Book review: Margaret Thatcher, The Authorised Biography. Volume Two, Everything She Wants

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 30 November 2015 in Culture
Culture
Charles Moore draws on memos, notes, diaries and interviews to examine the Iron Lady at the peak of her powers

This is the second volume of Charles Moore’s authorized history which will eventually be a triple decker.  It covers Margaret Thatcher’s premiership from 1983-1987, when she was at the height of her powers and against many odds saw off most of her political foes, both within and outside the Conservative Party.  A long book at 709 pages of text and over 60 pages of footnotes and references.

Charles Moore makes clear in his introduction that this volume is different to the first one.  In that volume the problem was too few sources although the collection of letters from the young Margaret to her sister Muriel provided a fascinating insight into Thatcher’s personality.

For this volume, the opposite is true with far too many sources. The private world of Margaret Thatcher became morphed into her Prime Ministerial and official life compounded by her reluctance to relax or take holidays.

So most of the evidence of her life in this period drives from studying her at work.  Fortunately for her biographer in a world before emails and texting her usually robust views are scattered all over official papers and submissions.  He has also been able to draw upon the memos, notes and diaries of ministers, officials and advisers as well as numerous oral interviews in the United Kingdom, but significantly in the USA.

This is a biography of Thatcher rather than a history of her government but there is a problem of structure.  Moore attempts to deal with this by keeping to a single, blended, chronological narrative of everything, but to emphasise that events overlap – the Cold War, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and South African Sanctions for example.

Above all this is about Margaret Thatcher, and in Moore’s words his book is “Act Two of a three-act play in which the central character almost never leaves the stage”.  Revealingly, Moore notes that talking about Thatcher to audiences they are less interested in her politics, but rather her as a worker, a colleague, a wife and a mother, a public performer, a leader and a Christian.

Her world outlook was based upon what she would refer to as Victorian values  – voluntary schools, hospitals endowed by benefactions, improved prisons and new town halls.  During the period covered by this book we hear the phrase “Thatcherism” to cover what she was trying to achieve.

Despite the best efforts of her disciples, there is no definition of Thatcherism which was rather vague.  She was opposed to big government, high taxes and high deficits, to political power of trade unions and Communism.  She was in favour of individual opportunity and choice, free market, strict monetary control, nuclear weapons and a vigorous NATO alliance.

Moore continues the theme, first established in his earlier volume that Thatcher’s apparent certainties and determination concealed at times genuine fears that at any time her critics in the government and Parliament could overthrow her or constrain her natural instincts.  On the latter, he shows that at least in this period the reality of politics meant that she could constrain her robust instincts, over  for example Northern Ireland.

But increasingly as her confidence grew she came to rely more and more on unelected advisers and to ignore or marginalise ministers, including one of her loyalists, Normal Tebbit.  It is interesting to see the role and influence on privatisation and reform of John Redwood as Head of the Policy Unit.

Yet Thatcher's successes in this period of government were not pre-ordained.  The Miners’ Strike, Reagan and Gorbachev, the Westland Crisis and even privatisation were at times “close run things”, with her determination, political skills and luck coming together.

Moore is generous in his conclusions of her handling of the Miners’ Strike, which was divisive and still leaves festering wounds today, with many people hating her for what she did.  Moore argues that she showed great leadership, was not vengeful or uncollegiate with Cabinet members.  But over Westland and a policy disagreement became one of personality and power and Thatcher was lucky that when the question of leaks and her handling of the affair was debated in the Commons, Kinnock, as he was prepared to admit later, failed to land any killer blows.

One of the best chapters in the book is that which looks at privatization and financial reform.  Moore rightly credits Lawson and Redwood as being pivotal in policy making and in influencing Thatcher.  He concludes that she does not deserve personal credit for inventing the policy, but only a government led by her could have seen it through.  And the policy was exported and it is a mark of the policy’s success that no nation, once embarked on privatization, has yet seriously attempted to reverse it.

Her greatest party political triumph was winning a third term in 1987.  No Prime Minister in the era of universal suffrage had ever won a third consecutive term before.  Despite her own extreme anxiety, ill temper and misjudgements in the campaign, she had triumphantly done so.  Thatherism was now the dominant creed of the age.

