Review by David Beechey
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore, Knopf: New York, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0307958945, 896 pp., $15.98 (Amazon), $14.98 (Kindle); originally published in the United Kingdom as Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning, Alan Lane Publishers: London, 2013, ISBN: 13-978-0713992823.
This is a big book in more senses than one and, despite its length and the close type, it only covers the first part of Margaret Thatcher’s political life and ends with the retaking of the Falkland Islands from Argentina.
Mrs Thatcher chose Charles Moore and it was agreed between them that nothing would be published before her death and the result is that many of her contemporaries have spoken more freely in interviews with the author than they might otherwise have done. There are many unexpected observations. There are eleven pages of acknowledgements and the list of interviewees is impressive. The last one on the list is surprising in that Moore gives his “special thanks to Tommy, my hunter, who jumps everything and who was essential to my sanity”! Charles Moore is a surprising choice because he is right wing, High Church, High Tory, and a faux Aristocrat. He went to Eton and loves to partake in the country sports, beloved by the aristocracy. He is far from the sort of person that Margaret Thatcher would have found as a natural companion coming from her lower middle class background.
There are very few people over thirty years old in the UK who do not have very strong views about Mrs Thatcher because she almost singlehandedly halted Britain’s decline into socialism. There are still many people who are sorry that she did so. She was above all English as opposed to being British and she did not have much time for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Her attitude to Scotland leaves no doubt in my mind that had there been a referendum about Scottish Independence in the 1990s then Scotland would have left the UK. Moore makes it quite clear that he believes that her instinctive, stubborn beliefs in self-help, sound money, low taxes and patriotism saved Britain from near terminal decline. Many people in the UK still feel the opposite.
The author traces her early childhood and her relationship with her family. She adored her Father who was at one time Mayor of the small Lincolnshire town of Grantham as well as the owner of a successful grocer’s shop. He was a Methodist lay preacher and well respected although Moore seems to have unearthed evidence that he was a “groper” of women. Her mother is described by Mrs Thatcher’s sister as a “bigoted Methodist” and a 17-year-old Jewish refugee that they took in during the First World War soon moved out because of the stifling atmosphere.
The details of Mrs Thatcher’s education are fascinating and her single-minded efforts and how she fought her way into an Oxford College I found to be inspiring. It was not easy in the 1950’s for a girl from her background to achieve that. She obtained a degree in Chemistry and, as she loved to tell people, “I am the first Prime Minister to be a scientist.” Moore’s privileged background and the fact that he went to a Public School and was brought up by a wealthy family on the south coast of England shows when he attempts to describe post War people like her family. He just does not understand what it would have been like.
Where Moore does get it right is in his lengthy and detailed descriptions of her attempts to get a seat as an M.P. and how she did it in the teeth of privilege and the attitude of upper class men towards women in the 1950’s and 60’s. This was as well as being poorly paid and having to make her own clothes. She met and married a successful and wealthy businessman, Denis Thatcher and, now having the financial stability, she decided that she needed a law degree. So, in typical Thatcher style she set about getting one. The author shows that it was her mastery of detail on political issues and her indefatigable efforts attending small scale events charity bazaars, knocking on doors to meet constituents, etc. that got her noticed because this was deeply unfashionable amongst Conservative politicians. She had no interest in holidays, reading for pleasure, theatres, concerts, films or any of the pastimes of most people although she did make huge efforts to catch up on modern novels and economic theory when she appeared to suddenly realise that she was “the eternal scholarship girl.” This may have been stimulated by her first visit to the United States after she became Leader of the Opposition when her hosts commented “she’s not the sort of person you would find very agreeable on a one-to-one Dinner date.”
Mrs Thatcher is often portrayed as a politician who would not bend or compromise, indeed that was an image she liked to encourage, but a politician who would never accept compromise would not, in a democracy, get very far and Moore shows that time after time she did agree to support and carry out policies that she thought were wrong. Her first major problem with compromise came when she achieved her first taste of high office it was as shadow Education Minister in 1969. The British educational system required that all children took a test when they were eleven years old. The more intellectually able went to Grammar Schools, many of them hundreds of years old, and Secondary Moderns. Grammar Schools were the opportunity for bright children from poorer backgrounds to get on. Thatcher and her leader Edward Heath were both products of this system but the Labour Party had developed a fierce ideological commitment to abolish Grammar schools and replace them and the Secondary Moderns with “comprehensive schools” where theoretically coming from a privileged background would make no difference. She was strongly opposed but was told to keep quiet on the issue and was not used on TV because her lack of enthusiasm was marked. Moore, because of his background, really shows that he does not actually understand what the issues were and he fails to point out the social stigma many Middle Class parents felt if their offspring failed the 11+ as the exam was called.
