The Downing Street Years
By Margaret Thatcher
Harper Collins

As one of the most forceful and outspoken British heads of State since Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher earned her reputation through plain speaking and decisive action. In fact, she’s one of the few political world figures who’s actually had the courage to suggest that the West bomb Serbian strongholds in the name of humanity.

Moreover, while the West continues to dither in relation to the Bosnian crisis, Thatcher has been busy writing the first volume of her memoirs, The Downing Street Years. In her own characteristically forthright and somewhat abrasive manner, Thatcher provides the much anticipated documentation of her years as Prime Minister – a tenure that spanned more than a decade and three US Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

It goes without saying therefore, that The Downing Street Years makes for politically charged reading. Not only does the author deliver full and frank accounts of her dealings with the three aforementioned Presidents, she lets you know what she thinks of them as people. ‘’It was impossible not to like Jimmy Cater,’’ she writes. ‘’He was a deeply committed Christian and a man of obvious sincerity.’’

Also under the spotlight are her own ministers and countless other international political figures, ranging from Giscard d’Estaing, Francois Mitterand, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, to Indira Ghandi, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

Written with an almost scientific detachment, the book also displays Thatcher’s total lack of artistry. She writes coldly and appears to be utterly void of emotion. To be sure, not everyone is capable of the political eloquence of a Vaclav Havel, but after a while, reading Thatcher’s memoirs is akin to reading an instruction manual.

At times, the author appears immune to many of the political world’s hidden subtleties. So in order to compensate, she appropriates someone else’s (in)famous words, and uses them accordingly. For instance, upon becoming Prime minister, she quoted a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, beginning: ‘’where there is discord, may we bring harmony.’’ She writes: ‘’Afterwards a good deal of sarcasm was expended on this choice, but the rest of the quotation is often forgotten. St. Francis prayed for more than peace: ‘Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’’’

Convenient words, dredged from the depths of history to accommodate a cool and calculated game plan that leaned more toward Machiavelli than St. Francis. Still, such was the propensity of the British voter in 1979, Thatcher could have quoted Heinrich Himmler - for all the difference it might have made.

Furthermore, The Downing Street Years is riddled with the author blowing her own trumpet. She substantiates, reiterates and rationalises her every move and decision as Prime Minister to the point of self-induced (and irritating) back-slapping: '‘Speech writing was for me an important political activity. As one of my speech writers said, ‘no-one writes speeches for Mrs. Thatcher: they write speeches with Mrs. Thatcher.’ Every written word goes through the mincing machine of my criticism before it gets into a speech.’’

Needless to say, there’s numerous white lies, many of which are covered up by that holy grail of scapegoat socialism.

On the background to the year-long Miners Strike of 1984-1985, Thatcher writes: ‘’I had never had any doubt about the true aim of the hard Left: they were revolutionaries who sought to impose a Marxist system on Britain whatever the means and whatever the cost. Many of them made no effort to conceal their purpose. For them the institutions of democracy were no more than tiresome obstacles on the long march to a Marxist utopia.’’

Even when referring to her eventual ouster by her own party, Thatcher resolutely refuses to admit her shortcomings, and accords much vitriol to her fellow Conservatives: ‘’I was sick at heart. I could have resisted the opposition of opponents and potentail rivals and even respected them for it; but what grieved me was the desertion of those I had always considered friends and allies and the weasel words whereby they transmuted their betrayal into frank advice and concern for my fate.’’

With cut-throat panache, Thatcher has written a book that’s compelling, staid, lucid, opinionated and confident – rather like herself. If only she’d had the courage to tell it as it really was, The Downing Street Years would make imperative reading. As it is, it’s interesting reading – nothing more, nothing less.