Mar­garet Thatcher’s glory years re­con­sti­tuted the very gram­mar of mod­ern pol­i­tics, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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