But the seeds of discontent and opposition within her own Party were apparent as her personality and dominance meant a reduction of Cabinet government and a neglect of her own backbenchers.  We look forward to Charles Moore’s third volume.

This is the second volume of Charles Moore’s authorized history which will eventually be a triple decker.  It covers Margaret Thatcher’s premiership from 1983-1987, when she was at the height of her powers and against many odds saw off most of her political foes, both within and outside the Conservative Party.  A long book at seven hundred and nine pages of text and over sixty pages of footnotes and references.

Charles Moore makes clear in his introduction that this volume is different to the first one.  In that volume the problem was too few sources although the collection of letters from the young Margaret to her sister Muriel provided a fascinating insight into Thatcher’s personality. 

For this volume, the opposite is true with far too many sources.  The private world of Margaret Thatcher became morphed into her Prime Ministerial and official life compounded by her reluctance to relax or take holidays.

So most of the evidence of her life in this period drives from studying her at work.  Fortunately for her biographer in a world before emails and texting her usually robust views are scattered all over official papers and submissions.  He has also been able to draw upon the memos, notes and diaries of ministers, officials and advisers as well as numerous oral interviews in the United Kingdom, but significantly in the USA.

This is a biography of Margaret Thatcher rather than a history of her government but there is a problem of structure.  Moore attempts to deal with this by keeping to a single, blended, chronological narrative of everything, but to emphasise that events overlap – the Cold War, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and South African Sanctions for example.

Above all this is about Margaret Thatcher, and in Moore’s words his book is “Act Two of a three-act play in which the central character almost never leaves the stage”.  Revealingly, Moore notes that talking about Margaret Thatcher to audiences they are less interested in her politics, but rather her as a worker, a colleague, a wife and a mother, a public performer, a leader and a Christian.

Her world outlook was based upon what she would refer to as Victorian values  – voluntary schools, hospitals endowed by benefactions, improved prisons and new town halls.  During the period covered by this book we hear the phrase “Thatcherism” to cover what she was trying to achieve. 

Despite the best efforts of her disciples, there is no definition of Thatcherism which was rather vague.  She was opposed to big government, high taxes and high deficits, to political power of trade unions and Communism.  She was in favour of individual opportunity and choice, free market, strict monetary control, nuclear weapons and a vigorous NATO alliance.

Moore continues the theme, first established in his earlier volume that Thatcher’s apparent certainties and determination concealed at times genuine fears that at any time her critics in the government and Parliament could overthrow her or constrain her natural instincts.  On the latter, he shows that at least in this period the reality of politics meant that she could constrain her robust instincts, over  for example Northern Ireland.

But increasingly as her confidence grew she came to rely more and more on unelected advisers and to ignore or marginalise ministers, including one of her loyalists, Normal Tebbit.  It is interesting to see the role and influence on privatisation and reform of John Redwood as Head of the Policy Unit.

But her successes in this period of government were not pre-ordained.  The Miners’ Strike, Reagan and Gorbachev, the Westland Crisis and even privatisation were at times “close run things”, with her determination, political skills and luck coming together.

Moore is generous in his conclusions of her handling of the Miners’ Strike, which was divisive and still leaves festering wounds today, with many people hating her for what she did.  Moore argues that she showed great leadership, was not vengeful or uncollegiate with Cabinet members.  But over Westland and a policy disagreement became one of personality and power and Thatcher was lucky that when the question of leaks and her handling of the affair was debated in the Commons, Kinnock, as he was prepared to admit later, failed to land any killer blows.

One of the best chapters in the book is that which looks at privatization and financial reform.  Moore rightly credits Lawson and Redwood as being pivotal in policy making and in influencing Thatcher.  He concludes that she does not deserve personal credit for inventing the policy, but only a government led by her could have seen it through.  And the policy was exported and it is a mark of the policy’s success that no nation, once embarked on privatization, has yet seriously attempted to reverse it.

Her greatest party political triumph was winning a third term in 1987.  No Prime Minister in the era of universal suffrage had ever won a third consecutive term before.  Despite her own extreme anxiety, ill temper and misjudgements in the campaign, she had triumphantly done so.  Thatherism was now the dominant creed of the age.

But the seeds of discontent and opposition within her own Party were apparent as her personality and dominance meant a reduction of Cabinet government and a neglect of her own backbenchers.  We look forward to Charles Moore’s third volume.

 

 

 

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