Margaret Thatcher: The authorised biography, Volume One: Not for Turning by Charles Moore (book review)


Charles Moore’s authorised life of Thatcher is clear-eyed and rich in telling detail.
It is a tricky deal being an authorised biographer. Charles Moore’s big advantage over those who have previously tackled Margaret Thatcher is that he has been provided with material denied to them. Of the arrangement that he was offered by his subject, he writes: “I would have full access to herself… and to her papers. She would assist all my requests for interviews with others, including access to members of her family.” With her support, the Cabinet Office was persuaded to allow him to truffle among all the government papers of her time in power, including those documents subject to the 30-year rule.
The potential trap is that the writer will become imprisoned both by the weight of material and a sense of obligation to the person who unlocked it. A further challenge confronting Moore, one of Britain’s most prominent Conservative journalists, was to rise above his own sympathies for her politics, candidly acknowledged in the preface and often expressed on television since her death, and to remain clear-eyed about his subject.
In this, the first of two intended volumes, he generally, and often superbly, overcomes those hurdles. He mines his sources skilfully without becoming their captive. His prose is more considered and his conclusions more nuanced than his partisan journalism. He is not afraid to address the contradictions and tease out the inconsistencies of his subject. Nor to be critical, sometimes deeply so. The result is to paint a much more multidimensional portrait of Thatcher than the caricature heroine adored by the right or the devil incarnate loathed by the left.
Her early life is illuminated in much greater detail than before. Moore had the great good fortune to come by a treasure trove of more than 150 candid private letters between Margaret Hilda and her older sister, Muriel. We discover a much more sexual creature than earlier biographers have supposed, one acutely aware of her femininity, with a pre-Denis love life which was complicated and completely ignored in her own memoirs. One boyfriend was passed on to Muriel and went on to become the sister’s husband. We also learn that her marriage to Denis was not as blissful as it is usually depicted. He suffered a nervous breakdown in the 1960s which some of their friends believed was triggered, at least in part, by his wife’s obsession with her burgeoning political career. He may even have contemplated divorce. He disappeared to South Africa and for a while it was uncertain whether he would ever return. Her ravenous and lifelong appetite for facts and arguments contrasts with her much slighter interest in personalities. A niece is quoted: “The Robertses are not very good at feelings.” That lack of emotional intelligence was one of the flaws that eventually provoked key members of her cabinet to regicidal revolt.
Moore is a patrician Old Etonian and a High Tory. So another of his challenges is to make the empathetic leap necessary to get inside the head of a grammar school girl who was born over a shop in Grantham. He makes a decent stab at it, but can’t always resist lapsing into pedantic snobbery. Quoting letters in which she writes “he and I”, he adds a lordly “[sic]” to tell the reader that he knows, as the young Thatcher did not, that this is not strict grammar. One is therefore very surprised to find this old stickler for the English language using spellings that many consider vulgarly American: “realized” for “realised”, “organize” for “organise”, “privatization” for “privatisation”. Motes and beams, Charles.
I quarrel with some of his judgments. He gives too little attention to the inner-city rioting, mass unemployment and savage deindustrialisation that disfigured her first term and is generally thin on the wider context in which she operated. He takes the conventional view about the Falklands war, the triumphant note on which this volume ends. Writing “she had indeed proved herself to be the Iron Lady”, he implies that no other prime minister would have had the audacity to send the taskforce to the south Atlantic. The truth is, she had little choice. The alternative would have been her resignation. To be fair, he is balanced enough to also note why the Falkands sowed the seeds of hubris. “In her mind, it helped to create the dangerous idea that she acted best when she acted alone.”
The prose is intricate, elegant and laced with dry humour. The rather obvious title – taken from her self-mythologising speech to the 1980 Tory party conference – is actually deceptive. Unlike some of her eulogists, who write as if her reign was almost divinely ordained, Moore rightly suggests that it was in many ways a fluke. She surprised nearly everyone when she supplanted Ted Heath as Tory leader. If Jim Callaghan, another of the men who fatally underestimated her, had not funked calling an election in the autumn of 1978, before the winter of discontent destroyed his authority, she might well have fought just one election and lost it and there would never have been such a thing as Thatcherism. Moore places appropriate emphasis on her ideological zigzags on the way to the top and her insecurities once she got there, including the capitulation to the miners in 1981 because she was not yet ready for battle.
When IRA prisoners at the Maze went on hunger strike, she privately admired their courage. “You have to hand it to some of these IRA boys” is a brilliantly revelatory quote. While insisting in public that she would never negotiate with terrorists, secretly her government did just that. Moore is also capable of some piercing criticism of aspects of her record. Writing of the sale of council houses to their tenants, the signature policy still regarded by most Tories as a stroke of genius, he blames it for “the gradual build-up of a housing shortage which, in 1979, had not existed”.
This biography will not radically transform anyone’s fundamental view of Margaret Thatcher, but it immensely adds to our knowledge and understanding of the longest-reigning prime minister of the democratic age.