Margaret Thatcher – Everything She Wants by Charles Moore

METTLE OF THE IRON LADY

Margaret Thatcher: The Official Biography – Everything She Wants

Charles Moore, London: Allen Lane, 2015, 821pp, £30

At the end of the first volume of Charles Moore’s lapidary trilogy, we left Mrs. Thatcher standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1982, surrounded by the shades of past national leaders, bathing in public approval and growing global respect as victor of the Falklands and standard-bearer for a new and dynamic kind of conservative politics. This keenly-anticipated second instalment carries on her career from that high point until her last electoral victory in 1987. It was during this lustrum that her style started to become apparent, and her legacy to crystallize, as she dealt, often successfully, simultaneously with systemic problems lesser leaders would never have attempted.

From Hong Kong to Washington, Brussels to Jerusalem, privatisation to perestroika, seething Northern miners to South African sanctions, whether addressing both houses of the U.S. Congress or crawling shoeless away from her bombed Brighton bedroom, Mrs. Thatcher not only clung onto power but became ever more armour-plated. By the time she won her historic third term, she had become, for an adoring social segment, the personification of Britannic pluck, so apparently immoveable that her party was often seen (and saw itself) as “the natural party of government”. For a smaller but more voluble social segment, she was the loathsome “Leaderene”, personification of all that was authoritarian, heartless and philistine. Moore shows expertly with what combination of skill, verve, and good and bad luck this came to pass – also what opportunities were overlooked, which issues mishandled, and what stresses were building below the permanent regime surface.

As if the Falklands were not enough to deal with in the course of a year, 1982 also saw plans to privatise British Telecom and revolutionise welfare and education, negotiations with Beijing about the handover of Hong Kong, visits to newly-elected Helmut Kohl, the death of Brezhnev, and the election of Garret Fitzgerald as Irish Taoiseach. Mrs. Thatcher brought energy and originality to bear on all these disparate matters, frequently against the will of officials and even her own ministers, zeroing in remorselessly on details, often at the expense of the bigger picture, impervious to boredom, sometimes wearing others down, sometimes being worn down herself by institutional inanition.

Her record is more mixed than either her emphatic personality or later mythologising would suggest. She is justly celebrated for her rôle in American-Soviet relations, drawing Gorbachev into play, steering delicately between reassuring a jittery USSR and lecturing its new leader, papering diplomatically over UK-US disagreements over Grenada and S.D.I., and restraining Reagan’s occasional naivety (“It is inconceivable that the Soviets would turn over their last nuclear weapon. They would cheat. I would cheat”). It was characteristic that when she was offered a rare, behind-the-scenes tour of the Kremlin she replied, “Do you think I’ve come here as a tourist?”

Other foreign policies were holding actions, such as in the Middle East, where she qualified strong support for Israel with distaste for the Likudniks, and arranging vast arms deals with the Saudis. Hong Kong was always going to be a defeat, but she played an impossible hand well. One of the obscurer stories herein is her policy on South Africa, which earned her vast opprobrium, and embarrassed her ministers. She disliked apartheid as incompatible with liberty, and never felt comfortable with Afrikanerdom. She was also the first British prime minister to request the release of Mandela. But she also had “personal sympathies” with the white population, which included some of Denis’s relations. She felt sanctions would harm blacks more than whites, and besides believed that Britain had an absolute right to its own trade and foreign policy – views widespread among the British public. She hated the moral grandstanding of countries like France and Canada, which called for sanctions in public but traded in secret – and the Commonwealth, some of whose states were more dictatorial than the R.S.A. South Africa was furthermore a strategically important anti-communist power. Yet she yielded, probably because of pressure from the Queen – “probably”, because the weekly discussions between sovereign and prime minister are private, and Mrs. Thatcher would never breach punctilio.

