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A superb portrait of Thatcher's early years

Margaret Thatcher - John Campbell

Few prime ministers loom as large in the British historical imagination as does Margaret Thatcher. Idolized by her supporters and demonized by her detractors, her historical image is as much myth as it is reality, one created in part by Thatcher's own efforts to shape her public profile in politically appealing terms. One of the great achievements of John Campbell in his excellent first volume of his biography of Thatcher is his success in separating the myths from the story of her life and assessing their contribution to defining her image.

This Campbell does starting with the image from the subtitle, that of 'the grocer's daughter'. He skillfully deconstructs this legend, noting that Margaret Roberts's upbringing was neither as humble nor as idyllic as she made it seem and that her father, Alfred was not the hero she would later make him out to be. What emerges instead is a hard-working and determined young woman who pursued politics from a young age. Her career was facilitated greatly by her marriage to Denis Thatcher, who provided emotional and financial support that was indispensable to her rise in politics.

Thatcher's work ethic and drive soon won her office in Edward Heath's cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. Here she gained firsthand exposure to the Whitehall bureaucracy for the first time, an experience that left her less than impressed. Yet even after Heath's defeat in the two successive elections of 1974, his position appeared secure enough to make a challenge to his leadership of the Conservative Party seem foolhardy, and Thatcher's challenge came after more prominent Tory leaders passed on the opportunity. Yet her campaign tapped a deep vein of resentment, and she triumphed against all expectations.

Throughout this, Campbell notes the fortuitous confluence of events that aided her rise. This was best illustrated by her assumption of the Conservative Party leadership at the moment when an opening for her ideology emerged with the breakdown of the democratic socialist consensus. With unemployment swelling to levels not seen since the 1930s, Thatcher was able to exploit the inability of the Labour government to grapple with the problem. The book ends with the Conservative victory in the 1979 general election and Thatcher embarking on her transformative 11-year premiership, the subject of his next volume.

Impressively researched and absorbingly written, Campbell's book is a triumph of the biographical art. He succeeds in presenting a judicious portrait of Thatcher, one that approaches her with skepticism yet never fails to giver her her due. It is the indispensable starting point for understanding this complex and controversial figure, one that is unlikely to be bettered for its description of Thatcher's early years and their role in her political legend.