No surrender

Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World

Margaret Thatcher <em>HarperCollins, 486pp, £25</em>

Margaret Thatcher was prime minister for 11 and a half years. Almost the same period has now elapsed since she left office. It is a mark of her extraordinary and continuing potency that her latest book, after all this time, has had the power to dominate the political news agenda. I suppose prime ministers rarely retire. And politicians who have had the drive and ability to reach the highest office will rarely rest easily afterwards. Harold Wilson chose to retire. Harold Macmillan thought he had to (wrongly, as it turned out). James Callaghan and John Major were both defeated at the polls, but both seemed beaten already by the remorseless attrition of untoward events, a fractured party, a resurgent opposition and the sense of an era ending; the defeat in each case felt, I suspect, like a release.

For Thatcher, there was no such sense of release. She was dispossessed by an ungrateful party while still hungry, still driven, still with much to say and do. Her ability to do has been largely removed, but she has always been able to command attention to what she has to say. And for someone who so dominated the politics of a whole decade, who made the political weather for so long, it is probably inevitable that pronouncements about the present and future tend to be coloured by the past.

I am an unapologetic fan. Thatcher genuinely transformed Britain, overwhelmingly for the better, and did so by virtue of conviction, courage, passion and drive. That she was sometimes more cautious and pragmatic than seemed desirable to us, her younger supporters, does not lessen the scale of her accomplishments. We forget now the size and ferocity of the opposition to the programme of economic reform; changes that today form part of the establishment consensus were the stuff of the most venomous hostility. There is a limit to how many battles you can fight at one time.

It wasn't all right. One of the biggest mistakes was the steady erosion of autonomy for local government, a centralisation of power that was very un-Tory. Ironically, the poll tax, regarded as Thatcher's terminal political error, was embarked upon as a remedy for over-centralisation. It aimed to create precisely the local democratic accountability that would enable power to be dispersed from the centre.

Thatcher's latest and, she says, last book is not really what it says. Its title suggests a manual for practitioners of statecraft, a sort of Macchiavelli's The Prince for our times. Such practitioners will find Statecraft well worth reading, as will all those with an interest in international affairs, because this is an account of Thatcher's views about the world, its recent histories and what should be done. It is broad in scope, detailed in analysis and, as you would expect, forthright in prescription. And prescription is in plentiful supply. Every few pages, there is a collection of bullet-point recommendations, known in my family as a "what you want to do is . . .".

Inevitably, given its scale and breadth, Statecraft is the work of a team, not of one individual. And the parts that are enthralling are those where Thatcher's own interest and knowledge are passionately engaged. The chapter on the Balkans is gripping and moving; the judgements sure and damning, if sometimes unfairly so. For example, it is probably harsh to say that the Vance-Owen plan for the "cantonment" of Bosnia was "the spur to the war that broke out between Muslims and Bosnian Croats". There was never a simple answer to the question over what the west could do to avert the disaster that eventuated in the Balkans. At the time, Thatcher consistently advocated more forceful military intervention against the Milosevic-sponsored militias. With hindsight, she was right to argue that if the west was going to get involved, which was probably inescapable, then it had to be done robustly and decisively. That was a lesson we learnt late.

There are lengthy passages on Russia, Japan, China and India, which are informed and realistic, without supplying any blinding new insights. These are seasoned, mature and respectful reflections on countries that, for better or worse, matter to the world and to Britain. As with the thoughts on Islam, her outlook is broad, generous and internationalist - a million miles from the little Englander of caricature. Which is why it is a shame that the two chapters on the European Union and Britain's membership, always certain to dominate the book's launch, seem to jar with that outlook. I am a Eurosceptic in the original sense of the phrase: I am opposed to Britain taking part in further EU integration, and am sceptical about the benefits of a great deal that has already taken place. But I am not anti-European.

Much of Thatcher's critique of today's European Union is devastatingly accurate. She rightly pillories the Common Agricultural and Fisheries policies. The new European Rapid Reaction Force is intended by some of its progenitors to rival and then replace Nato. The majority voting provisions to which she herself agreed in the Single European Act have certainly been abused to make the EU writ carry into areas never envisaged at the time. There is no sense of a European demos within which a European democracy can operate - which is not to say that it can never exist, but it does not today and is unlikely to evolve in any foreseeable future. She may even be right to say that the EU is "unreformable", although I remain an optimist on that score.

But what damages Thatcher's case is the underlying notion that Europe is a bad place, a sense captured in the sweeping assertion that "during my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come . . . from mainland Europe". I do not believe that it is just the EU that has made war between its members inconceivable today. But that was the impulse behind its creation, and it was a high and noble impulse. The case for deep reform of the EU today ought to be overwhelmingly strong. The case for decentralisation, the need for Europe to be more flexible, more of a network, less of an old-fashioned bloc, less intrusive, less coercive, is daily pointed up by the nature of the modern, networked world in which we live. It is that world which Margaret Thatcher has described in this book. She made an enormous contribution to creating the world in its present shape, and when you read this book, you see why.

Francis Maude, a former shadow chancellor and shadow foreign secretary, is chairman of Conservatives for Change

This article first appeared in the 15 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Who does he think he is?