Argument still sputters about her Irish legacy. Instinctively Unionist, she nevertheless brokered the Anglo-Irish Agreement in conjunction with Garret Fitzgerald, whom she found infinitely more congenial than Charles Haughey, if garrulous (once, she fell asleep during one of his expositions – “Keep talking”, her Private Secretary Charles Powell encouraged the Taoiseach, “I’ll write it all down”). The reasons were manifold. As so often on other matters, she was alone in her Unionism, the chief British negotiators having Irish sympathies to the extent that, as Moore notes, “Ultimately, it was not a negotiation…‘How do you persuade the Prime Minister?’ was the question”. The Unionist political leaders were unhelpful. She saw the Ulster Unionist Party’s James Molyneux as “not a strong person”, while Ian Paisley was “not easy” (a masterly understatement). Enoch Powell, an Ulster Unionist MP as well as small-c conservative mage, might have toughened her resolve had he been more astute, but alienated her forever by accusing her of “treachery”. It was unsurprising that Unionists were effectively excluded from the talks, which disquieted even Green-leaning Foreign Office negotiators. The only aspect of her Irish involvement that all (perhaps even the I.R.A.) admired was her selfless serenity in the aftermath of the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, when she left her damaged room to check on the secretaries across the corridor, coolly went back in to pick up her clothes, and was pleased to be handed the text of next day’s speech as she was being bundled away by police. “The conference will go on as usual”, she told the BBC in the small hours, and English hearts swelled with proprietorial pride. Even this explosive irruption did not alter the pro-Dublin tenor of the talks. Even now, Moore sounds surprised that there was “no attempt to take political advantage”.

But it is on Europe that her ghost is most often invoked, seen then and  now as arch-sceptic, securer of rebates, slasher of red tape, handbagger of Eurocrats, Sayer of Noes, and voice of England. When she was shown a picture of Mitterand and Kohl holding reconciliatory hands at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Verdun, and was asked whether it wasn’t moving, she replied “No, it was not – two grown men holding hands!” But fond folk-memories of brusquerie and intransigence occlude the untidy actuality. Although she secured a swingeing 66% rebate in the British contribution to the EU at the stormy 1984 Fontainebleau summit, the concession must be viewed in the full light of UK-EU relations.

The Foreign Office customarily viewed negotiations with the rest of the EU in specific, detailed terms, focusing on economic gains and ignoring anything that seemed ‘merely’ theoretical. Mrs. Thatcher likewise had a “congenital anxiety to understand the detail of everything”, and so, like career diplomats, she failed to see the forest for the strangling undergrowth. But EU negotiators took the opposite approach, setting great moral and political store by even the airiest protocols, declarations, directives and resolutions, using each as a kind of building block in an edifice. In 1983, Mrs. Thatcher had signed the Solemn Declaration on European Union, because (as she would rationalise from retirement), “I could not quarrel with everything, and the document had no legal force”. The 1984 rebate came at the cost of acquiescence in higher European expenditure, no reform for the Common Agricultural Policy, and agreement to qualified majority voting. Even her attempts to make the EU more business-friendly had the effect of locking the UK further in, for example by harmonising indirect taxes. In 1986, she signed the Single European Act, something she later greatly regretted. As so often, the English underestimated the incantatory power of theories – and the Conservatives displayed a lack of imagination (the principal small-c conservative vice in every country). As on Ireland, Mrs. Thatcher was almost alone in her distrust of the project, with many of her most senior allies affianced to the European idea. The process of joining the ERM continued on her watch, against her instincts but pushed assiduously by most in the Cabinet. (The UK would join in 1990, and come crashing out disastrously on 1992’s “Black Wednesday”.) Her outspoken anti-Europeanism had the ironic effect of deepening integration, because as Moore observes,

…being a sceptic herself, she could marginalise the sceptics: if she said it was all right, who would listen to their objections?

She remains the only Conservative Prime Minister who has become an ism, and her rule will always be remembered for deregulation, the selling off of state assets from telephones and airlines to council housing, and the radical Stock Exchange reforms of 1986. Behind the latter lay the ghosts of old resentments as well as reason. Just before the 1979 election, Mrs. Thatcher had been given a hard time by bankers at a luncheon. When Cecil Parkinson told her “Don’t worry; they’ll vote for you, and they’ll forget it”, she replied “They may, but I won’t.” The long-term economic effects fall outside the purview of this volume, but the author allows that public share-ownership has never really taken off, that banking liberalisation helped cause the credit crunch by creating banks that combined risky investment operations with high street services, and hints en passant at the direful consequences of the credit revolution. The prudent housewife ironically facilitated the personal indebtedness of millions. Yet Moore is surely right that economic liberalisation was inevitable anyway because of technology, and that “Getting rick, quick or otherwise, is broadly speaking better for a country than getting poor slowly”.

