BIG biographies require big subjects, and Margaret Thatcher is certainly that. Charles Moore tells the story in a monumental 2688 pages over three hefty well-written volumes, full of analysis, portraiture, and anecdote.
Moore, a good journalist, has transformed himself into an excellent historian, who, while occasionally in awe of his subject, has the measure of her weaknesses. Moore argues that the Conservative Party’s most successful peacetime leader was the victim of a political assassination, which tinges his conclusion with a tragedy.
As the early volumes tell, winning the wars against Argentina and Britain’s coal miners confirmed Mrs Thatcher in her leadership. After the first of three election wins, Mrs Thatcher carried through a radical programme of privatisation — known as Thatcherism — which, for better or worse, radically reorganised British industry. After a third electoral win in 1987, she reluctantly agreed to take a holiday in Aspen, Colorado. Arriving there, she learned of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and her spirits rose. Moore remarks: “She had a crisis on her hands, so the dreaded prospect of a holiday receded.”
Mrs Thatcher fought for and won a hefty rebate from the European Union, and, although she remained impatient with Brussels, she never seriously contemplated leaving the EU. But her desire for reform in Europe was unfulfilled; she blamed Brussels whenever she thought sovereignty and individual liberty were being eroded. Euroscepticism as a political force begins here, with her.
She became a significant player in the Cold War, having discovered Mikhail Gorbachev, and nurtured a strong relationship with President Reagan, who had learned in Hollywood how to cope with leading ladies. She came to believe in her own invincibility. Moore writes: “This was not good for her character. She talked even more; she listened less.”
She would not listen to Cabinet colleagues about the poll tax, the European Monetary Union, or German reunification. A federal Europe was anathema to her, and the violence of her unsympathetic stance towards the EU led Sir Geoffrey Howe to resign, which was a prelude to her own departure. Moore observes: “As is so often with great leaders, her vices were inseparable from her virtues. . . Her intelligence, courage and non-conformity involved a pig-headedness.” It finally so provoked her Cabinet that when they had had enough, they ditched her unanimously.
In retirement, while she never ceased to lament her downfall, she earned a very comfortable income from making speeches and writing books. Denis Thatcher, a gin-drinker, rugby man, and businessman at heart, remained a remarkably faithful husband, and died in 2003, after which, Moore says, she was often neglected by her son and daughter. She lived alone for a further ten years, fading slowly into dementia. After a turbulent life in Conservative politics, Moore concludes: “As she had begun, so she ended, a woman isolated in man’s world — herself alone.”
The last person to visit her, in her suite in the Ritz Hotel, was her civil-service principal adviser Charles Powell, who took her hand and lightly kissed her forehead. Lady Thatcher, as she had by then become, bequeathed her confidential papers, many written by Powell himself, to Moore, who has turned them into a very fine political biography.
Stephen Fay is a former member of the editorial staff of The Sunday Times.
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Three: Herself alone
Allen Lane £35
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