Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone review – From messiah to lonely lady
The third volume of Charles Moore’s biography is poignant but weak on her legacy
Margaret Thatcher: the period covered by this latest volume includes her growing frustration with the European Union. Photograph: Dan Chung/Reuters
Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone
This is the third and final volume of Charles Moore’s monumental biography of Margaret Thatcher. It covers the period from her third successive election victory in 1987, when she entered what might be called her Messianic phase, to her death in 2013.
Although the author, a former editor of the Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph, is an unabashed admirer of Thatcher, his judgments are balanced and his narrative, despite its length, flows easily. Because this is an authorised biography, he has had unhindered access to the vast archives that house her papers, personal and political. He has also had ready co-operation from her friends and former colleagues, not all of whom are well-disposed, although no one denies the scale of her impact on political life in the UK and beyond. Thatcher herself was never in doubt. “She always believed that she, and she alone, had rescued Britain from its post 45 years of semi-socialist decline,” said the author in the preface to the first volume. He added: “But she was not at all touchy or even anxious, about what history might say about her.”
The period covered by this latest volume includes her growing frustration with the European Union, which sowed the seeds of what came later; her platonic love affair with US president Ronald Reagan (not replicated by his successor, George Bush), which gave her enormous influence in Washington; the rise of Gorbachev and her part in persuading the Americans to take him seriously; the fall of the Berlin Wall leading to German reunification (to which she was opposed). There is also a blow-by-blow account of the dramatic events that led to her downfall. The story has been told elsewhere, but the author sheds new light on some of the darker corners. It was, he alleges, “a conspiracy in the tradition of the Tory establishment”.
The causes of her downfall were to a large extent self-inflicted, not least her habit of sniping at members of her own government and, in the case of her foreign secretary and later deputy (at least in name), Geoffrey Howe, repeatedly humiliating him in front of colleagues. “Her manner was often insufferable,” says the author. “There was an extreme contrast between Mrs Thatcher’s ability to inspire the love and loyalty of her immediate staff … who worked for her and her ability to insult and antagonise those, chiefly Cabinet ministers, who worked with her.”
Although he is dealing with ground that has already been well-trodden, Moore, because of his meticulous research and vast range of sources, adds depth and colour to just about every aspect of what, by any measure, is one of the most remarkable political lives of the 20th century. For me, however, the most interesting (and occasionally moving) chapters are the 130 pages devoted to her life after she left office.
At first she was boiling with rage, ranting about treachery and even contemplating the possibility that she might make a comeback. Although at first well-disposed towards John Major, her anointed successor, she gradually became contemptuous as he began to plough his own furrow, which in many respects was very different from what she regarded as the one true path. Although she was lionised abroad, particularly in the US, her interventions were increasingly resented by those in charge at home. After so long at the helm she did not easily adjust to the fact that she was no longer in charge. “The Almighty had shaped her to be prime minister, but not to do anything else,” remarked one of her advisers.
As the years passed a terrible emptiness set in. She rarely saw her children and grandchildren. After a series of small strokes, her mind began to wander. Her much-loved husband, Denis, died, leaving her well-cared-for but lonely. There were little outings: walks in Battersea Park, tea at the Hurlingham Club, picnics in Richmond Park with the protection officers who accompanied her everywhere. It comes to many of us in the end, but when a life has been so large as this, the lonely final last years are especially poignant.
Loved and loathed
My one great reservation, which applies to all three volumes, is that there is very little discussion of Margaret Thatcher’s long-term legacy. She was right about many things – not least the reform of trade union law and the phasing out of subsidies for lame-duck industries – but there is another story to be told and one that largely explains why she was loved and loathed in equal measure. For many people, especially in the old industrial towns, the Thatcher decade was a disaster. It saw the collapse of huge swathes of manufacturing industry, soaring unemployment, a breakdown of law and order and, in some of the most blighted areas, the collapse of all civilised life, resulting in the growth of a huge underclass, trapped in a world of benefit. To be sure there were many winners but they tended to be the southern middle classes whose votes were purchased with tax cuts and the sale, at knockdown prices, of the main utilities.
Arguably the bills are still coming in for the Thatcher decade. The near meltdown of the financial system in 2007-2008 had its roots in the deregulation of the City of London, the so-called Big Bang. As a direct result of the much trumpeted sale of public housing about 40 per cent of former council houses are now in the hands of buy-to-let landlords who have jacked up rents as far as the elastic will stretch, with the result that huge sums of public money, which might otherwise have been spent on house-building, now flows, via housing benefit, into the pockets of landlords. And her decision to allow Rupert Murdoch to take control of the Times and Sunday Times in addition to the Sun and the News of the World also had a major impact on British political and social culture, which still reverberates.
Thirty years after her downfall it ought to be possible to have a rational discussion of her legacy, but that is not to be found in this massive tome.
Chris Mullin was the MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010. His latest novel, The Friends of Harry Perkins, was published earlier this year