She will also always be remembered/reprehended for the miners’ strike of 1984, during which the ultra-Left Arthur Scargill dragooned National Union of Mineworkers members to strike against the closure of obviously uneconomic pits. But Scargill made the mistake of not holding a national ballot of miners when he could have won it. The result was that miners were divided, with those of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Kent mostly working and those from Yorkshire mostly striking. There were violent clashes between strikers and police, and nasty assaults on “scabs”, culminating in the death of a taxi-driver killed when concrete was dropped from a motorway bridge onto his car, in which he was carrying a working miner. Mrs. Thatcher was horrified by all this – “Scabs?!?” she expostulated. “They are lions!” Scargill also refused to make concessions when these might have saved some pits or at least secured more mitigation, and he accepted money from both the Soviet Union and, worst of all, Libya, whilst Libya was funding the I.R.A. He was ergo part of what Mrs. Thatcher dubbed “the enemy within” (a phrase derived from Methodist hymns). His obduracy fed Mrs. Thatcher’s, and she was always going to win (she was always fortunate in her enemies). It was a battle that had to be won, but there was huge collateral damage in mining communities, the effects of which can still be felt in the North. As Moore says ruefully, “In the struggle to win the strike, no clarity had ever been reached about what ought to happen after”. The “lions” really were betrayed, and the British coal industry is almost defunct, just as Scargill predicted.

A pet project, the poll tax, would lead directly to her 1990 defenestration. The old property rates system was indefensible, to the extent that Labour gave the proposed tax an almost free ride through parliament. The idea was furthermore being pushed by the No. 10 Policy Unit, which saw it as part of an overall drive to make local government slimmer and more accountable. But Mrs. Thatcher, normally so detail-focused, had not considered how big a job it would be to compile new taxpayer registers – nor wondered how those who had never been taxed (including students, pensioners and the disabled) would feel – or how the tax would be collected. Almost everyone else in the Cabinet was against it, including Chancellor Nigel Lawson, but for once she refused to compromise. Her political secretary Stephen Sherbourne noted sadly,

It was the beginning of her losing touch with people, with a real electoral base.

Domestic policies were always impinged upon by intrigue and inter-departmental turf wars. The Westland affair started off as a minor disagreement about whether an American or a European consortium should take over a British helicopter manufacturer, but escalated into a crisis over which two ministers resigned, and the government could have fallen. A barbed footnote summarises perfectly the character of Michael Heseltine, a showman who, Moore relates, wore no fewer than six different ties on the day he resigned. The restrained facades of the London S.W.1 postal district masked mares’ nests, with parts of the Party working against each other and their ostensible leader, while other parts would “respond excessively to whatever they thought might be her will”. Looking back, Norman Tebbit remembered that he “began to understand Tudor history better”. Small wonder she was often indecisive – until she had committed herself to some course of action.

She was part of the problem, because she was no Machiavellian and so was often unaware of what subtexts were seething around her. She rarely flattered or gave public credit to ministerial colleagues, and could be inadvertently rude. At one Chequers meeting, she cut off Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe with “Don’t worry, Geoffrey. We know exactly what you’re going to say!” Unsurprising that even the urbane Howe could at times explode like “a Welsh hwyl”. She was not clubbable; Robin Butler, who was her principal private secretary for three years, likened talking to her socially to “feeding a fierce animal”.

She was exceptionally lucky in some of her officials, like Robin Butler, Charles Powell and press secretary Bernard Ingham, all of whom combined loyalty and respect for her intelligence with a kind of chivalry. There is a touching anecdote of her private detective seeing her just before an operation on her hand –

how lonely she looked in the hospital, clutching a teddy bear that the Garden Room girls had given her.

Nevertheless, she often felt the need to resort to outsiders for advice or encouragement, raffish characters like David Hart, the Old Etonian Jewish banker and novelist who claimed to know “the street” and had an empathy with coalminers (a “surprising impression”, Moore opines wickedly) – and oenophile quidnunc Woodrow Wyatt, who acted as a conduit to Rupert Murdoch and the Royal Family. “She liked dangerous people”, reflected former political secretary Tim Flesher.

