The authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher does justice to its polarising subject, writes Peter Craven
WAS she the best of leaders, or the worst of leaders? Her death in April made Ding dong! The Witch is Dead into a hit single, and they sang it in the once-struggling manufacturing towns that struggled no more because she had closed them down. They mourned her in Westminster Abbey, in the presence of the monarch, as they had mourned no prime minister since Winston Churchill.
Oxford University, which she had been so proud to attend, refused, at the height of her powers, to give her an honorary degree. But she transformed the British economy, which had been staggering, blind, apparently terminal, and she created for the world a model of how an economic liberalism that would not kowtow to the myth of egalitarianism and the sentimentalities of the welfare state could transfigure the earth and enrich all but the lowest of the down and out.
She fought and crushed the unions in the extraordinary battle with the striking miners. She let the IRA hunger strikers die rather than compromise. She took on the Argentinean junta to defend the tiny settlement of the Falkland Islands — despite US ambivalence — and won. She understood and respected Mikhail Gorbachev, she welcomed better than he did himself Ronald Reagan’s resolve to win the Cold War by economic means.
She enjoyed greater prestige than any British leader since World War II and she was arguably as dazzling and influential a political Tory as Disraeli.
Still: she ripped up the old Labour-Tory consensus. Harold Macmillan himself said she had sold the national silver. And in 1990 when the warlords and worldlings of the Tory party had been pushed around by her for three consecutive terms and nearly 16 years of leadership they got rid of her.
So who and what was Margaret Thatcher? The woman the Soviets dubbed the Iron Lady, the woman who could quote St Francis (arguably the figure in world history least like herself) to say that she wished to bring harmony but who could also say there was no such thing as society.
Are we to agree with that radical maverick of journalism Rod Liddle that a woman who could say such a thing had no right to govern, no right to lead? What, after all, did she imagine she was running?
The day she died David Owen, who as Labour foreign secretary thought she was a bit pushy, said Thatcher had done what only the great politicians can do. She had changed the way her enemies conceived of the world. Remember that when asked what was her greatest legacy she replied: ‘‘ Tony Blair.’’
Questions will always hover when it comes to Thatcher. The ravaged cities of Scotland will not forgive her in a hurry. One of the finest men I have ever known, a great poet, told me in all sincerity that if he contracted a terminal disease he would assassinate her. And yet about this time (when she was embodying the principle that her might was right) I remember the voice of a visiting British politics professor saying in his beery, Mancunian tones, ‘‘ 80 to 90 per cent of the people of Great Britain are better off because of that woman. Who can complain about that?’’
Who indeed. Napoleon, who marched to a different drum (though she had her own martial notion), would have laughed at Thatcher because if anyone embodied the idea of a nation of shopkeepers she did. In July 1981 when first west London, then Liverpool rioted, with the unemployed baying for blood, she exclaimed, ‘‘ Those poor shopkeepers!’’
But history should exercise care when it comes to Thatcher’s legacy. Fortunately it has this enthralling, comprehensive biography by Charles Moore, that will captivate readers with the depth of evidence it exhibits, the vividness of its anecdotes and the gleaming transparency, the readability of its narrative style.
Moore is a former editor of London’s The Daily Telegraph and is also known for his sparkling columns in The Spectator, pieces that give blimpishness a good name because there is a golden glow to his anecdotes of toffs and villagers and fox hunting. He is a superb writer and with this first volume of his Thatcher biography he has a subject of heroic proportions who is, by the same token, at several removes from the author’s automatic sympathies.
Moore is an old Etonian and, under the persiflage, something of a fox despite his hunting enthusiasms, and in this book he has to chronicle the extraordinary struggles of the grocer’s daughter who was, as much as any politician, a hedgehog, if we abide by Isaiah Berlin’s distinction that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Hedgehogs, of course, are the nobler and, in politics, the rarer breed. Moore underlines this when he quotes Alfred Sherman (with Keith Joseph, one of the great influences on Thatcher’s monetarism): ‘‘ She wasn’t a woman of ideas, she was a woman of beliefs, and beliefs are better than ideas.’’
On the same page he quotes her former chief of staff David Wolfson saying Thatcher was ‘‘ a prophet not a king. History remembers prophets long after kings are forgotten.’’
Yes, but Moore as a young Tory was sympathetic to the idea of having Thatcher toppled and he is everywhere sensitive to what John Hoskyns, one-time head of her policy unit, described as her ‘‘ insecurity, her sense of destiny and reckless courage’’.
She was born Margaret Roberts in 1925 in Grantham in the English Midlands and her father, Alfred, was indeed a grocer and later an alderman. She grew up Methodist and her father was a lay preacher, a man whose charity matched his industry.
From early on she had remarkable strength of will and seems to have had the loner’s ability, as one of her early intimates remarked, ‘‘ to persuade other people to go her way’’. The cutglass voice, derided by those who disliked her in her power days, was the result of elocution lessons when young. She went to the pictures — enjoyed Hitchcock’s Rebecca — dressed as well as her lower-middle-class background would allow and got a glimpse early on from a visit to London of what she called, in Talleyrand’s words, ‘‘ la douceur de la vie’’ from the ‘‘ dark imposing magnificence’’ of the capital. As Moore remarks, in everything other than politics ‘‘ the centre was always where she wanted to be’’.
She was a literate self-improving girl and liked always to quote that wise saw from Kipling, ‘‘ A truth that’s told with bad intent / Beats all the lies you can invent.’’ She was also, even in power, capable of reading anything to inform herself: on Malcolm Muggeridge’s advice she read Dostoevsky’s The Possessed to cotton on to his prophecy of Bolshevism.
She went to Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School and it was her blacking factory as well as the making of her. When she visited her old school, she said: ‘‘ I would not be in No 10 but for this school.’’ And when she was made a baroness it was Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven that she chose to become.
And, yes, there was a witch in the place of learning. A headmistress who, when young Margaret confided her dream, said no, she couldn’t go to Oxford, she didn’t have the Latin. Margaret contacted the head of the boys’ school, learned Latin in no time and made it to the ancient seat of learning. Many years later, as a politician, when she visited her old school, that headmistress came out with some Latin tag and Thatcher, in an extraordinary act of payback, corrected her grammar.
She went to the women’s college Somerville and was a very good chemist — working on the structure of penicillin under the great Dorothy Hodgkin — but without the spark of imagination that makes a first-rate scientist.
She was a quiet but committed Tory at university, a member of the Conservative Association, and found Churchill’s electoral