The Iron Intellectual
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning
By Charles Moore
Penguin, 784 pages
The only time I spoke with Margaret Thatcher about her own death was over dinner at her home in Chester Square in London, when the conversation got round to Charles Moore’s authorized biography of her. “Is it going to be a cradle to the…,” I said, not quite wanting to finish the morbid sentence. “I think the word you’re looking for is grave, Andrew,” she replied good-naturedly. “And the answer is yes.”
Now that Margaret Thatcher is indeed in her grave—after a magnificent and intensely moving funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral on April 17—the first volume of Moore’s book has been published, a full 16 years after it was commissioned. It takes Thatcher from her birth in a room above the family grocery shop in an obscure Midlands town in 1926 to what Moore believes “might well have been the happiest moment of her life,” the Lord Mayor of London’s Guildhall dinner held to celebrate Britain’s victory in the Falklands War in 1982. (“She spoke like Queen Elizabeth I,” recalled one of those present. “She looked like Queen Elizabeth I!”)
A former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator, Moore is a Thatcherite Tory, but this book—objective yet affectionate, weighty yet witty—is no hagiography. Indeed, if the second volume is as diligently researched and well-written as this one, Moore’s Margaret Thatcher is set to be one of the greatest political biographies of the age.
Certainly, no other book about this remarkable woman begins to capture her character as Moore has: through her 150 letters to her sister Muriel, the recollections of no fewer than 327 friends, colleagues, and enemies, and especially the marginalia she wrote on state documents, which Moore was allowed to see before anyone else. The proviso that the book should not be published until after her death Moore found invaluable, in that, as he puts it, “It was helpful to some of the people that I interviewed to know that she would never read what they told me.”
Thatcher was “naturally secretive and guarded,” Moore writes, and “did not think autobiographically.” She kept few papers from her childhood, adolescence, or early political career until October 1974, when she suspected that she might become the leader of the Conservative Party. Thatcher’s explanation for the paucity of personal documentation—“I just didn’t think I was going to be important”—is unconvincing, and if Moore hadn’t found the letters she wrote to Muriel, this book would be far thinner.
The best sources of all were the notes Thatcher scribbled on the mountains of paper that crossed her desk during her 11-and-a-half-year premiership, “punctuated more by exclamation marks than by full-stops, and emphasized by heavy underlining.” During the IRA hunger strikes in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in 1981, to take just one of scores of examples, she was sent a paper written by various senior figures in her cabinet advocating a joint Anglo-Irish Council approach to the problem with the Republic of Ireland, which at the time was far more sympathetic to the terrorists than to the British government.
“All over the studies,” Moore writes, “sometimes as often as four times on the same page, she wrote ‘NO,’ and, in extremis, ‘NO!’” When British officials suggested that the word Council be left in to retain Irish good will, she wrote, “What about our good will?” To the Irish suggestion that their citizens should sit on juries and hold elected office in the north, then as now a province of the United Kingdom, she wrote: “This is monstrous.”
There are plenty of revelations in this book, though none that will alter history’s already established view of her, and it is all recounted in the subtly high-ironic Telegraph/Spectator style that characterizes Moore’s writing, peppered with scores of aperçus such as: “Her handbag became the sceptre of her rule.” She had more boyfriends than she admitted to before she married Denis, but not that many more, and she never slept with any of them (indeed she passed one on to Muriel, who married him). She wrote a letter of reproach to Ronald Reagan early on in the Falklands crisis, which Moore describes as “a cry of wounded friendship,” because of the lack of initial American support for the British position, but she didn’t send it. After the age of 15, she “sorrowfully” found that she and her former-seamstress mother “had nothing more to say to each other,” though she worshipped her striving, decent, but humorless Methodist-lay-preacher father, whom Moore describes as “easier to admire than to live with.”
It was her admiration for strivers (her father was the son of a boot maker who wound up as mayor of Grantham) that also made Margaret Thatcher into a strong philo-Semite, along with the fact that her Finchley Golf Club constituency in North London was 20 percent Jewish. Her parents took in a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, Edith Mühlbauer, in April 1939, almost certainly saving her life. “My, they are good citizens,” she said of her Jewish constituents, “not just talking, but doing and giving.” She opposed the people in her own party who wanted to exclude Jews from Finchley, calling Jews “one of the most scholarly races,” people who were willing to “positively get on by their own efforts.” After spending eight days in Israel in 1965, she reported approvingly that “they don’t pay people for being idle in Israel” and “Israel holds out the hand of friendship to all who will accept it.” Such thoughts were emphatically not representative of the overall view of the Conservative Party hierarchy in those days.
Moore emphasizes how Thatcher came to her unconventional views on such topics as Israel, the money supply, incomes and wages policies, confrontation with the trade unions, and so on—almost all of them far from the established Tory stances—through sustained reading and thinking. Even as an adolescent she told a friend why she no longer believed in the existence of angels: “Well, I have worked it out scientifically that in order to fly, an angel would need a six-foot-long breastbone in order to bear the weight of its wings.”
Later, her Oxford-trained scientific mind tested propositions to their limits, and when she had worked things out logically for herself, no amount of conventional wisdom could have any effect on her. Unlike most politicians, she preferred the company of intellectuals, economists, historians, and philosophers to that of politicians. Moore recalls how on occasion she would take Friedrich von Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty out of her handbag, bang it down on the table, and say, “This is what we believe!”
Moore personally hails from the patrician wing of the Conservative Party—he actually thanks his hunting dog Tommy and his local hunt’s master of foxhounds in the preface of this book “for keeping me sane”—so his insights into the class aspects of Thatcher’s rise to power are revealing. Her critics allege that she was propelled to power by the garagiste (lower-middle-class) element of the Tory Party in the House of Commons, whereas in fact it was the far more numerous upper-middle “Knights of the Shire”—public-school-educated gentry professionals, many of them officers from World War II—who had supported her. Why did they take the enormous political risk of choosing a woman in 1975? It helped greatly that she had a campaign manager in Airey Neave, a member of Parliament who had escaped from the German POW camp at Colditz and was able to persuade them that she had the quality they most admired: courage.
The most powerful theme that runs throughout this book is the courage of her conviction. It is impossible, while reading Moore’s remarkable book, not to yearn to see it once more. “It is often said that politics is the art of the possible,” Thatcher observed in a speech in 1976, as leader of the opposition. “The danger of such a phrase is that we may deem impossible things which would be possible, indeed desirable, if only we had more courage, more insight.”