And these were her allies. The London N.1 postal district sheltered sworn enemies, with “Islington” Sun shorthand for the “loony Left”. Like David Hart, but maliciously, a preponderance of the capital’s journalists, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers and musicians imagined they had a special understanding of life in Brixton, or Whitechapel, or County Durham mining communities. Mrs. Thatcher was not just wrong on facts, they felt, but motivated by varying combinations of classism, cupidity, homophobia, ignorance, philistinism, racism and selfishness (it was harder to accuse her of sexism, although that was essayed). They felt unbounded contempt for her romantic view of English history – what Moore calls her “grand simplicities” – her unpretentious religiosity, and even her hairstyle and clothes. Anthony Burgess sniffed, “She reads best-sellers”.

On her death, playwright Howard Brenton hyperventilated,

It was as if some kind of evil was abroad in our society, a palpable degradation of the spirit,

while Ian McEwan wrote

It was never enough to dislike her. We liked disliking her.

Other cultivated haters included Julian Barnes, Jonathan Miller, David Hare, Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett and Hanif Kureishi, and they were lavished screen and airwave hours by the BBC, which even gave Doctor Who a Thatcher-like enemy. She was portrayed by cartoonists as cannibal, nuclear cloud, pterodactyl and shark, and by Spitting Image as aquiline dominatrix. She was refused an honorary degree by Oxford (she already had a real one), essentially because of what one anti-Thatcher academic called a strong “aesthetic” objection. The snub hurt her, but backfired, as American donations to Oxford dried up in consequence.

She was scorned as anti-intellectual, but while it is true that she insisted on pronouncing the T in “Godot”, and thought Alan Hollinghurst’s then-lauded novel The Line of Beauty was called The Line of Duty, part of the problem seems to have been that she listened to what Leftists saw as the “wrong” intellectuals – Keith Joseph, Alfred Sherman and Hugh Thomas instead of them. One rare academic fan, John Vincent, felt she had become –

the point at which all snobberies meet – intellectual snobbery, social snobbery, the snobbery of [London club] Brooks’s, the snobbery about scientists among those educated in the arts, the snobbery of the metropolis about the provincial, the snobbery of the South about the North, and the snobbery of men about career women.

As the ’87 election approached, despite a strong economy, the cumulative abuse grew ever louder and more personal, and the strain became obvious. Moore gives a vivid account of the fraught day one week before polling that would afterwards be called “Wobbly Thursday”, when Smith Square witnessed an extraordinary shouting match, the Prime Minister “almost hysterical”, screaming and her eyes flashing – “hatred shot out of them, like a dog about to bite you”, said one shocked observer. As this magisterial account reaches its too-early end, the once indefatigable ironclad is seizing up and starting to run to rust, with back-office and backbench restiveness approaching critical levels, the Cabinet losing the habit of collective responsibility, and public opinion tiring at last of what even Tory loyalists called“TBW” (“That Bloody Woman”). She had said during the campaign that she planned to “go on and on”, but for a growing number she had obviously gone on long enough already. As she stood at the Downing Street window beside Denis and Norman Tebbit on election night, she must have been thinking about her own as well as Britain’s future.

This review first appeared in Chronicles in July 2016, and is reproduced with permission

Rise of the Dominatrix – review of Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning by Charles Moore

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Rise of the Dominatrix

Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning

Charles Moore, London: Allen Lane, 2013, 859pp

When Margaret Thatcher died last April, the obsequies were at times almost drowned by vitriolic voices celebrating her demise. There were howls of joy from old enemies, street parties, and a puerile campaign to make the Wizard of Oz song, “Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead!” the top-selling pop single (it failed, narrowly). The extravagant hatred evinced by some shocked some, but it was in a way an entirely suitable send-off for a woman who always loathed ‘consensus’. She may be the last Conservative whose demise will evoke more than a yawn.

This is former Spectator and Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore’s first book, but it is an assured production, steeped in its subject, judicious in its handling of history, coloured by his journalistic instinct for revealing and amusing anecdotes. In this first of two volumes, he follows his heroine from birth up to what “may well have been the happiest moment in her life” – the October 1982 victory celebrations after the recapture of the Falklands. His heroine she may have been – and this is why she approached him to be her biographer, on the understanding that publication would be posthumous, and interviewees knew she would never read what they had said – but he maintains critical distance. There are 54 pages of footnotes referring to innumerable interviews, and a seven page bibliography, assembled over 16 years of what must have been at times an all-engrossing project, whilst incidentally editing Britain’s best-selling broadsheet newspaper. We will need to wait until the companion volume, Herself Alone, to get Moore’s assessment of her legacy, but for now, Not for Turning equips us admirably to understand what she was like as person and politician, why she was the way she was, and suggest why she would succeed in many ways, yet fall short in others.

