She Was Difficult On Britain’s Behalf

Books UK Politics
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!

These put-downs are not, of course, all Aitken’s own opinion. He is quoting enemies among others. But there are enough to make this charge a serious one — especially since it is echoed at points in the other two biographies. And the truth is that Mrs Thatcher could sometimes be a very difficult woman — “bullying, obnoxious, hypocritical, etc, etc, etc”. But she could also be kind, understanding, thoughtful, curious, analytical, perceptive, forgiving, etc, etc, etc. We are all, as Pirandello noted, different people to the different people we meet. Each person brings out a different side in us. That is most true when we are least sure of ourselves and veer between timidity and assertiveness, as in adolescence, or in Mrs Thatcher’s difficult years at Oxford, or in the first few years of her Tory leadership, or in her final years of memory loss and advancing senility. This general tendency is an especially acute problem for a political leader since he is surrounded by people many of whom wish him ill. He is therefore likely to be “difficult” in his relations with colleagues and subordinates. As all three biographers attest, that was truer for Mrs Thatcher in and out of power than for most other prime ministers.

Most of the bile that came from her was directed at ministers and civil servants whose loyalty to her was dubious or shifting at best. Her advisers in Downing Street universally praise her kindness and consideration — the lower their rank, the greater their praise. Ferdinand Mount points out that those senior civil servants who were working loyally with her towards the same objectives — Robin Renwick on South Africa, Anthony Parsons at the UN during the Falklands crisis — all found her a rational, intelligent, co-operative, and grateful boss. That was also my own experience. But Prior, Heseltine, Gilmour, Carrington, Howe, Lawson, Pym and Uncle Tom Cobleigh were not all working loyally with her towards the same objectives-at least not on every occasion. They had the theoretical authority, and for most of her time in government the numbers in Cabinet, to block her programmes.  

As a result she lost her temper, scolded colleagues in front of their subordinates, ranted angrily over decisions forced on her, encouraged backbenchers to support the positions she had been unable to sustain in the Cabinet, moved decisions from there to more malleable committees, summed up discussions misleadingly, and in general behaved badly. Some of that was an expression of distrust towards slippery colleagues; some was simple frustration at the malevolence of events; some was a shrewd appreciation that she could only get her way from a frequent position of weakness by such tactics. If she had not used them, she would not have achieved a great deal, let alone carried through the massive programme of reforms that now carry her personal “brand”.

Aitken appreciates this, of course. But how anyone interprets her behaviour will rest on the degree to which they sympathise with her or with her internal opponents. Harris sympathises almost wholly with her; Moore to a lesser and cooler extent. Aitken starts out as still more ambivalent — and for a reason most readers will not suspect. Because he is flamboyantly a risk-taker and adventurer — who broke the Official Secrets Act, was an early experimenter in LA’s hippy drug scene, identified himself with the rebellious young of the 1960s in his first book The Young Meteors (aka The Young Thrusters in Private Eye), befriended a discredited Richard Nixon after the fall, took the extraordinarily high risk of suing the Guardian for an alleged libel that was in fact true, and when that failed, went to prison-Aitken is not always seen as the establishment figure that he was and is. Aitken is the son of a Tory MP and the grandson of Britain’s first representative to an independent Ireland, whose baptism in Dublin’s Anglican Cathedral was attended by both President de Valera and the future Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. He rose in politics as a fully paid-up member of the Tory tribe. His establishment status was never seriously put at risk by any of his risk-taking, even by prison, until perhaps recently when he became a devout and active Christian. He starts out therefore, both in life and in writing, as someone who is instinctively quite sympathetic to the Tory grandees who were such a nuisance to Margaret Thatcher.

He likes the style of, for instance, Lord Carrington — witty, cynical, self-consciously realistic — and he is inclined to feel that the Foreign Secretary’s prudent advice was not always taken into sufficient account by his boss. She was too willing to override the Foreign Office experts, he thinks. She had to be saved from herself and from her kitchen cabinet of right-wing experts. That was doubtless true at times; but this instinctive bias leads Aitken into questionable judgments on other occasions. He believes that Thatcher scuttled Carrington’s sensible initiative for lease-back of the Falklands and so bears some responsibility for the Argentine invasion. But she judged it would never survive the Commons; and in the light of later events her judgment is hard to gainsay. Aitken praises Carrington for bringing her round to a realistic policy on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, pointing out in justification that the Lancaster House settlement had 20 good years (an eternity in international politics) before Mugabe began murdering white farmers. Well, up to a point Lord Carrington.  Mugabe’s North-Korean-trained special division murdered 20,000 of the rival Matabele tribe between 1982 and 1985. Mrs Thatcher deceived herself far less than others about Mugabe or the settlement; she was persuaded by Carrington merely that it was the only available deal to end the war. And though the two Foreign Office’s Soviet experts named by Aitken were indeed impressive and realistic, I doubt that either would claim superiority to her own private Sovietologist Robert Conquest.

Aitken gradually sheds his tribal Tory respect for the party elders as the book continues. He remains aware that Mrs Thatcher sometimes behaved unreasonably and outrageously. His account of Geoffrey Howe’s resignation is gripping and puts full weight on the Prime Minister’s foolishly dismissive treatment of him. Likewise his description of the leadership struggle, which reads like a thriller, blames much of her defeat upon the fact that she had increasingly lost touch with the backbenchers who had earlier been her fortress of support. And he is harsh in his analysis of the poll tax debacle (though he mistakenly traces its adoption back to her 1970s’ commitment to abolish the rates). The poll tax really originated on the Tory Left as a way of avoiding an unpopular rating revaluation. Even so, Aitken increasingly recognises that she wasn’t her own worst enemy — there were too many other claimants to the title for that to be true.

And that is where Aitken’s insider experience as a well-connected Tory backbencher comes decisively to his aid as an analyst, biographer and historian. He takes seriously the political arguments at issue in the battles between Margaret Thatcher and her senior colleagues — on shadowing the D-Mark and the Exchange Rate Mechanism in her last years of power, and on Maastricht, Bosnia and the euro after she left office. He also sheds fresh light on some of them. He extracted from Nigel Lawson, for instance, an admission that he never directly told the Prime Minister or the Cabinet that he was shadowing the D-Mark until she was alerted to it by Financial Times journalists. Unless there is a misunderstanding here, this is a significant admission. For shadowing the D-Mark was at least a factor in the revival of inflation; the need to impose a monetary clampdown; the undermining of the Thatcher government’s reputation as a conqueror of inflation; and her renewed vulnerability on every other political issue.

Together with the consequent dispute over the ERM, it led, finally, to her defenestration and isolation on the back benches and in the House of Lords. Yet when Aitken goes carefully over all these disputes, he concludes (establishes, really) that she was correct — and correct against the main currents of establishment and grandee opinion — on almost every one them. In particular, she fell from power at the very moment when she was realising-very late in the day — that Britain was simply unsuited to the kind of European Union that the other member-states wanted and when the Tory party was rallying to her standard on it. It would be a very Faustian conclusion except that it’s no conclusion: other Fausts still line up to be deceived.               

Aitken has written an impressive and entertaining book. It is full of fresh information, clear and readable accounts of the main controversies of her premiership, and good Thatcher stories (many new to me). Above all, it demolishes the fallback anti-Thatcher position adopted since her greatness became impossible to deny. This position — outlined in the Meryl Streep movie — is that Mrs Thatcher won major battles but they arose more from her combative personality than from any wider political necessity. Aitken flirts with that idea, but in the end he rejects it. She was indeed a difficult woman, but she was difficult on Britain’s behalf.