The Downing Street Years

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of Great Britain for eleven years, serving in that position longer than any previous prime minster since the early nineteenth century. In November 1990, however, her own party forced her out of office, even though she had not been rejected by the voters and, indeed, had never lost a general election. The Downing Street Years is her memoir of this period and provides her view of why her tenure as prime minister came to such a sudden and unexpected end.

Thatcher suggests that when she became prime minister she found it difficult to assert her authority over other prominent Conservatives because she was an outsider in two important respects: She was a female and from a lower social class than most Conservative Party leaders. The clash within the cabinet over the 1981 budget provided an early test of her ability to overcome these handicaps. Thatcher portrays the cabinet members who opposed her over the budget as men who could not accept working for a woman, men who could interact with women only if the latter played the role of the “weaker sex” and accepted male advice. By her account, some of her cabinet opponents assumed that she should defer to their opinions because they were from a higher social class than she. When she eventually dropped Christopher Soames from the cabinet for resisting her views, she claims, he reacted as if he had been dismissed by his housemaid.

The crisis over the 1981 budget was one of the first great turning points in Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister. Great Britain was in a recession at the time, with high unemployment, which led many cabinet members to advocate a policy of increased government spending. Thatcher had taken office convinced of the desirability of substantially reducing government spending, however, and she urged this policy despite the depressed economy. She states that she felt so strongly about this issue that she was determined to resign if the cabinet did not accept her position. There was an angry confrontation when the cabinet discussed the budget, and the majority of the cabinet opposed her. She did not forget or forgive those whose views conflicted with hers, and after her budget proposals were approved, she removed most of these persons from the cabinet.

There seems little doubt that the war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) was another great turning point in Thatcher’s tenure. In 1982, when Argentina seized the islands, the Conservative Government was unpopular, and public- opinion polls indicated that it was unlikely to be reelected. Great Britain’s victory in that war has been credited with restoring the government’s popularity and enabling it to win the 1983 general election. Some critics have suggested that the war was unnecessary and occurred because the British government had not made it clear to the Argentines that it would fight to defend the Falklands. Thatcher, however, rejects this view, claiming that the British had no inkling of Argentina’s intention to invade the islands.

Once the invasion took place, Thatcher seemed to be imitating Winston Churchill’s 1940 stance against Nazi Germany. Her minister of defense, John Nott, informed her privately that Great Britain was not militarily capable of removing the Argentinians from the Falklands by force. Despite Thatcher’s opposition, Foreign Secretary Francis Pym urged the War cabinet to accept an American proposal for a negotiated settlement that would not have restored the islands to Great Britain. Conflict over the issue was avoided when the cabinet agreed to put the U.S. peace proposals to the Argentine government under the assumption—which proved accurate—that they would be rejected. If they had not, it would have placed Thatcher in a dangerous position, for Pym, backed by other cabinet members, would have resigned if his proposal had been rejected, whereas Thatcher states that she would have resigned rather than accept it.

Thatcher’s style of governing resulted in an unusually high turnover among cabinet ministers. Her conviction that politics was a matter of principle not only made it difficult for her to see any merits in the views of political opponents from other parties but also encouraged the perception that fellow Conservatives who disagreed with her were enemies. This intolerance led to the dismissal of powerful Conservatives, such as Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, who eventually contributed to her downfall. Thatcher’s uncompromising...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)