Moore’s researches were at times made more arduous by his subject, a naturally private person who was always, as he reflected in the Daily Telegraph after she died, “keen to efface the personal”. Her memoirs gloss over emotions or incidents about which we would like to know very much more, or lend “Thatcherism” greater coherence in retrospect than it possessed. But luckily she was intrinsically honest, and Moore early learned to read subtle signs –

All politicians often have to say things that conceal or avoid important facts. She certainly did this quite often; but she did it with a visible discomfort which often undermined her own subterfuge.

This complex personage pushed into the world in 1925, and lived above a commercial premises in Grantham, Lincolnshire, a town even now a byword for provincialism (despite having been Isaac Newton’s hometown). It was one of two grocery shops run by her father Alfred Roberts, who when he wasn’t selling sausages to Midlandian burghers was Mayor and a Methodist lay preacher. “If you get it from Roberts’s – you get the BEST!” was the shops’ slogan, and her parents’ rectitude, work ethic, and attention to detail would stay with their daughter.

School was preparation for a life of application. A contemporary remembered – “She always stood out because teenage girls don’t know where they’re going. She did.” She unsurprisingly excelled in declaiming from sturdily middle-brow poets – Tennyson, Longfellow, Kipling, Whitman. Serious, too, was her sojourn in Somerville, regarded as the cleverest of the female colleges in Oxford, where she read Chemistry and thrived even under a Leftist principal.

The young Margaret Roberts, notwithstanding the pervasive progressive miasma, was already obstinately Conservative, although she had not yet refined her particular brand. She joined the Oxford Union Conservative Association (OUCA) and became its president, and co-author of a pamphlet destined to be combed over by obsessives in later years. At that time, the Conservative Party was a mass movement, and a means of social mingling, and many joined for social as much as political reasons, or simply to find a spouse of the right Right type. Moore suggests that she likewise saw OUCA as an “opening of the door”. She took elocution lessons, and met as many influential people as possible, always inveigling herself somehow onto the top table at dinners. Yet her letters to her parents and older sister Muriel are often apolitical, rarely even mentioning the War, unexpectedly spotted with spelling mistakes, full of family, clothes and rare romantic interests, the latter discussed in briskly British terms. When she first met Denis, her husband-to-be, she told Muriel that he was “a perfect gentleman. Not a very attractive creature”. (He remembered her almost equally coolly – “a nice-looking young woman, a bit overweight”.)

After graduation, she worked in industry, and in 1950 stood for Parliament for the first time, in the solid Labour seat of Dartford in Kent. She conducted a dynamic campaign, characterized by her contribution to a debate hosted by the United Nations Association, which featured her Labour opponent Norman Dodds and other speakers even further Left:

I gave them ten minutes of what I thought about their views! As a result Dodds wouldn’t speak to me afterwards and Lord and Lady S. [Strabolgi – an old Scottish title Italianized in the 16th century] went off without speaking as well.

She made an impressive 6,000 dent in the Labour majority. It is characteristic that at the count she told her activists that the next campaign would start the following morning.

She married Denis in 1951, the start of a quietly contented partnership that lasted until he died in 2003. As well as his earning capacity and a business brain useful whenever his wife needed to comprehend company documents, he brought to their alliance some social status, a large fund of commonsense, and a willingness (even now rare for men) to take a back seat. Performing household tasks – she cooked when she could, and enjoyed tidying (an everyday application of what Edward Norman called her “pre-existing sense of neatness and order in society”) – assuaged the faint guilt she clearly felt at being something of a Bluestocking.

Needing to earn more money, she trained for and practised at the Bar, and the experience added to her near-mystical respect for law of all kinds. She later systematized this passion for precedents –

As a Methodist in Grantham, I learnt the laws of God. When I read chemistry at Oxford, I learnt the laws of science, which derive from the laws of God, and when I studied for the Bar, I learnt the laws of man.

