The au­tho­rised bi­og­ra­phy of Mar­garet Thatcher does jus­tice to its po­lar­is­ing sub­ject, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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