Margaret Thatcher, The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning, by Charles Moore
The former ‘Daily Telegraph’ editor’s debut book, ending with Thatcher’s victory in the Falklands, is a triumph of scholarship, rigour and fair-mindedness
Margaret Thatcher, The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning
Charles Moore is in many ways a surprising choice as Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer. As he disarmingly points out in his author’s jacket note, this is his first book. Moreover, with his Old Etonian background and air of noblesse oblige, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph might have seemed more “knight of the shire” than “one of us”. He is also a Catholic convert and inhabits a different interior world from the strict Methodism of Thatcher’s childhood or even the Anglican choral matins of her old age.
Yet perhaps it is these differences that help make him an inspired choice. For while Moore generally admires Thatcher, and often agrees with her, he never does so uncritically. Here there is a striking parallel with the 19th-century prime minister William Gladstone. The Grand Old Man, a deeply committed, if guilt-ridden, Christian, asked the radical, agnostic John Morley to write his biography, resulting in one of the finest political biographies ever written. Moore may yet come to stand alongside Morley as one of the great biographers. For the first volume of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography is a triumph of scholarship, rigour and fair-mindedness.
Moore’s decision always to refer to his subject after her youth as “Mrs Thatcher” asserts the apostolic line of succession to her as the longest-serving British prime minister since “Mr Gladstone”. Unlike Gladstone, however, Thatcher did not enjoy the benefit of great wealth and influence from birth. The story of Margaret Roberts growing up above a grocer’s shop in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham, is well known, and has been told in detail before, including in Thatcher’s own memoirs. Perhaps for that reason, or because he is au fond a political animal, Moore’s retelling is uncharacteristically a little flat, never quite capturing provincial life between the wars in the way, for example, of John Campbell in The Grocer’s Daughter . After 37 pages we’re out of Grantham, like Thatcher herself, without so much as a backward glance. What later correspondence suggests, says Moore, perhaps echoing his own thoughts, “is a woman so busy and so keen to get on that her family roots do not interest her very much and her family problems do not engage her imagination”.
After Grantham came Oxford University, where Thatcher often appeared “lonely and disconsolate”. Certainly she did not fit into the prevailing left-wing ethos of Somerville College. Moore shows that Thatcher was a better scientist than has often been said. Her tutor, Dorothy Hodgkin, noted that her honours year research was “useful” – not much of a plaudit for an arts graduate, perhaps, but rather more significant when said of a science student by a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Moreover, it was under Hodgkin’s supervision that Thatcher developed a respect for, and willingness to defer to, genuine expertise. It was a quality that later would save her premiership during the Falklands crisis.
Throughout the book, Moore reiterates time and again Thatcher’s “extreme privacy” on personal matters, so that when he digs up old boyfriends (including one who married Thatcher’s sister, Muriel), we feel a certain squeamishness on her behalf. The same applies to her relationship with Denis Thatcher, who had the good grace barely to utter a word in public while his wife was prime minister. Moore suggests that in the 1960s Denis “may even have contemplated divorce”, yet as the source for this revelation is Carol Thatcher, who was away at boarding school at the time, we can take her judgment with a pinch of salt.
Moore’s biography really takes flight once Margaret Thatcher enters parliament, with the Macmillan landslide of 1959. Moore has enjoyed unique access to Thatcher’s private papers and, for her career in office, was granted official clearance to read government documents. He has a marked advantage over other historians, enabling him to fill in the gaps and offer more nuanced judgments, even on well-rehearsed topics. His writing style is crisp and formal without being strident or dull (although, perhaps in deference to his subject, we don’t get the first joke until page 434). In all, this is a dramatic story, brilliantly told.
From the outset, many in parliament and the civil service made the mistake of underestimating Thatcher, partly because she was a woman, partly because she was never a smooth operator. More perceptive observers recognised her abilities, and even understood what they implied. Perhaps the most astute judgment was the very first one, at the ministry of pensions in 1961, made by her political boss, John Boyd-Carpenter, in conversation with Sir Eric Bowyer, his senior official. What did Bowyer think of her, Boyd-Carpenter asked. “ ‘She’s very able. She will go a long way,’ the permanent secretary remarked. The Minister nodded grim agreement: ‘She’s trouble. What can we do to keep her busy?’ ”
In fact, as politicians and officials would come to learn over the next three decades, even keeping Mrs Thatcher busy would not keep her out of their hair.
