In view of the treasure trove of original sources at Charles Moore’s disposal, he and his publishers have sensibly decided to stretch the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher from two volumes to three. However, the weight of raw material presents its own problems and one reason that the second volume does not quite fulfil the promise of its splendid predecessor is that the narrative is clogged by a plethora of simultaneous events. Covering the period between the Falklands War, which led to Thatcher’s overall Commons majority of 144 in the 1983 general election, and her third and final victory at the polls in 1987, this book devotes separate chapters to matters such as the miners’ strike, privatisations, the Brighton bombing, the Westland crisis and the rift with the monarch, plus assorted foreign relations. Perhaps there was no alternative to a thematic approach, but chronology is the logic of biography and here its drive is sometimes absent.
Moore tries to compensate by providing a timeline at the beginning, which graphically demonstrates how one damn thing came on top of another. Moreover, he writes with luminous clarity, setting out the fruits of his privileged and prodigious research in the kind of precise, jargon-free prose that is nowadays rare among journalists, let alone academics. Often, too, the detail is compelling and sometimes it’s very funny. Moore records that when Thatcher learned that MI5 employed forgers she asked how it knew whether their references were genuine. And he relates how Lord Carrington corrected her when she pronounced the final t in Waiting for Godot; she asked sharply how it was spelled and on hearing the answer said, ‘Then it’s Godot,’ sounding the t harder than ever. All told, Moore provides not just a vivid portrait of his subject but a magisterial history of her times. When completed, the trilogy will surely be a classic of its kind, fit to bear comparison with John Morley’s Life of Gladstone or Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson.
Moore is an ardent partisan, of course, but he doesn’t shy away from criticism. He acknowledges that Thatcher did not come out of the Westland affair with clean hands, surviving thanks only to the ‘traditional Tory combination of loyalty and humbug’. He admits that there was a ‘whiff of corruption’ in her commercial dealings in the Middle East. He confirms that her domestic harshness and her opposition to Commonwealth sanctions against racist South Africa upset the Palace – by which he means the Queen. Moore quotes officials to the effect that there was something ‘repellent about the poisoned smile and didactic way in which she reiterates her points’ in meetings and that she often behaved like ‘everyone’s mother in a bad temper’. He cites Robin Butler, Thatcher’s principal private secretary, who said that dealing with her face to face was ‘like feeding a fierce animal’. When a blip in the opinion polls suggested that she might lose the 1987 election, Moore recounts, she descended on the Tory campaign headquarters with her arms flailing and her eyes flashing hatred, ‘screaming, foaming at the mouth’.
Such episodes may suggest that Moore’s fascinating disquisition on why Thatcher provoked such loathing on the part of the intelligentsia does not tell the whole story. He attributes the animus, most woundingly expressed in Oxford University’s refusal to grant her an honorary degree, to social and intellectual snobbery as well as to inveterate misogyny. Unquestionably such prejudice existed, some of pathological intensity: Jonathan Miller said that she had ‘the diction of a perfumed fart’. On the other hand there was a certain justice in the charges levelled against her of philistinism, triumphalism and hard-faced materialism. It was understandable that the likes of Howard Brenton, contemplating Thatcher’s evident indifference to the increase in unemployment and child poverty, should feel that some kind of evil was abroad in British society during the 1980s, a decade marked by ‘a palpable degradation of the spirit’.
Yet Moore sets out a powerful case for Thatcher, whose toughness he explains as a manifestation of her perpetual insecurity in the face of ambitious male-chauvinist colleagues. She was not only exceptionally courageous and industrious but, he says, superior to her foreign counterparts in knowledge, argumentative skill, force of personality and perhaps even native intelligence. More often than not she was right, notably about steering clear of a single European currency. She defended democracy against the Militant Tendency, Arthur Scargill and the IRA. She trounced Labour and routed the Tory ‘Wets’. She made important friends and was quick to take advantage of them, establishing a Svengali-like hold over Reagan, allowing Mitterrand to flirt with her, mesmerising King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and, in all her glory as the Iron Lady, doing business with Gorbachev.
Her policies were remarkably successful. Retreating from her impossible early demands, she clinched the best possible deal with China over Hong Kong. Implacable towards the European Union, she obtained a rebate which by 2015 amounted to £78 billion. In the face of Reagan’s nuclear initiatives, particularly his ‘Star Wars’ project, she helped to maintain the balance of terror. She signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a first step in the peace process, bravely taken soon after the Brighton bombing. She legislated against overweening trade union power, reduced the incidence of strikes and enabled the newspaper industry to modernise – to the great advantage of her friend Rupert Murdoch. The ‘Big Bang’ modernised the City (and Moore thinks it’s too early to say that deregulation was responsible for the 2008 financial crisis). Although the sale of council houses has helped to precipitate the current housing crisis, it was so popular at the time that the Labour Party followed suit. For all the contentiousness of selling the family silver, no serious attempt has been made to reverse the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, which Moore describes as the ‘greatest policy export ever invented in Britain’.
All this and much else will make uncomfortable reading for those who still hate Margaret Thatcher. But they might hit back by pointing out that Moore, for all his apparent candour, sometimes omits salient facts. Thus, for example, he records that ninety-three arrests were made during the clash between police and striking miners outside the Orgreave coking plant in 1984 and he expresses surprise that there is a continuing campaign for a judicial inquiry into the event. But he fails to mention that all the defendants were acquitted (and many later compensated for malicious prosecution) when their lawyers exposed police collusion and perjury, serious crimes for which no one has been brought to justice. Similarly, Moore gives the impression that Norman Tebbit was correct in asserting that the BBC was merely carrying Colonel Gaddafi’s propaganda when Kate Adie, its reporter, said that American bombers had hit civilian targets during the 1986 raid on Libya. What Moore does not say is that the BBC was vindicated and that the right-wing Daily Telegraph itself demolished Tebbit’s claims.
Notorious for his Thatcherite vehemence, Tebbit was one among many ministers who were antagonised by their boss’s patent lack of trust. This was manifested in her habit of seeking outside advice, often from dodgy characters such as Woodrow Wyatt, David Hart and Laurens van der Post. It also appeared in her gratuitous rudeness towards Cabinet colleagues, especially the soft-spoken Geoffrey Howe – at one meeting she shut him up by remarking, ‘We know exactly what you’re going to say.’ After the years of hubris, so richly conveyed in this absorbing book, he was to be her nemesis. Roll on Volume Three.