Moore is very good in describing how she fought her way to become the Leader of the Conservative Party mainly by cleverly positioning herself as the alternative to Edward Heath as a “real” conservative and again as a master of detail in any argument or debate. Those in the Party around her noticed that despite her inexperience, nervousness, and social insecurity she had undoubted public impact. The joke began to go around the Conservatives that it was a “race between a filly and a gelding.” At the time the Labour Party was struggling with left wing activists both inside and outside the government. Strikes were rife and many local governments became strongly socialist. The strikes were lengthy and often and were particularly prevalent in the State owned industries such as steel, water, gas, coal, electricity, railways and even the NHS and October 1978 until the season before the election became known as the Winter of Discontent. I remember well on many occasions having to abandon cooking breakfast because there was, suddenly, no power. I was on a plane travelling back from the US to the UK on the night of the General Election in 1979 when the pilot announced to the passengers that the Conservatives had won. The aircraft passengers erupted into tumultuous hand clapping and cheering at the news.
Moore used 420 pages to get to the Conservative victory and although it made interesting and stimulating reading it pales beside the remainder of the book. It was an astonishing feat for Margaret Thatcher to achieve what she did and she knew it and in her first speech as Prime Minister she referred to the fact that she came from a “small town and a very modest home…and that I believe has won the election.” Moore agrees with that statement, as do I. She had shown the electorate that the Conservatives were not all wealthy, snobbish, aristocrats out of touch with little empathy for the people although many were. Most of those voters were impressed by the phenomenon of a Party leader in search of ideas and many were also impressed by her sexuality and she is quoted as saying that she had “a really red hot figure.”
Moore then devotes the next 230 pages to the struggles that Mrs Thatcher had in dealing with the Unions, abandoning the wages and incomes policy, which had caused the previous government so much trouble. She massively reduced income tax and started the privatisation of the State-owned industries, which effectively started to break the stranglehold that the unions had achieved. The descriptions of her battles with the senior Tories and, to a lesser extent, with the Civil Service are very well documented and explained and I was amused by the fact that she did much of her own food shopping and cooking even if it was often Marks and Spencer’s shepherds pies. It is hard to imagine an American President asking his chauffeur to stop outside a supermarket whilst he went inside to get the evening meal. Mrs Thatcher had very little experience of foreign affairs and it was in her trips to the United States that she met Ronald Reagan and they rapidly developed a rapport. Moore interestingly came up with the fact that although they often had telephone conversations when it was a serious matter Reagan wrote to her because he could not match her knowledge of detail and her debating skills.
The last section of the book is about the defining issue of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Falklands War. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, Moore makes it clear that it was Margaret Thatcher and the C.I.G.S, Admiral Lewin who drove through the assembling and despatching of an expeditionary force and that her cabinet was by no means one hundred per cent behind her. There is a considerable body of opinion in the UK that the re-taking of the Falklands was purely a vote catching gimmick but Moore lays that firmly to rest. There are some very interesting facts about American support for the British, which included supplying the Argentinian military codes, missiles and missile launchers, and even the offer of the use of an aircraft carrier (the Iwo Jima) and Casper Weinberger was knighted for his efforts. There is a lovely tale about Alexander Haig who, whilst jetting between Washington, Buenos Aires, and London, developed a series of nervous tremors and facial ticks. One British civil servant was heard to remark to another that it was disturbing to be in the presence of such a powerful man who reminded him of Doctor Strangelove.
Charles Moore has written a definitive account of Margaret Thatcher and I believe that he has accurately and, in a flowing narrative style, portrayed not only her personal growth but also how her upbringing profoundly affected her view of the world. Alan Greenspan who knew her said, “She has a level of understanding of the way the world worked that most people in the political realm are unable to acquire.” Above all it shows how a clever, bright, hard-working, courageous woman rose to the highest levels at a time when it was very difficult for a woman to do so, particularly in the Britain of the 50’s and 60’s. If you are at all interested in politics, then buy it. You will not be disappointed.