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 Above the fray: Margaret Thatcher on the Scottish estate of the later UKIP leader Lord Pearson of Rannoch in 1996

It is one mark of the historical importance of Margaret Thatcher that she has inspired three full-dress political biographies within seven months of her death and, still more significantly, that all three are excellent. All three are also rooted in close relationships with the former Prime Minister. And each one is different from the other two.

The first volume of Charles Moore's authorised biography, Not for Turning (Allen Lane, £30), has already been generally (and rightly) hailed as one of the great political biographies: necessarily comprehensive and therefore occasionally over-detailed, but highly readable, breaking much new information, especially about her early life, judicious in its judgments, far from uncritical, yet reaching a strongly favourable (interim) verdict. His second volume, unless it contains astounding revelations or massive bloomers, neither of which seems even possible now, is unlikely to change that general opinion.

Robin Harris's semi-authorised biography — also titled Not for Turning (Bantam Press, £20) — is a more distilled and intense critical study of the Prime Minister, her policies, her ministers and her enemies who were, of course, all too often the same people. Though it covers her entire life (most controversially her unravelling after-life in retirement), its main focus is on her handling of power and policy. Here Harris pulls no punches in his criticism of her failings, but there is never any doubt that he is her knightly champion out to slay the dragons who obstructed and eventually destroyed her with their various combinations of timidity, treachery, incompetence and guile. His denunciations of them, their politics, their knavish tricks, etc, are shrewd and savage but for the reader gripping and even intoxicating. As Ferdinand Mount acknowledges in a Times Literary Supplement review that was itself dipped in acid ("Old Vitriolic is its permanent font setting"), Harris's book is a compelling work that "approaches the condition of art". It is a fierce, concentrated and fast read.

Jonathan Aitken therefore strolls out onto a stage that is small but already crowded with two formidable rivals. But he soon establishes his own distinctive patch between them with a more conversational book that, as its title promises, focuses on Mrs Thatcher's personality as a powerful explanation of her destiny — a destiny both to rule and in the end to be ruined.

For the oddest of reasons he is well-equipped to write such a semi-psychological study. He had a passionate love affair with the Prime Minister's daughter, Carol, that ended badly, in part through his own fault, as he himself confessed to Mrs Thatcher many years later. As a result he was not given the promotion to high office that most observers felt he deserved until after she fell from power. Yet when he himself fell not only from power but also from respectability and went to prison, Denis and Margaret Thatcher were among the first people to demonstrate their regard for him publicly on his release-Denis by inviting him to dinner at his club, Margaret by manipulating their friendly encounter at a dinner party. If all this sounds slightly Victorian-something from Galsworthy or Gissing — that was not how Aitken felt about it. He was genuinely (and understandably) grateful. So his interest in the personality of Mrs Thatcher and its impact on events is infused with some personal knowledge of both its harsh and compassionate sides.

For the first third of this book, Aitken's interest in the Thatcher personality seems querulous, hostile, even slightly obsessive. This tone never quite disappears. Reviewers on the Left have pointed this out with amused satisfaction. Simon Hoggart built his review around the long list of hostile adjectives that Aitken applies to her. Aitken's account, Hoggart contended, amounted to an admission that she was "bullying, obnoxious, hypocritical, deplorable, unpleasant, alienating, opportunistic, confrontational, monomaniacal, disloyal, dysfunctional, snarky, pedestrian, hesitant, insufferably rude, foolish, arrogant, grudge-bearing and an anachronistic bigot". And as he gleefully points out, she was a friend of Aitken's!

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William Holland
January 25th, 2014
7:01 PM
Absolutely brilliant.

TonyR
January 10th, 2014
12:01 AM
Given that Simon Hoggart has just passed from this life his comments should not be judged too harshly. But whatever Mrs Thatcher was she was not a 'bigot'. If the word means anything at all it denotes someone so suffused with a sense of their own righteousness they refuse to support their beliefs with arguments. That could never be said of Margaret Thatcher who was a vigorous proponent of her ideas in open debate. Hoggart's use of the word was just another instance of its degradation into a formulaic and reflexive term of abuse habitually employed by people who with no sense of irony describe themselves as 'liberals'.

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