Thatcherite regulatory reform that can be connected to the current crisis, because there wasn't one. "She promoted greed" is not an intellectually serious argument. Greed has been with us since the Garden of Eden.
A key point, painfully overlooked: Thatcher was in fact a proponent of quite stringent bank regulation. The evidence for this is the 1986 Financial Services Act, which closed loopholes in the coverage of investor protection laws and established a more comprehensive regulatory structure to enhance enforcement powers. It applied the same investor protection standards to a broad range of securities and investment activities. I can say with confidence that the unregulated explosion of leverage in Western economies that followed her time in power was not what she stood for.
The economic policies for which Thatcher is best known—and which for a time wrenched Britain from a trajectory of decline—have not been discredited by this crisis. Britain was essentially a socialist state before Thatcher and the second-poorest country in Europe. She is known for denationalizing failing British industries; taking on and weakening Britain's overweeningly powerful trade unions; curtailing government spending, advocating sound money, and promoting a business-friendly tax environment. She is also known for the skepticism she showed later in her time in power—now vindicated—about the project of European financial and political integration. Her reforms led to the longest sustained period of British economic expansion of the postwar era. Nothing in the recent crisis detracts from this or suggests that these reforms were misguided—or that their lessons are no longer relevant.
And nothing, surely, detracts from her insight that the sovereign nation-state is the only entity that has thus far in history proved capable of acting effectively to secure its citizens' interests. This point, as much as the arguments she made about free markets, needs deep consideration.
Yet the past several years have compelled me, at least, to meditate upon Thatcher's failures, as I submit they would to anyone more interested in reality than defending a thesis. The great unanswered question, to my mind, is whether she permanently succeeded in reversing Britain's decline. I believed when I wrote this book that she had probably succeeded, but I am not as persuaded now—for obvious reasons. If she failed, that lesson too is relevant. The current recession in Britain has been the longest since the First World War. (The second-longest, not incidentally, lasted from 1979 to1983—and took place under Margaret Thatcher.) Britain's underclass is as degraded as it ever was; it is feral, as they say, and there is no doubt that crime is rising steadily.
In reviewing the first edition of this book, Theodore Dalrymple suggested a criticism that I thought excessively pessimistic at the time, but I fear now may be correct:
Unfortunately, [Mrs. Thatcher] did not so much restore a market economy as promote a consumer society, which is not quite the same thing. It was a society in which most of the really difficult aspects of existence in the modern world—education, health care, social security and many others—remained in the hands of the state. This meant that consumer choice was largely limited to matters of pocket money: whether to ruin Ibiza by your behavior on holiday, or Crete. The resultant combination of consumer choice and deep irresponsibility was not an attractive one, to say the least. A large part of the population became selfish, egotistical, childish, petulant, demanding and whimsical.
I am not as dour by nature as Dr. Dalrymple, but I am open to the possibility that he's right. If so, it suggests to me a terrible question: Is this the inevitable trajectory of open societies and market economies?
There is some evidence that it is: Every time I return to America, the culture seems to me more childish and self-absorbed. But then again, every time I return, I'm older. Honestly, I do not know, and neither does anyone: The future is hard to predict.
But America's inability to produce politicians who both speak to the electorate and speak like adults, particularly about foreign policy, is an alarming sign. In that regard, the difference between Thatcher and any politician now alive seems quite stark. By now many politicians are willing to make one of Thatcher's key arguments: nothing is possible without economic growth; absent a vibrant economy, there can be no effective foreign policy. Nor, for that matter, can social welfare programs be preserved. But Thatcher never pretended to the electorate that one might just ignore the rest of the world without consequence. The retreat of the United States into an isolationism characterized by indifference certainly cannot be justified by anything Thatcher said, did, or believed.
The isolationism is as profound among those who claim to reject it as it is among those who endorse it. It is illustrated by the lack of serious discussion about foreign and defense policy even among those who claim to be robust proponents of American leadership abroad. The first Republican candidate debate at Ames lasted for two hours. Of these, eight minutes—at the end of the debate—concerned foreign policy; not one serious argument was made about it.
To read an American newspaper is to feel that most of the world has dropped off the map. Serious coverage of the Middle East—the most unstable region of the world—has been ceded to Al Jazeera; the mainstream American press contains almost no foreign news. If the media no longer concerns itself seriously with the rest of the world, they cannot entirely be faulted for it: You can't sell a product for which there is no demand.
The depth and severity of the economic crisis in the West and the exposure of the real level of corruption, the crony capitalism, and the sheer incompetence of its leadership have tested my confidence. I have no doubt that free markets, sovereign states, limited government, and constitutional democracy have produced the most creative, free, and just societies ever known. But can states thus constituted stay that way? If the high point of Western power, competence, and confidence has passed, I suppose the answer is "no."
Thatcher's hatred of socialism was ideological, as I wrote, but it was also personal: It was her country in decline. When I note that the United States is economically stagnant, debt-bound, heavily regulated, bureaucratic, less self-governing, less free, shallow, childish, incurious, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, illiterate, obese, and moribund, I am hardly able to be dispassionate about this. When I note as well that pockets of great entrepreneurial dynamism and talent remain, that my country has a proven history of self-renewal, that nothing is written, and that the world is apt to be a very dark place without it, I am not saying this out of mere academic curiosity.
It is hard now to look at the West with perfect optimism and confidence. But we must, for as Dr. Johnson remarked, reformation is necessary, and despair is criminal. Margaret Thatcher was never tempted by despair. I doubt that she would be now, either.

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 postmodern 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.


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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