IT CONFIRMED HER DANGEROUS SENSE OF WHAT SHE COULD ACHIEVE ALONE
defeat in 1944 shattering. She believed in fairness, even in Keynesianism at this point, but said individual enterprise was everything and any notion of progress or any mystical concept of the nation (as with the Nazis) had no empirical basis.
There were a couple of men she went out with before Denis Thatcher, one of whom she might have been in love with. At one point she described Denis as ‘‘ not a very attractive creature’’ — he had been married before and, she said later, a bit ruefully, she could never be the first Mrs Thatcher — though they seem to have been happy together (despite a midlife crisis of his that had him heading off to Africa for three months).
He was a businessman and his money meant her ascension to the upper middle class was assured. He maintained she only got preselection because he was away at the time and that if he had been there anyone would have said, ‘‘ We don’t like the look of that pair!’’
She rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party and by the time Ted Heath won office in 1970 was set for the ministry. Despite the fact that she hated the ‘‘ soft’’ jobs reserved for women — she would have liked to be chancellor of the exchequer — she became secretary of state for education and science. This is when she was dubbed ‘‘ Mrs Thatcher milksnatcher’’ because as a compromise measure she abolished school milk for all but tots in order to preserve other services.
A further irony was that she was charged with implementing the switch from the grammar school system to comprehensive schools. Thatcher was conscious of the fact the streamed grammar schools — for which children were tested at age 11 — allowed one in five kids to get the kind of education that could take them to the top of British society. She noted the leader of the Labour Party (Harold Wilson) and the leader of the Conservative Party (Heath) were grammar school products.
She said, too, it allowed ‘‘ people like me to have access to grammar schools so we could compete with people like Shirley Williams’’, referring to the noted Labour politician who with David Owen was to become one of the Gang of Four, the Social Democratic Party breakaway party that challenged Labour when it became unelectably left-wing.
It’s easy to forget now, in light of the Blair/ Brown consensus about economic liberalism, how parlous the British economy became in the 1970s, how much Heath’s government had tried to win the battle with the unions and failed miserably, and how much, after Wilson resigned suddenly and Jim Callaghan took over, the country became mired in inflation.
Ultimately, after Thatcher’s election victory it would also see an unrealistically left-wing Labour Party with the eloquent Michael Foot as leader but Tony Benn, that aristocratic turncoat, as the power behind the throne.
There was also a deep sense on both (moderate) sides of politics that only some kind of government of consensus, of Tory lambs sitting down with Union lions, could possibly make sense of the inflation-ridden mess the country was in.
Thatcher, after she took the leadership from Heath, set herself against this. As prime minister, in the face of Heath’s ‘‘ wet’’ strictures, she thundered that consensus ‘‘ was the process of abandoning all beliefs, prin- ciples, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects’’.
Thatcherism was a horror to old-style wet Tory grandees such as Ian Gilmour, who said of her monetarism: ‘‘ In the Conservative view . . . economic liberalism, a la Professor Hayek, because of its starkness and its failure to create a sense of community, is not a safeguard of political freedom but a threat to it.’’ On one occasion Thatcher said to Gilmour, ‘‘ Ian, don’t you believe in capitalism?’’ He thought this invocation of dogma was akin to blasphemy and replied: ‘‘ I don’t believe in socialism, if that’s what you mean.’’
Even Supermac said to her, ‘‘ The so-called ‘ money supply’ policy may be useful as a guide to what is happening just as a speedometer is in a car, but like a speedometer it cannot make the machine go faster or slower.’’ And Lord Hailsham advised: ‘‘ Almost all Roosevelt’s policies were wrong, but political economics is applied psychology, and they worked.’’
In fact Thatcher seems to have been more like this than her critics knew. As Moore writes, she took an economic theory (which Denis Healey, the previous Labour chancellor had applied in his budget) but the difference was that she believed in it on principle.
Thatcher in fact had a wartime belief in looking after people but she didn’t think the state was the ideal carer. Could state services ever compete with the good Samaritan who acted out of the goodness of his heart and the commands of religious duty? In much the same way she wanted tax cuts not least for the wealthy because she believed antiegalitarianism was the necessary basis of an enlightened capitalist society. ‘‘ Nations depend for their health, economically, culturally and psychologically, upon the achievements of a comparatively small number of talented and determined people,’’ she said.
Yes, the race can certainly appear to be there for the strong and there is no denying Thatcher’s extraordinary fortitude. Moore argues Thatcherism was never a philosophy but a disposition of mind. She embodied the absolute refusal to accept the idea of politics as the art of the possible. Like a religious devotee she believed in her political vision because it was impossible (or could seem so).
So she let the Irish hunger strikers die even as the Tory wets begged her to force feed them. Wouldn’t this be a denial of free will, she asked. At the same time she was susceptible to a letter from an Irishwoman, the mother of one of the dying. And because she was made of sterner stuff than most politicians, she could also say, ‘‘ You have to hand it to these IRA boys.’’ She could acknowledge courage when she saw it.
Long before, when Airey Neave, the Colditz hero got the so-called knights of the shire — the cash-poor, toffy, former World War II officer MPs — to vote for Thatcher (though a woman was the last thing they imagined as leader) he did so by playing on the fact the quality they admired most was courage.
She was a woman of iron. Anyone who reads Moore’s riveting account of how she fought the Falklands war and how she stared down Reagan’s secretary of state Alexander Haig (‘‘the devil Haig’’, as she called him) and she denounced as unspeakable any attempt to treat a military Junta and a constitutional democracy as morally equal will get a sense of her extraordinary mettle. No wonder Admiral Fieldhouse said of her: ‘‘ Keep that woman away from me. I have a war to fight.’’
But no wonder, either, that when she finally won, Hailsham said in cabinet that her ‘‘ courage and leadership’’ had ‘‘ added new lustre to our arms and the spirit of our people’’ and that he quoted Henry V: ‘‘ Non nobis Domine’’. She looked baffled at the Latin. The full line reads ‘‘ Not unto us, Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name be the glory’’.
Moore says the victory ‘‘ fitted her unusual mindset, which was both conservative and revolutionary’’. He also says it confirmed her in her sense, her dangerous sense, of what she could achieve alone.
This is a superbly told life of one of the most extraordinary women in British politics. It is impossible to imagine it being done better.
From left, Margaret Thatcher in her kitchen and with husband, Denis, when she was elected Tory leader in 1975; one reaction to her death this year, below