SHE MEANT BUSINESS
Margaret Thatcher’s glory years reconstituted the very grammar of modern politics, writes Peter Craven
For biographer Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher belies the Socratic axiom that the unexamined life is not worth living and contradicts Francis Bacon’s reflection that great power comes only to she who climbs the winding stair. She wasn’t reflective or subtle or scheming. But who would have thought what the glory years after the Falklands conflict would hold? Who would have guessed that it would be the Iron Lady, of all people, who would realise Mikhail Gorbachev was a man with whom you could do business?
Who could have predicted that her long and bitter war against the coalminers, which would trouble the Queen herself, would lead to victory? Or, conversely, that she would embrace a policy such as the poll tax and expect the dustman to pay the same rate as the duchess? That she would secure massive compensation from fellow members of the European Economic Community or that her campaign of privatisation would conquer the world? Or that she would alienate so many of her closest associates. Or that the same woman who refused to put sanctions on South Africa would reach a historic accord with the Republic of Ireland that would lead to peace in the troubled north. When the IRA bombed her in Brighton, the leftwing playwright Howard Brenton exclaimed: ‘‘I don’t approve of her as Prime Minister, but by God she’s a great tank commander.’’
She ran Britain for 11½ years and won three successive elections. She had a higher international standing than any British leader since Winston Churchill and a greater influence than any Englishwoman since Elizabeth I. This second instalment of Moore’s official biography covers the action-packed years between the end of the Falklands War in June 1982 and the 1987 general elections, with various backward glances and foreshadowings. Moore is working on the third and final volume.
When the palace leaked the Queen’s displeasure over the miners’ strike, The Sunday Times refused to back down because editor Andrew Neil knew how high the source was. Yet the Queen attended the funeral of the prime minister she had not loved.
That toffiest and mildest of Tories, Harold Macmillan, declared, when he finally and reluctantly reached the House of Lords, that Thatcher had sold the family silver. Moore suggests in a crafty defence that, no, she allowed the silver to be distributed among the people of Britain. But even he had been willing to see her fall. And he admits the reeling horror of the global financial crisis, which still casts its shadow — not least with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — means the jury is still out on what she achieved by turning the City of London into more of a speculator’s haven than it had ever been.
There’s a rhetorical case that she destroyed Scotland and the north and made life harder for people already doing it hard. And yet there are little old ladies in Glasgow who own their houses because of her and journalists who own property in London because of her and who will never, therefore, be poor. Rupert Murdoch broke the stranglehold of the print unions to a near universal groan of dismay, but does anyone resent it now? Thatcher made that possible and every newspaper management in the nation felt gratitude because she had created the conditions for what looked like their long continuance.
It’s an extraordinary life, like or loathe the woman. She’s extraordinary in the courage and determination with which she pursues the Hong Kong cause before the Chinese, and they — the tyrants of Tiananmen who are not fainthearted — recognise they are in the presence of a power and a dominant personality.
How symbolic and inauspicious then that she should have fallen on her face as she was leaving the Great Hall of the People.
Yet she seems to have hit on the privatisation policy that transformed the world not out of ideological conviction but as a way of solving the problem of what to do with lumbering stateowned elephants such as British Telecom. And she did work out that even the hypothesis changed everything. “Depend on it, when you are going to be privatised in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully,” she said.
But she was completely uncertain at the outset as to what she was doing. And some of the Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography Volume Two: Everything She Wants By Charles Moore Allen Lane, 821pp, $59.99 (HB) brightest Conservatives such as Chris Patten thought, as Moore records, that “the Tory Party was completely off the rails under Margaret”. She was bound to win the post-Falklands 1983 election and she mocked Denis Healey in the House of Commons and fell into dialect. “The Rt. Hon. Gentleman is afraid of an election, is he? Afraid? Frightened? Frit?” She declared — rather magnificently — that the Social Democrats were people “who hadn’t had the guts to stay within the Labour Party”.
