For Her, It Was Always a Question of Honour

Two major biographies of Margaret Thatcher — one vivid and concise, the other magisterial — are essential reading for anyone who cares about the Iron Lady

Books UK Politics
Mrs Thatcher at the 1977 party conference: Her respect for liberty won her intellectual admirers

The death of a statesman is also the birth of an afterlife. By this I mean that the absent leader takes up residence both in our collective memory and in the individual imagination, a spectral presence in the attic of the mind. For those now in middle age, to read a life of Margaret Thatcher is to relive one’s own past under her aegis. Her posthumous myth imposes certain constraints on the biographer, because there is an unavoidable tension between the life and the afterlife in the reader’s mind. In Charles Moore and Robin Harris, Mrs Thatcher has been fortunate to find two very different but equally remarkable biographers, both shrewd and sympathetic enough to do full justice to her as a politician and as a person, while acknowledging the tenacious hold that her unquiet shade still exerts over our remembrance of things not yet long past. 

Both authors cover Mrs Thatcher’s political ascent, but Moore’s “authorised” life, the first of two volumes, concludes in 1982. His book is based on all the accessible sources, written and oral, including her private papers and declassified official ones too. Though Moore did not know Mrs Thatcher during the period he covers here, he was already an admiring, if not uncritical, commentator at the Spectator. He makes numerous significant discoveries about the early years, thanks in particular to her private correspondence with her sister Muriel, but also countless other new documents and interviews with witnesses, many of whom have died since he began work in 1997. Harris’s portrait is necessarily sketchier, but also more personal and partisan. Since we must await Moore’s second volume for his account of her later career, it is left to Harris alone to trace Mrs Thatcher’s glory years, followed by her tragic downward trajectory to defeat and dotage. It is in this latter part of her premiership, from 1985-90, that Harris excels: these were the years when he worked at her side as a speechwriter and confidante. His role continued after she left Downing Street; he makes no apology for chronicling her physical and mental decline, nor for settling accounts with those who betrayed her.

We have here, despite the similarity in title, two quite distinct points of view. Harris was unambiguously a member of Mrs Thatcher’s inner circle, in and out of office. Moore was, as he puts it, “never part of her ‘gang'”. So her choice of Moore as her “authorised” biographer indicates that she preferred to give privileged access to her archive to a writer who had kept his distance. On the other hand, she wrote encouragingly to Harris in 2005 that she could “think of no one better placed . . . to tackle the subject”. In some respects, therefore, these two books are complementary. Moore is the impartial spectator, seeking to reconstruct what actually happened and why it mattered. Harris is the Thatcherite insider, whose aim is to show how she was able to do as much as she did, but also how she was prevented by others from completing her revolution. Both authors can be quite waspish about their subject, but whereas Moore judges her conscientiously, just as he would any other public figure, Harris is merely frustrated by her occasional failure to live up to the ideals they shared. Both find her colleagues and rivals wanting, but where Moore is generous even to those he dislikes and is ironical in tone, Harris is unforgiving and caustic. 

The story that emerges from Moore’s evocation and Harris’s vindication is much less familiar than one might expect. Margaret Roberts had a stern, almost Spartan upbringing, but she also had a lot of fun: she liked dressing up, she liked going out, and she liked men. Moore shows that she had at least three significant boyfriends before she settled on Denis Thatcher; she knew her own worth and she knew how to play the field. Her father sometimes disapproved of her catholic (and Catholic) tastes but she knew how to handle him too. Yet her family life always took second place: her Methodism was sublimated into a ferocious work ethic that catapulted her into Parliament in her early thirties and the Cabinet in her mid-forties. 

By the time she became education secretary under Ted Heath in 1970, she had established herself as a “crypto-Powellite” standard-bearer of the Right. In the privacy of the Cabinet she often clashed with the Prime Minister, warning him that strikes should be seen as battles “between unions and people, not unions and government”. If Heath had heeded her he would never have fought an election on the issue of “Who governs Britain?” When Israel faced defeat in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, Mrs Thatcher told Cabinet that Britain’s neutral stance had “lost support of everyone, especially young. Must say no question of Israel being wiped off face of earth.” Heath snarled back: “Don’t accept [her] view of public opinion. It’s a Jewish-inspired press campaign.” Her philosemitism began when a Jewish refugee stayed with her family during the war, developed when she was adopted as candidate for Finchley (where Jews made up 20 per cent of the electorate), and culminated in her staunch support for Israel as prime minister despite the Arabists of the Foreign Office. She felt closer in outlook to her Jewish colleagues (and promoted them in unprecedented numbers) than to the Church of England in which she married Denis, but which heartily loathed her. Mrs Thatcher always liked outsiders: she was one herself.

