Margaret Thatcher by David Cannadine review – how Thatcher led to Brexit

This concise book avoids the usual controversies and offers a new analysis of Thatcher’s sweeping economic reforms

The year 1986 was pivotal in Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The “Big Bang” opened up the City of London to overseas banks, and the Single European Act harmonised regulations, which was to produce the “single market”. Astonishingly, it was also the first year since Thatcher came to power in May 1979 that the unemployment rate fell. Meanwhile, sales of council houses surged, passing 1m in September 1986.

From most liberal economic perspectives, these are positive achievements. And yet, while carving his way through the warring judgments on Thatcher, David Cannadine notes that “there is some agreement” that she “performed better before 1986 than after”. Given the temptation to associate “Thatcherism” with market deregulation and a new era of private sector excess, it feels strange to be reminded that “yuppies” and credit card frenzies appeared relatively late in the day, at a time when the Conservative leader was already beginning to lose her touch.

“Thatcherism was a political phenomenon rather than a coherent philosophy,” Cannadine concludes. Her devotees may wish to give her credit for the long economic boom of 1992-2007 and the more open, dynamic economy that went with it, and Thatcher claimed responsibility for the Labour party’s abandonment of socialism during this era. But it would be difficult to paint Thatcher as an ideologue of globalisation, less still of cosmopolitanism. She became less sympathetic towards Europe in the final years of her premiership (Cannadine points to the Channel tunnel agreement of January 1986 as the high point of her Europeanism), and it was her opposition to British membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism that ultimately drove a wedge between Thatcher and her most important allies, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe.

She read Friedrich Hayek’s programmatic neoliberal text, The Road to Serfdom, while an undergraduate at Oxford, though there is little to suggest that she was especially influenced by it. Only when Keith Joseph encouraged her to explore the ideas of Milton Friedman in the 1970s did she show much intellectual interest in economic policy. Given that she never successfully reduced the size of the state, and that inflation had returned as a serious problem by the early 90s, her preferred macroeconomic tests would judge her a failure.

If Thatcherism was never really an ideology, then, what kind of political phenomenon was it? Reading this artfully concise book (originally commissioned as an entry to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), Thatcher’s political prowess can sometimes appear something of a mystery. Cannadine leads us calmly but quickly through a series of often familiar events, managing to avoid being sucked into the usual controversies. The rapid pace of Margaret Thatcher produces a telling effect: it becomes a tale not so much of coalitions or prosperity as a succession of enmities.

Thatcher on the set of Calendar at Yorkshire Television Studios in 1987.
Thatcher on the set of Calendar at Yorkshire Television Studios in 1987. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Whatever else they were, Thatcher’s administrations were not much of a democratic triumph. “Thatcher was never popular with most of the electorate,” Cannadine reminds us, “and studies showed that her values were not widely shared.” She was essentially uninterested in the areas of the country that her policies damaged, making her “only prime minister of the south-east of England and the rural constituencies” in any representative sense. Both economically and politically, she greatly tightened London’s stranglehold over the rest of the country.

Nor was she especially skilled at attracting political allies, other than those who mattered most, such as Ronald Reagan, or provided her with invaluable personal support, such as Willie Whitelaw. Cannadine reserves his highest praise for the way Thatcher successfully navigated the gender politics of Westminster and the Conservative party, using her femininity in precisely the ways most likely to benefit her and disarm her opponents. Her famous intransigence was a problem throughout her term in office, though it wasn’t until Michael Heseltine’s resignation over the Westland affair in January 1986 that it started to weaken her.

For a leader of Thatcher’s temperament, what the early 80s offered her in abundance was the right sort of enemy. Opponents included Whitehall officials, local government and the “wets” in her own cabinet. Also in her sights were socialists of all stripes – whether in the Labour party, the Soviet Union or the National Union of Mineworkers. Most auspiciously for her, her enemies included General Galtieri of Argentina. Terrorists of the IRA or (in her perception) the African National Congress offered the perfect foil for her political style. The first seven years of her rule were punctuated by battles on various fronts, the winning of which served to empower her further for the next one. The conflicts of the final four years, however, seemed to have the opposite effect.

The vanquishing or neutering of enemies gradually destroyed the purpose of “Thatcherism” as a political project, leaving only a restless oppositional sensibility. It is entertaining to discover, as we did at the end of 2016, that Thatcher had it in for house music after an all-night party in 1989 disturbed the uncle of a Hampshire Tory MP. It is also telling: could Thatcher have functioned as a politician without the sense that “our way of life” was under imminent threat from socialists, bureaucrats and the feckless? She may have played her part in constructing the more consensual policy paradigm of the post-Berlin Wall era, but it is unlikely that she would have been politically comfortable in it, had her career continued.

Thatcher with cabinet members at the end of the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, 1989.
Thatcher with cabinet members at the end of the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, 1989. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Who can say what produced this oppositional psychology? Cannadine’s brief sketch of her early life focuses on the austere Methodism of her upbringing, and the instruction to “hold opinions because they were right, not because they were popular”. He also points to the influence of two visits to the US in 1967 and 1969, where Thatcher believed she’d discovered the same Protestant entrepreneurial ethos possessed by her father in Grantham. In this regard, her closest successor was arguably Gordon Brown. But why Thatcher met her foes with such unbending opposition is a question for psychoanalysts rather than historians.

We think of Thatcher as the exemplary “conviction politician”, a figure whose clarity of purpose still provides the model of what a strong and transformative prime minister should be. Tony Blair was often seen as the inheritor of this mantle. But convictions come in various guises. Blair was also described (less flatteringly) as “evangelical”, given his zeal for all things “modern” and his moralistic self-confidence. By contrast, Thatcher’s most powerful convictions were fuelled by hostility, perhaps even by resentment.

The referendum on Brexit produced widespread surprise (at least in the liberal media) that so many voters could be motivated by feelings of antipathy rather than of progress. Was Thatcher’s pitch so different? In sucking so much power, status and wealth towards post-industrial London, her policies no doubt contributed to the simmering resentments and alienation that drove Brexit. The woman from Lincolnshire (later a heartland of Euroscepticism) could speak the same angry, often paranoid language as Nigel Farage, pitting tradition against modernity, us against them.

In one of her final and most celebrated Commons performances, Thatcher was asked whether she was now an obstacle to European integration. In response, she listed a series of proposals currently emanating from Brussels, followed by the three-word line that could have served her as a decent epitaph: “No. No. No.”

William Davies is the author of The Limits of Neoliberalism, a revised, post-Brexit edition of which has just been published by Sage. Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy is published by Oxford University Press. To order a copy for £9.34 (RRP £10.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


William Davies

The GuardianTramp

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