6 November 2015

Margaret Thatcher Vol 2 by Charles Moore: ‘A biography worthy of its subject’


Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants. Charles Moore, Allen Lane, RRP £30

In the summer of 1983, Margaret Thatcher appeared to be the mistress of all she surveyed. Four years earlier, she had thrust herself into global events, to the dismay of those who had been in charge. Carter, Schmidt, Giscard, Roy Jenkins (President of the European Commission): they all saw the world in similar ways and had found it easy to cooperate with Jim Callaghan.

Then came this shrill woman who would not stop talking, who did not understand the rules of the game and whose principal contribution was a nagging naivete. Most of them assumed that she would be a transient figure. Four years later, they were all gone, as was Brezhnev. Suddenly, she was the senior international geopolitician.

The same four years had transformed her standing in Britain. In 1979, it seemed more than likely that Thatcher would be a one-term Prime Minister. Her very Cabinet was full of dissidents. Although she was determined to overthrow the postwar consensus, a lot of wise Tories were not convinced that she knew what she was doing.

She accused her critics of acquiescing in the orderly management of decline. Some of them accused her of preparing for the disorderly management of chaos. In 1979, at home and abroad, even among those who refused to write her off, no one predicted that she would become a world-historical figure. Four years later, she was on her way.

Even before the 1983 election, her Cabinet critics had been sacked or marginalised. To fill the gaps, she had brought on her own men: Brittan, Lawson, Parkinson, Tebbit. She then won that election with a majority of 140. In response, Labour moved from Michael Foot to his former PPS, Neil Kinnock.  His party was a long march away from electability; the Left still divided between Labour and the SDP. She had won despite three million unemployed and a struggle – still not completed – to control inflation and the public finances. But the next parliament was bound to be easier.

Abroad, Ronald Reagan was virtually in love with her (oddly enough, Nancy did not share her husband’s adoration). The President was happy to allow the Prime Minister a lot of limelight as the leading lady in the Western alliance, to the extent that she sometimes appeared to be the dominant figure. Blonde hair, flashing blue eyes, her femininity reinforced by passionately held views expressed in striking language: this was no ordinary politician, indeed, no ordinary statesman. This was a warrior Queen.

So what could possibly go wrong? There is a short answer: everything. The first volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography was acclaimed, and the second is a worthy successor. This may well come to be recognised as the second-best biography in the language, surpassed only by Boswell.

Our author is distilling a vast amount of intellectually complex material into a compelling narrative. This is a double exploration: the relationship of a fascinating and complex personality with embattled events. Mr Moore would be entitled to paraphrase Virgil: “Arma feminamque cano“.

The personality was neither easy nor always admirable. One suspects that take her for all in all, Moore finds her less likable than he did when he embarked upon the project.

There were strengths. Churchill could be appallingly inconsiderate to anyone around him, but was rescued by his force of personality and his generosity of spirit. Despite his army training, Ted Heath could be swinishly selfish in his dealings with underlings, with no redeeming generosity of spirit. Mrs Thatcher was almost always courteous to those who could not answer back.

She reserved the hand-baggings for foreign grandees, senior officials – and Cabinet ministers. After the PM had reduced an early European summit to rubble, Ian Gilmour, still – just – a Cabinet minister, said that she would insist on talking to heads of government as if they were members of her Cabinet.

That was part of the problem. In Volume One, Moore quoted extensively from the so-called “blockbuster” memorandum which John Hoskyns, the outgoing head of her Policy Unit, had sent her. Inter alia – there was a lot of alia – he complained about her failures in man-management. Although she was shaken, it did no good. In the second term, she got worse.

In all this, there was a fascinating distinction. In the unlikely event of Margaret Thatcher ever subjecting herself to the psychiatrist’s couch and being asked to respond to “civil servant”, there would have been a snort of derision. If they were any good, they would be doing a proper job in the private sector, not pen-pushing in Whitehall.

But she always exercised the privilege of her sex, to refuse to reconcile the particular with the general. If the trick-cyclist had continued “Robert Armstrong, Robin Butler, Charles Powell” she would have said: “Wonderful men. Where can I find ministers who are half as good?” This did not make for an easy relationship with her actual ministers, where there was far too little generosity of spirit.

Ironically enough, one of her staunchest supporters was the first to complain. When she tried to second-guess Norman Tebbit on the basis of material gleaned from Downing Street advisors, he reacted with asperity. He was the Secretary of State. If she did not like the advice he was giving her, she should find herself a new Secretary of State. Confronted by an angry Norman, she backed off. Other Cabinet Ministers were neither as indispensable nor as brave.

Above all, there was the problem of Geoffrey Howe. In her first parliament, the two of them had stood shoulder to shoulder in defence of Thatcherism against her Keynesian critics. She had needed him; she had never liked him. He grated on her; it was as if her very viscera rejected him. Yet she made him Foreign Secretary. That great office of state requires the closest cooperation with the PM.

Indeed, there is always a difficulty, because most Prime Ministers inevitably intervene in foreign affairs, and the easiest personal relationship can come under strain. With Geoffrey, there had never been an easy personal relationship, and there was a further source of tension. Although Europe mattered less than it did subsequently, there was a profound and irreconcilable divergence. He was a Euro-fanatic: she, a Eurosceptic. There was always going to be big trouble between her and Geoffrey.

Charles Moore tries to explain the tension between her and her – male – ministers. As men, they were part of a club which would offer succour to members in adversity. As a woman, she had no such support mechanism. Yes, and no. Given the ignorant fascination which those male establishments often inspire, the “club” point is not helpful. It is not as if a male politician in difficulty could salvage his career by getting sloshed in White’s. But leaving clubs aside, she was an outsider who probably never finally outgrew social anxiety. She also lacked David Cameron’s easy intellectual self-confidence.

In this volume, Bernard Ingham, her devoted Press Secretary, emerges as a political advisor of the highest quality – and as an unwitting humourist. Early on, he advises her to help prepare people for a quiet life. No Prime Minister in history was less qualified for that task. Bernard might as well have suggested that she found a female Trappist monastery.

At moments, she had brief insights into her stressful ways with colleagues. She told one Tory MP that the party would not allow her to fight the next election – and the party would be right. Although that was both an untypical judgment and a premature one, she had a point. As the years passed, the longing grew for a more emollient leader: for a pilot who would sometimes switch off the “fasten seat-belts” sign. There were mutterings in the ranks. The discontent was still latent. But it was growing.

Yet she had an excuse, as Moore demonstrates. It was very difficult to be Prime Minister. At home and abroad, the pressures crowded in. There was a miners’ strike to win. The beloved Ron was not sound on the nuclear deterrent. The economy always needed attention and as the parliament went on, she and her second Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, began to disagree. Even so, she found the mental energy to see the point of Gorbachev and to realise that the world might be about to change.

The stamina is awe-inspiring. Hers is a remarkable story. For all her faults and failures, she was the greatest female leader since Elizabeth I: one of the greatest women of all time

This book is more cautious in its assessment; our author is reluctant to bestow superlatives. Although Charles Moore has converted to Rome, he is too English to be a hagiographer. But he has achieved the almost impossible: a biography worthy of its subject. Ultimately, she was an inspiration and a saviour.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.