In 1991, less than a year after Tory MPs deposed her as party leader and prime minister, Margaret Thatcher appeared on the platform at the Conservatives’ annual conference with her successor, John Major. Thatcher was not scheduled to speak, Charles Moore explains, but the Tory hierarchy realised that her standing with the party membership meant that a brief appearance couldn’t be avoided. Yet the event did not go according to plan. For six minutes, the audience cheered, applauded, stamped, and chanted, “We want Maggie!” Her parliamentary assassins looked on miserably.
It’s a great moment in a book full of them. But arguably it’s also a moment the Conservatives have been stuck in ever since. With their ever escalating hostility to the EU, their stubborn faith in free-market capitalism, their unease with urban and northern Britain and their yearning for a mighty leader, the Tories are still the party Thatcher largely created during her epic leadership from 1975 to 1990. Moore’s monumental official biography – three volumes, almost 3,000 pages, the books published at regular intervals since her death in 2013 – has played a significant part in maintaining Thatcherism’s hold over the party. All three books are measured in tone and have their critical passages but Moore is, at bottom, a believer. Near the end of this concluding volume, when he finally lets his hair down, he calls her “the greatest genius ever to direct the affairs of the United Kingdom”.
Yet for non-believers this volume ought to be the most palatable, since it covers her declining years in government, from 1987 to 1990, and her often melancholy 23 years afterwards. It also appears with both conservatism and capitalism seemingly in crisis: even the Financial Times has started using the slogan “Capitalism: Time for a Reset”. Unlike Thatcher’s previous biographers, Moore has the chance to judge her against the troubled, unsustainable world she helped create.
He begins with a beautifully balanced section on the ambiguousness of her position in 1987. On the one hand, she had just won her third successive general election, and by a landslide; on the other, her ascendancy had lasted so long, by the impatient standards of British politics, that even close colleagues were tiring of her. Previously more flexible than her Iron Lady persona suggested – her first two terms as premier had been full of well-timed U-turns – during her third term Thatcher really did become rigid. She remained an adherent of the contentious economic doctrine of monetarism, despite its huge social costs and erratic benefits, while her chancellor, the clever, competitive Nigel Lawson, had moved on in his policy thinking.
Similarly, during the late 80s, Thatcher became steadily more convinced that European integration was a project Britain should resist, almost regardless of how that resistance affected relations with our closest neighbours. Her foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe – once an ally, now increasingly alienated – disagreed. The two senior ministers began to plot against her, more aggressively, Moore suggests, than they were prepared to admit in their memoirs. Meanwhile, the Tory hierarchy and parliamentary party, which had never completely accepted that they should be led by a radical woman, watched closely for any sign that Thatcher’s performance or popularity was deteriorating.
In 1989, around the tenth anniversary of her election as prime minister, the polls turned decisively against her and the Conservatives. Voters had tired of her abrasive, imperial style, and the damage her iconoclastic policies had done to the fabric of Britain. Meanwhile, like most ageing governments, hers had become “accident-prone”, as Moore pithily puts it, beset by increasingly visible splits, scandals and administrative errors. In 1990 Thatcher’s many internal enemies finally moved to unseat her.
Moore builds a Westminster drama that is compelling and emotionally raw despite the fact that many readers will know the key scenes already
Moore conveys brilliantly the sense of the walls closing in: first slowly and erratically, with regular apparent reprieves for Thatcher, and then very fast. As her official biographer, and a famous journalist and rightwinger, he has had access to more verbal and written sources than probably any other historian of Thatcherism, and he uses them to build a Westminster drama that is compelling and emotionally raw despite the fact that many readers will know the key scenes already. Some parts have a novelistic quality rarely found in the careful pages of political biographies.
Early on the morning of her last day in office, for example, her hairdresser Paul Allen realised that he had forgotten to bring a comb to 10 Downing Street. None of the staff there had one, and Thatcher was too distraught for him to ask her. So he decided to look for one surreptitiously in her official apartment. “The flat was, as usual, open,” Moore writes. “He crept upstairs and knocked softly on every door lest the prime minister should be behind it. She was not. Allen extracted the comb and fled downstairs.”
Unfortunately for the book’s rhythm, the chapters covering the causes and details of her downfall are interrupted by a huge section about her foreign policy achievements. To an extent, this digression is probably unavoidable: abroad, Thatcher’s power and status peaked later than they did at home. Her telegenic persona, her sheer longevity as a leader, the spread of Thatcherite free-market policies around the world, and the end of the cold war – Moore suggests her rapport with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev played a key part – all gave her an almost impregnable international reputation by the end of the 80s. Moore even tries to burnish it further, by arguing that she was a pioneering voice against climate change, and an underestimated contributor to the ending of apartheid.
The former chapter is more convincing than the latter. While Moore provides plenty of evidence that she helped the African National Congress (ANC) behind the scenes, he does not properly consider whether her public condemnation of the ANC as “a typical terrorist organisation” in 1987, or her loud opposition to the international campaign of sanctions against South Africa, helped prolong the apartheid government’s hold on power. Revealingly, according to Moore her “terrorist” speech against the ANC came after the organisation had warned it might attack British businesses in South Africa, in protest at her sanctions stance. For Thatcher, the interests of business nearly always came first.
This was not just ideological. A scientist by training, she “was instinctively happier with matters that could be quantified”, Moore writes – with the seemingly hard data of profit rather than with the fuzzier outlines of social trends. This is a crucial point about Thatcherism. She was often incurious about, or actively hostile to, the huge changes afoot in social values in late 20th century Britain, regarding sexuality, race and non-economic personal freedoms. So her social policies lost their attractiveness to many voters long before her free-market ones did.
Yet having highlighted her fogeyishness, Moore – perhaps because he is a bit of a fogey himself – does not explore its implications. For all the awesome scale and thoroughness of his trilogy, over 20 years in the researching and writing, the shifting social texture of Britain under Thatcher is largely missing. Without it, the books fall short of being definitive. Thatcher fell, and the still-Thatcherite Tory party has struggled since, not just because of political plots and personalities – grippingly portrayed here though they are – but because Thatcherism gradually stopped offering dreams and solutions to ordinary Britons.
Another disappointment is this volume’s treatment of her life after Downing Street. Almost a quarter of a century is wrapped up in fewer than 120 pages, and with few revelations. Herself Alone is a sad, suggestive title, but the book’s intention is signalled more accurately by its cover: a flatteringly unlined and commanding portrait of Thatcher taken in 1991, before her decline really set in, by the celebrity photographer of dominant women Helmut Newton. Thatcherism, the book implies, remains as full of potential as ever. Moore criticises her governing tone as insensitive and divisive, but not the substance of what her governments did. A comparison of the Britain she promised and the country we have actually lived in since is not something this book dares to offer.
Instead, we get a few concluding insights into Thatcher as a person. They are all sharp, and often make her seem more sympathetic. Perhaps the best of all is this: “Mrs Thatcher combined an immense assurance about following her own way with a permanent uneasiness in life.” She created an uneasy country for the rest of us to live in.
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