Once Thatcher became prime minister, in 1979, she made it her business to be both busy and troublesome. “Mrs Thatcher’s chief method of exerting her will over the machine [of government] was not institutional but personal,” Moore writes. “She used every remark, every memo, every meeting as an opportunity to challenge existing habits, criticize any sign of ignorance, confusion or waste and preach incessantly the main aims of her administration.” This often left ministers and officials running to catch up, sometimes literally.
On one occasion, Thatcher arrived early for a meeting at the department of employment. Finding no one there to greet her, she simply went up in the lift, just as the minister, Jim Prior, was sauntering down to meet her. Prior, “red-faced at the best of times, went purple in his race to catch up with her. When his panting party arrived, he found the Prime Minister already in full flood.”
In telling the story of Thatcher’s life up to 1982, Moore takes for the most part a chronological approach, not making the mistake of letting the issues of the day deflect his attention from the life. One of the exceptions to this method is Thatcher’s policy on Ireland, which has a chapter to itself. In many ways, this reflects Thatcher’s own attitude, writes Moore, as she “always thought of the people of Northern Ireland, even the unionist population, as ‘they’, quite separate from ‘us’.” Moreover, he continues, “she found the Irish, on both sides, irritating – their preference for cultural politics over the more clear-cut economic debates at Westminster, their prolixity and what she believed to be their unreliability”.
Thatcher did make an effort to learn more about Ireland, taking books by FSL Lyons and Dervla Murphy on holiday, but there was never any real meeting of minds. “You don’t expect anything decent to come from an Irishman,” she once remarked in private – and, Moore adds, “she was only half in jest”. After the 1981 hunger strikes, many, perhaps even most, in Ireland and within the nationalist community in the North, were happy to say the same of her. But she was not left untouched by that crisis. “If we get back” after the next general election, she told one of her officials, “I should like to do something about Ireland.”
Charles Haughey believed that Thatcher’s behaviour during the hunger strikes lost him the general election in 1981. When he returned to power in March 1982 he took his revenge by making trouble for Britain in the United Nations, as Thatcher faced the defining crisis of her political career: the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentine forces.
In retrospect, the Falklands conflict looks like an easy victory for Britain. It was nothing of the sort, and not because it satisfies Wellington’s dictum that there is no such thing as a little war for a great nation. In fact, the war in 1982 seemed to be a question about whether Britain could still call itself great.
When Thatcher gathered her ministers and officials together for their first council of war, the answer seemed to be in the negative. “You’ll have to take them back,” Thatcher told John Nott, the defence secretary. His stark reply was: “We can’t.” Only the arrival of the first sea lord, Henry Leach, saved the day; he told Thatcher that he could assemble a task force to retake the islands.
Moore tells the story of the war with great verve and drama, making clear that, had Thatcher failed, she would have been forced from office. A significant part of the tale is her irritation with the American president Ronald Reagan, who, despite a tilt towards Britain during the conflict, remained a fickle ally throughout. “When she came to write her memoirs, she decided not mention it because of the sour taste it left,” Moore notes of one unhelpful intervention. “She wanted to give a more positive account of her relations with Reagan.”
On the day of victory, the Conservative MP and diarist Alan Clark bumped into Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary, Ian Gow, in the House of Commons and told him that “the prime minister has complete freedom of action now”. Clark was right. “No transformation in modern British history had been swifter,” Moore concludes, “or more complete. She now had command of the whole field.”’
What Britain’s first woman prime minister did with that ascendancy will be the story of volume two of this authorised biography. Charles Moore has set himself quite a task to match the quality of the first volume. John Morley pulled it off for Mr Gladstone. Every student of British history, whatever their political persuasion, will be rooting for Moore to do the same for Mrs Thatcher.
Richard Aldous teaches history at Bard College, New York State. He is the author, most recently, of Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship , now available in Arrow paperback.