Richard Vinen

The Iron Lady & the Little Men

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Three – Herself Alone

By

Allen Lane 1,008pp £35 order from our bookshop

Curiously, Margaret Thatcher seemed a more distant figure in 2013, just after her death, when Charles Moore published the first volume of his biography of her, than she does now. Then, while the economic aspects of Thatcherism were so widely accepted that they had ceased to be controversial, Tory leaders wanted to break with Thatcher’s social conservatism. Michael Gove said that his party needed to ‘blow the cobwebs off its Miss Havisham’ and ‘set itself free from the ossified parody of greatness she has become’. Brexit has brought Thatcher, and the savage political polarisations of the 1980s, back. Many of those who wish to leave the European Union brandish her image as though it were a relic of a medieval saint.

This third and final volume of Moore’s biography centres on Thatcher’s growing isolation in the late 1980s. She was often at odds with her Cabinet colleagues, she loathed the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and her relations with George Bush were less good than had been those with his predecessor as US president, Ronald Reagan. Thatcher’s friends, however, caused her more problems than her enemies. In some ways, the central figure of this book is Charles Powell. Given his relatively junior position in the civil service – he was Thatcher’s private secretary for foreign affairs – it is extraordinary how much damage he managed to do. He interfered in almost every aspect of policy-making (domestic as well as foreign), once breezily suggesting that the prime minister might care to sack both her foreign and home secretaries. The Foreign Office, to which Powell nominally belonged, tried to prise him out of Downing Street with offers of glamorous embassies, though many must have thought that being deputy consul in Ulaanbaatar would have been a just reward for his services.

Moore has read numerous official papers (to which he was granted access before their formal release) and talked to most of the key actors in the story. He was himself a participant-observer, becoming editor of The Spectator, at the age of twenty-seven, in 1984. He was subsequently made editor of the Sunday Telegraph his appointment, in 1992, along with that of Paul Dacre to the editorship of the Daily Mail in the same year, brought about a significant tilt in the British press towards the anti-European right. In 1995 he took over as editor of the Daily Telegraph, a post that is almost part of the official hierarchy of the Conservative Party. For all these reasons, Moore is exceptionally well informed, though with refreshing understatement (especially given the current fashion for personal interpretations) he makes only occasional references to the ‘present author’.

Moore’s work has been so influential that the former ministers who provided him with much of his information now resort to his biography to understand the government in which they served. Moore himself regards civil servants as better sources than politicians, though his interviews with them can lend a circular quality to the research, since civil servants compiled so many of the official documents against which their memories can now be checked. Furthermore, while politicians often overstate their role, civil servants, ostensibly apolitical, tend to underplay the extent to which they designed, rather than just implemented, policy. Far from being the brakes on radicalism portrayed in Yes Minister, civil servants, who did not have to fear the electoral consequences of getting things wrong, often pushed ministers into radicalism. Powell was particularly flamboyant in his interventions, but we also get glimpses of the power exercised by more discreet figures. John Kerr, having been an architect of Thatcherism when he was attached to the Treasury in the early 1980s, later went back to the Foreign Office, where he proved an effective opponent of Thatcher on European matters. The influence of Robin Butler, the Cabinet secretary, was illustrated in Thatcher’s last Cabinet meeting. Not only did he edit the ministerial tributes to make them less embarrassingly effusive (‘greatest prime minister’ became ‘one of the greatest’) but he also drafted the tribute that the Lord Chancellor delivered on behalf of the Cabinet.

For all the virtues of his biography, I am worried by the widespread view that Moore has provided the ‘definitive’ account of Thatcher’s career. Moore complains that Thatcher’s words have often been taken out of context. But the fact that many of the documents he uses and transcripts of interviews he conducted are not available to other researchers means that we are rarely sure of the context in which the quotations here should be placed. He is ostentatiously even-handed in the broad lines of his account. He admits that Thatcher was often the author of her own misfortunes. He disapproves of her campaign to prevent man-made climate change, but he describes it as carefully as he does her anti-European interventions, of which he approves.