When she won the 1983 election, she established policy units answering simply to her. Ferdinand Mount (later to edit The Times Literary Supplement), who encouraged this, said that working in the Thatcher hothouse was a somewhat bizarre holiday from irony. She could see Norman Tebbit was her necessary bulldog but enraged him by the way she shackled and supervised him. When the young Matthew Parris came to see her about gay rights, she said to him, “There, dear … That must been very hard to say.”
But if she could be as blind as a bat, she had depths of shrewdness. When there was a movement to reintroduce capital punishment (because of IRA terrorism) she expressed rhetorical approval but let it be known she expected to lose the vote because she knew this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But there is a poignancy about this woman in the very midst of her fierceness which Moore captures superbly. After the 1983 victory she said, “I have not long to go … my party won’t want me to lead them into the next election, and I don’t blame them.” She was, of course, a oneman band — scarcely acknowledging her cabinet — and the fact that the man was a woman made it even harder.
And although she was a warrior of flint — the continuing character of contemporary Hong Kong is largely because of her toughness as a negotiator — she was reluctant about giving the bullet. When Cecil Parkinson got his secretary pregnant, she wouldn’t say the words of dismissal. “It’s up to you,” she said. Of course he resigned.
Often Thatcher was a whirlwind of incomprehension. She declared her first term had been about changing attitudes but “what we have to do now is change the world”, unconscious of the fact that she was echoing Marx’s dictum about the difference between philosophical interpretation and political revolution. And with the help of a formidable team she created a political sphere that extended far beyond traditional conservatism and reconstituted the very grammar of modern politics.
Yet this Joan of Arc of what Napoleon called the nation of shopkeepers achieved this on instinctive convictions about economics but with no clear vision of what would ensue. Her toughness in practice seems paradoxically to have made her capable of a flexibility that was not naturally part of her make-up. She was delighted when the Hungarian — communist — leader told her that he was trying to explain the government had no money of its own. That was what she always said.
And she realised the significance of Gorbachev partly because she was such an absolute believer in the importance of nuclear deterrence. She feared Ronald Reagan would get rid of nuclear weapons and was sceptical about the Star Wars scheme.
It’s also sad and ironic that the conquering heroine of the Falklands and the woman whose economic policy was to so influence Reagan should have felt spurned when he went into Grenada without so much as telling her.
Why? “Because I didn’t want her to say no,” old honey voice purred shamefacedly. He was scared he wouldn’t be able to go through with it if he told her in advance. His chief of staff, Howard Baker, said: “Maggie Thatcher was the only person who could intimidate Ronald Reagan.” She interrupted him watching a western: “What are you doing sending ships? We don’t want a war.”
She was appalled that a country of which the Queen was the nominal head could be invaded. Afterwards Reagan said to her, “If I were there, Margaret, I’d throw my hat in the door before I came in.” Her reproof has a ringing authority: “If you are pronouncing a new law ... then we are going to have really terrible wars in the world. I have always said … that the West has defensive forces in order to defend our own way of life and when things happen in other countries which we don’t like, we don’t just march in.”
The historian Hugh Thomas said she had the authority Charles de Gaulle had given France. It’s not an unjust parallel. The woman who reproved Reagan wouldn’t have followed George W. Bush into Iraq as did her disciple Tony Blair.
The battle with Arthur Scargill and the miners was her Algerian War and it might have been her Paris 1968. She understood the momentous nature of what she was doing when she built up coal supplies in preparation for the next strike. She was lucky Scargill was a temperamental and tactical extremist explicitly preoccupied with the overthrow of an elected government. But she was extraordinarily ruthless in crushing the miners by a war of attrition rather than by negotiation.
It all drew from her great reserves of emotional intensity and identification with the miners who continued to work. It was as if everything that was petit bourgeois in her, everything that disdained the collectivism of working-class solidarity as quasi-communist, rose up like a massive flame. “Scabs!” she exclaimed. “They are lions.”
She saw the miners and miners’ wives who
Margaret Thatcher with US president Ronald Reagan in 1985