It was her defeat of Heath in 1975 that propelled her unexpectedly into the front rank of politics. The incumbent despised his own party (“shits, bloody shits and f***ing shits”) and responded to a challenge by a woman with utter incomprehension. For her part, she warmed to the “grumpy solidarity of the cash-poor upper-middle class, the experience of war and the dismay at the country’s steep decline” (Moore) typical of most Tory MPs, such as her campaign manager Airey Neave. Harris is good on the way she impressed her own ranks by “eviscerating” Labour’s bullying Chancellor, Denis Healey. For the first time since Churchill, the Tories had a leader who could dominate the Commons, though it was never effortless. 

Long before she entered Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher had generated an intellectual excitement that spread across the Atlantic. Her first US lecture tour wowed everybody from Reagan to Kissinger. At a dinner given by Mrs Graham of the Washington Post, she sat next to Alan Greenspan, later chairman of the Fed, who recalled: “The very first thing she said to me was ‘So, Dr Greenspan, why is it that we in Britain don’t have an M3?'” She impressed intellectuals by taking them seriously. When my father, Paul Johnson, resigned from the Labour Party in 1977, she promptly quoted him in her peroration at the Tory party conference. He had, she declared, expressed “movingly and with a writer’s clarity” his “attachment to the individual spirit”. For her to pay tribute to a former editor of the New Statesman was not what the party faithful expected — but they loved it. Moore captures this intellectual ferment, but also the doubts of a profoundly philistine political establishment. Chris (now Lord) Patten admits that he found her talk of a battle of ideas “a bit rum”. Others were much more hostile. That they have always remained so is demonstrated by these two books, not to mention the attitudes that resurfaced after her death.

Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was so dramatic that biographers are spoilt for choice. Harris is most informative — though also necessarily least disinterested — in his account of her fall. He does not exonerate her, but he considers Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe, John Major and her other Cabinet colleagues to have been much more short-sighted, particularly on Europe, than she was. He also thinks they were more devious. He is especially keen to skewer those on the Right who plotted against her, such as Norman Lamont, or those in her team who panicked and let her down, such as Kenneth Baker. One topical reminder is that, just before she was brought down by Michael Heseltine, she promised a referendum before sterling could be abandoned in favour of what would later become the euro. That principle — which then shocked even her most loyal supporters, such as Cecil Parkinson — almost certainly saved the nation from the chaos that engulfed the eurozone 20 years later. 

Harris’s conclusion is devastating: “This was not a Greek tragedy. Hubris was not punished; Mrs Thatcher was insensitive but she was not hubristic . . . Yet, making all due allowances, Margaret Thatcher was shabbily treated by people who owed her a debt of personal loyalty. She might not have beaten Heseltine. She might not have won the next general election. But she had a good chance of doing both, and she deserved the right to try. The cabinet denied it to her because most of its members preferred interest to honour.” What made this particular stain so indelible was that the memory of war was then still fresh — indeed, another war (in the Gulf) was impending — and while culprits were men, the victim was a woman. Not all of the Conservatives’ troubles since 1990 can be blamed on Mrs Thatcher’s defenestration, but the nation’s deep-seated loss of trust in the party dates from that dishonourable deed.

Moore ends his first volume with Mrs Thatcher’s restoration of national honour in the Falklands War. It was her most dangerous crisis but it was also the turning point — the moment when it dawned on many of us that life and death were at stake in the battle she had begun. The myth that she was “glorying in slaughter” was based on her injunction to “rejoice” — but when she said it, no lives had been lost. President Reagan defied his own State Department when, in a speech to both Houses of Parliament at the height of hostilities in the South Atlantic, he linked the cause for which the British were fighting to the Cold War: “the belief that armed aggression must not be allowed to succeed, that the people must participate in the decisions of government — the decisions of government under the rule of law.” When Reagan met her, soon after the Argentine surrender, Mrs Thatcher pre-empted any talk of compromise: “He wants me to be magnanimous in victory, and I’m not going to be.” 

She was then 56 but looked much younger (“like Queen Elizabeth I” as an aide recalled) and she would never again feel quite so much in her element. At a victory dinner for the main players in the crisis, she was the only woman present. After the toasts and speeches, Moore concludes, “the Prime Minister rose in her seat again and said, ‘Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?’ It may well have been the happiest moment of her life.” 

Anyone who cares about Mrs Thatcher will buy both these books. Harris has given us a vivid and concise study in adversity, triumph and treachery. If Moore’s second volume lives up to the promise of his first, his biography will be the fullest, most objective and best, not only of Mrs Thatcher, but of any modern politician.