When it comes to small details, however, one is struck again and again by the way in which Moore’s account is slightly skewed, often by omission, so that Thatcher’s enemies look bad and her friends look good. Consider the description of Anthony Meyer, who challenged Thatcher for the Tory leadership in 1989. Moore portrays him as an amiable eccentric and ‘extreme-left Europhile’. It sounds a generous assessment – though those who know about his views on trade unions and the Soviet Union might smile at the notion that Meyer was left-wing. But then compare this to the description of Marmaduke Hussey, Thatcher’s choice as chairman of the BBC, in the previous volume. We learn there that Hussey was a ‘soldierly’ Guards officer who had been wounded in the war. Why, one might ask, is there no mention here of the fact that Meyer had also been a Guards officer and that he traced his desire for European reconciliation back to being severely wounded in 1944? Moore’s eye for the telling detail can, in fact, be a problem when the details only tell on one side. Compare his graphically horrible account of the IRA’s murder of Thatcher’s admirer Ian Gow with his bland reference to the ‘torture allegations’ against Augusto Pinochet, whom Thatcher defended. Incidentally, Moore does not quote Thatcher’s eminently sensible view, expressed in 1981, that beneficiaries of military coups should not expect the same consideration as legitimate heads of state.

At the centre of this book is Thatcher’s fall. Moore describes the ‘tragic spectacle of a woman’s greatness overborne by the littleness of men’. He talks of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘witchery’. There is another explanation for Thatcher’s overthrow. She succeeded in the early 1980s when she worked with the grain of the establishment – civil servants as well as Tory politicians. Not all of those who supported her were keen on monetarism, which was why monetary policy became suppler after 1981, but they were exercised by trade union power and relative economic decline. Thatcher brought a galvanising energy to government and she helped the Conservative Party appeal to a new kind of electorate, but the central policies of her government were supported by a broad coalition that extended across and beyond her party. In fact, Thatcher was often more nervous than her colleagues and advisers when it came to specific policies. However, by 1989, her domestic aims had been achieved and Thatcher herself had become a liability rather than an asset. As for ‘conspiracy’, well, politics, Tory politics in particular, is a permanent conspiracy. Few Conservative MPs, however stupid, lazy or drunk, do not entertain the fantasy that they might one day be prime minister. Of course the men who overthrew Thatcher thought about their own careers, but so what? The conflict that pitted those who wanted Thatcher to go – Chris Patten, Douglas Hurd, Kenneth Clarke – against those, such as Alan Clark or Edward Leigh, who advertised their loyalty to her was not a battle between treason and honour, but simply one between competent and incompetent plotters.

Moore has a curious animosity towards the establishment as a group, but is rather soft on patrician ministers (Hurd especially) as individuals. Conversely, he is hostile to the conspicuously not blue-blooded John Major. If this were a film, sinister music would play in the background whenever Major appeared. Every action or inaction on Major’s part is interpreted as evidence of his malign intentions. Major was clever and he could be ruthless – he would hardly have risen so fast or so high if he had not had those qualities – and he positioned himself well to benefit when Thatcher fell. This is not, however, to say that he betrayed her. Indeed, Major did exactly what his supporters in 1990 said he would do: he saved Thatcherism from the damage that Thatcher had done to it. He privatised the railways and closed the pits. He also dealt with an economy that had been left in bad shape, led his country in the Gulf War and shot the diplomatic rapids that came with the end of the Cold War. He won the 1992 election and thus ended the career of Neil Kinnock, who might – unlike Tony Blair, who came to power five years later – have undone some of the work of Thatcher’s governments.

What of Thatcher after 1990? She took some admirable moral stands: against Serbian aggression, against the deposition of Gorbachev and in favour of the people of Hong Kong. She also displayed an almost psychopathic bitterness towards those whom she blamed for her fall. When Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation had precipitated that fall, wrote her a letter trying to rebuild relations, she did not even reply to him, though he had served in her Cabinet for over ten years.

Moore presents all of this as Shakespearean tragedy. Those of us with a less grave outlook will find it rather funny. It is amusing to watch Nigel Lawson, who seems to have repented for his own part in bringing Thatcher down, trying to wriggle off the various hooks on which he had been caught, and equally amusing to read his catty remarks about Thatcher’s economic adviser Alan Walters, who had, he said, ‘a certain extremism about him which you often find with people from very poor and socialist backgrounds who have seen the light of market economics’. As for Thatcher herself, it is often said that she had no sense of humour but had a capacity for laughing at the great and the good, even if she rarely laughed with them. I particularly liked the story of how Robert Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury, asked her about her views on ecclesiastical appointments. She replied deadpan, ‘Why can’t we have any Christian bishops?’ Thatcher’s witticisms became funnier as her other faculties faded. In old age, she was watching television when a clip of herself speaking came on. ‘Turn that woman off please,’ she said to her carer. ‘I’ve had enough of her.’

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