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Book review: Margaret Thatcher The Authorised Biography Volume One: Not for Turning

Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street after winning the 1979 election. Picture: PA

Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street after winning the 1979 election. Picture: PA

  • by AN WILSON
 

WHEN Margaret Thatcher died, the nation broke satisfyingly into factions. Both clashing armies agreed that the lady with the handbag had been personally responsible, if not for everything, then for a prodigious number of things in Britain between 1979 and 1990.

Margaret Thatcher The Authorised Biography Volume One: Not for Turning by Charles Moore

Allen Lane, 896pp, £30

If this country had become more aggressively greedy in the 1980s, if brash young men in red braces made squillions on their screens after the Big Bang, while pits closed in Scotland and the North of England, or if British manufacturing no longer felt able to compete against cheaper imports, that was all Maggie’s fault. On the other hand, if we as a nation decided we’d had enough of insanely lax trade union legislation, and if we all started to enjoy a higher standard of living than at any period in history, that was also thanks to our great Leader, and to her alone.

Neither faction seemed to notice that France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and America all went through similar transformations during the same period, and we should probably have done so regardless of who was prime minister.

Or would we? What we all needed, after the polarised broadcasts and journalistic debates, was a great magisterial book which weighed Thatcher’s achievements, which was sympathetic to her personally as well as politically, but which also felt able to see her as something more than just a politician. Charles Moore, though more right-wing than she was, and more sophisticated in his personal judgments, is that man and, luckily, the first volume of his book was already complete as the gun carriage trundled up Ludgate Hill. It is not just a good book, it is a great one – the greatest political biography since Morley’s Life of Gladstone.

Luckily for us, Moore (unlike Morley) has a very pronounced sense of the absurd, and without writing open satire, he often makes us laugh aloud.

From the Any Questions? archives he has dredged up a wonderful exchange between Mrs Thatcher and Malcolm Muggeridge in 1968. The questioner asked if the panellists minded being imitated. Muggeridge replied that all people are “intrinsically ridiculous”. Mrs Thatcher replied that Muggeridge had appeared to take himself very seriously over the dinner before the programme. Muggeridge retorted: “You don’t imagine you’re a serious person.” Mrs Thatcher: “Well I do. You may not.”

Moore at one point brilliantly refers to her “glimmering of self-awareness”. This was when she was saying to Lynda Lee-Potter in an interview: “The strange thing is, people do resent it when you know the answers.” Moore’s Mrs Thatcher (and it adds to the comedy, and the dignity, of her figure that this is how he constantly refers to her) steps ready formed, like Botticelli’s Venus out of her Cytherian sea-shell. She is recognisable in the Grantham schoolgirl, the Oxford undergraduate and the young aspirant Tory candidate. I was sorry that Moore pooh-poohs the idea that Mrs Thatcher was really the granddaughter of the aristocratic roué Harry Cust, but it was touching, when Moore asked her about it, that she replied: “Blue eyes aren’t the preserve of the aristocracy.”

He evokes the grocer’s shop with its highly polished counter, and the Methodist chapel, with novelistic vividness. The same bossy, overdrawn figure is as apparent in the 18-year-old doing supply teaching at a school in Grantham as in the Leader of the Conservative Party. Here is the 18-year-old supply teacher at the school in Grantham, taking the children swimming: “We don’t go in with them during the lessons but stay on the bank and try to teach them by yelling at them what they are doing wrong.” (Her Cabinet would have known exactly how those children felt.

“You lack management competence,” one of her gurus, John Hoskyns, told her. “You bully your weaker colleagues. Lead by encouragement, not by criticism.”) And here she is, a year or two before she became prime minister, at the Conservative Philosophy Group. Dr Edward Norman, a right-wing clergyman from Cambridge, had just spoken and she intervened. “I agree with Dr Norman: we must defend Christian values with the ATOM BOMB.”

Some readers will think Moore has been too kind to his heroine, but in this volume – which takes readers as far as the victory in the Falklands – there is quite a lot to be kind about. The odds were conquered, but so often not by her willpower as by the Fates. Almost the most extraordinary scoop in the book is the detail that she was very nearly not selected at all as Tory candidate for Finchley. The committee choosing a candidate to replace Sir John Crowder in fact voted in favour of selecting a one-legged brigadier with a Military Cross. Bertie Blatch, the Conservative chairman, told his son, who told Moore: “I thought – he’s got a silver spoon in his mouth. He’ll get another seat. So I lost two of his votes and gave them to her.” Finchley was so much her spiritual home – far more than Grantham – that I am amazed to read that it took some time for her to take to the place.

What gives this book the edge over all its rivals is not just Moore’s deep knowledge of, and affection for, his subject: it is the sheer amount of work he has done. There is not a single political figure of note in the story – apart, perhaps, from Michael Heseltine – whom he has not interviewed personally. (Her judgment of Heseltine given to an American in London in 1973 was that he had “everything it took in politics except brains”.) Moore dug the Heseltine quote out of an archive in Washington. He has been to every available archive. He has read family records and listened with an attentive ear to those who knew her best politically. The number of interviews is simply staggering.

Yet, although huge, the book dances along. The best chapter is the last – about the Falklands War – but the analyses of Thatcher and Heath, Thatcher and Ireland, and Thatcher as a disappointing education secretary are all masterly. It is very easy to see why a substantial minority of people in Britain really hated Mrs Thatcher. What they abominate are often those very qualities that Moore most loves. But he also, surely, confronts even her enemies with her remarkable qualities as a human being. That is why this book is so outstandingly good. Even when the political controversies described are dead, the greatness of the Lady – and, yes, her intrinsic ridiculousness – remain.

 

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