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Book Review

 

Seldon, Anthony and Daniel Collings. Britain Under Thatcher (Harlow, England: Longman, Pearson Education Ltd., 2000). 142 pp., $17.00.
 
   

     Britain Under Thatcher is one of the more recently published texts in the "Seminar Studies in History" series. The series, begun in 1966 by Longman Publications, currently offers texts on the following topics: Medieval Europe, Tudor England, Stuart Britain, Early Modern Europe, Europe 1789‑1918, Twentieth-Century Europe, Nineteenth-Century Britain, Twentieth-Century Britain, and International History. The goals for these publications are formidable, as the editors and authors are attempting to integrate the most recent topical information with illustrative documentation in a scholarly, reader friendly format. Each publication seeks to encourage historical interest and learning by bridging the gap between the narrowly focused, timely article or paper and the broader, but less contemporary, survey approach.

     The co-authors of Britain Under Thatcher are Anthony Seldon and Daniel Collings. Seldon is the founding director of the Institute of Contemporary British History. He previously authored books about the Conservative Party, postwar Britain, and the Prime Ministers. His expertise in the area of British politics and government enables Seldon to write with insight regarding the status quo of British party politics prior to Mrs. Thatcher becoming Prime Minister, her conduct as the head of the party, and skills as Prime Minister in developing, presenting and defending her government's policies. Co-author Collings is a freelance writer who studied public policy and economics at Keble College, Oxford. His input related to Mrs. Thatcher's economic philosophy and the consequences for public policy is particularly helpful. It allowed this reader to gain an understanding of the shifts in governmental economic philosophy as exhibited in Mrs. Thatcher's budgets and policies. In addition, the follow-up examinations of the social, political and economic implications of the shifts in government economic policy are very informative.

     The authors have chosen a chronological approach but have woven a subplot into the historical context of their work. Starting with an examination of Mrs. Thatcher's rise to power, the text describes the interpersonal dramas behind each of her (and her party's) political successes and failures. We follow Mrs. Thatcher as she charts her political path, learning about her ministers, advisors, supporters as well as the opposition. We are given insight into the factors of philosophy and mutual need that resulted in the unique relationship she had with President Reagan. Excerpts from a variety of public and private papers, personal memoirs and newspaper quotes highlight Mrs. Thatcher's intellectual beliefs and character as well as the views of her opponents, political allies and British citizens. The skillful blending into the storyline of Mrs. Thatcher's persona, her beliefs and character, illustrate how her iron will, intellect, work ethic and economic conservatism played major roles in her rise to power, longevity, eventual political decline and the political legacy she left.

     The documents selected are appropriately woven into each chapter. They help the reader understand the evolution and consequences of the major social, political, and economic events presented in the book. For example, the documents and descriptions of the Falklands War, privatization of industries and the miners' strike illuminate the upheavals in British society and the centrality of Mrs. Thatcher to the shifting social, political and economic landscape. The authors' literary skills and knowledge of the time period, events, and individuals involved, enable them to go beyond merely presenting the facts. By focusing on the interplay of personalities and the clash of individual philosophies, the history of that time period becomes more then just a series of names, dates and events

     The text is divided into three parts: introduction, analysis and assessment. Part one describes Mrs. Thatcher's political life up to and including the 1979 election. The second part covers the years she was Prime Minister and head of her party, and the concluding assessment section is divided between her influence in Britain and historical perspectives. Major issues examined by the authors include the social and economic conditions in Britain prior to, during, and after Mrs. Thatcher's premiership, her role and judgment as party leader, her supporters and opponents, the Poll Tax, relationships and trade within Europe, the Common Market debates, conflict with the Labor Unions, the miners' strike, her leadership during the Falkland War, and her relationship with the United States and President Reagan. The concluding chapter evaluates Mrs. Thatcher's Premiership. It is wide ranging, assessing domestic and foreign policies, interpersonal relationships, the British political scene, and the legacy that Mrs. Thatcher cast upon the British political stage and history. Despite its brevity, the book includes a reading guide, selected documents, definition of terms, chronology, glossary of terms, bibliography, list of acronyms, a guide to characters and an index.

     Britain under Thatcher has taken a controversial leader and examined her political, social and economic policies. It does so using clear and concise language, explaining all of the relevant factors affecting the political process and the eventual outcomes. The clarity and depth of the written presentation is particularly noticeable as related to Mrs. Thatcher's economic philosophy and her government's implementation of those beliefs into public policies. The use of relevant newspaper articles, statistics, and personal memoirs throughout the chapters humanizes the issues being presented. Collaboratively, Seldon's and Collins' efforts have resulted in a thoroughly readable and highly informative text. The authors' work allows the reader to understand the significant transformations that occurred in Great Britain during Mrs. Thatcher's stewardship. They have documented her legacy, leadership and role in reshaping Great Britain's place in world affairs.

     Depending on the student's academic level, Britain Under Thatcher can be used as either a foundation or supplementary text. For those instructors at the high school level its brevity allows it to function as an introductory reader. Its solid research and historical content can serve to acclimate students to a more academically rigorous text. The book's readability and presentation encourages student use at home or via guided classroom instruction. Activities such as debates, group discussions, or faculty-led sessions could be used to compare and contrast the immediate and long term effects of the policies, conflicts or changes that occurred during Mrs. Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister. Additional teaching suggestions or topics include qualities of leadership, comparison of Mrs. Thatcher's government to those of her predecessors, her role in the Common Market, health care, foreign policy, social welfare, tax policy, and ownership of public service monopolies. All of the above are some of the topics that advanced placement or honors level high school students could deal with. On the college level, the text could serve as a current resource piece. Using the source documents presented in the text or those mentioned in the bibliography would facilitate individual student research papers, topical debates, or classroom lecture and discussion presentations for courses in World or European History.

 

Herbert Brodsky
District Coordinator (K-12) of Social Studies, Freeport, NY and Queens College

 

 
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