Between work and family, she politicked tirelessly, resenting even holidays as wasted time. (There is a telling photo of her in this book, on holiday in the Hebrides in 1978, walking in business clothes along a beach, staring at her watch.)

In 1958, she applied for selection in the north London constituency of Finchley, where the electorate was approximately one-fifth Jewish. This suited her, perhaps predisposed to philo-Semitism by her Nonconformist upbringing, certainly always admiring of law-abiding, hard-working people, and she impressed from the start. At one selection committee meeting, one astute member whispered to another, “We’re looking at a future Prime Minister of England”. Later, she would be strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers like Milton Friedman, Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman (the latter a fan of this journal), and was a strong (if not uncritical) supporter of Israel. Macmillan once joked that her Cabinet contained “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians”. Yet she also came under fire from constituents for upholding Oswald Mosley’s legal right to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. She was of course selected, then elected in the 1959 election, and in 1961 got a junior ministerial post as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Her anxiety to prove herself and achieve something was immediately evident, with her Minister grunting to the Department’s top civil servant “She’s trouble. What can we do to keep her busy?”

As the Kingdom lost its Empire it also lost its way, and her Party drifted directionlessly. Quite apart from the threats to order and freedom posed by different kinds of socialism, ranging from Soviet-funded Marxism to saccharine egalitarianism, the economy was dominated by sclerotic state-owned concerns, with attempts at reform usually stymied by ultra-Left trade unionists. There was a decline syndrome of spiralling spending, ballooning inflation, inbuilt inefficiency, and industrial (in)action. The Conservatives seemed powerless to act, or even to think, although monetarism was gaining ground among cleverer Conservatives. Thatcher was frustrated by the Party’s unwillingness to engage in what she could see was an ideological rather than a mere electoral battle. Emblematic of Conservative complacency was the reaction of the free-market Economic Dining Club, whose members were reluctant to let her join, fearing she would dampen their masculine conviviality, and compel them to engage in discussions before dinner.

On other matters, she was more old school – in favour of corporal and capital punishment, against pornography, drugs and easier divorce. But she was never a reflexive moralizer, voting to legalize both homosexuality and abortion (the latter because she had met a despairing disabled child). Whatever her private views on any subject, she was then (and would always be) “trapped in moderation”, to borrow the title of one of Moore’s chapters – compelled to work within a framework where the odds were always against her.

Natural allies lacked stomach – for example, businesses refused to help in the fight against the closed shop, because they wished to avoid unpleasantness, and the alternative would be too complicated. Again, in the 1960s and 1970s, even many Tories wanted comprehensive education, and although she managed to save 94 grammar schools while Education Secretary (1970-1974), she was compelled to allow 3,286 comprehensives. She hated the egalitarian educational orthodoxy, although sometimes she would have to defend it publicly. Moore cites one interview in which she claimed that primary schools were “much better…much more progressive”, while she was saying privately to aides that all those schools offered was “rag dolls and rolling on the floor”.

She had learned how to combine being a conviction politician with being a pragmatic politician – and to ensure that when she had been bounced into a course of action she should make her unhappiness known to the Right-of-centre grassroots. She was sincere, but she was also a superlative Party manager. Yet she really tried. “You came out of a meeting with her”, one Education official remembered, “feeling that you’d had three very hard sets of tennis”. But he remembered her fondly; she was unfailingly kind and generous to staff.

Good luck came to her aid when Ted Heath refused to take her leadership challenge seriously, and in 1975 she took his place as Conservative leader, the first woman to lead any major Western political party. She revelled in the attention, and did not mind being hated – “The day that I am not causing controversy, I shall not be doing very much”. She was the last Conservative leader willing to endorse inequality – “Equity is a very much better principle than equality”. She attracted contumely even from her own advisers for supporting Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Zbigniew Brzezinski was astounded to learn that she was “inclined to favour the white position”; in one speech she even said “The whites will fight, and the whites will be right.” In the end, on Rhodesia as on so many other matters, she bowed to inevitability – but arguing fiercely as she retreated. (Moore notes laconically, “What happened much later in Zimbabwe…was to confirm Mrs. Thatcher’s pessimism”.) She attended what despairing F.C.O. officials called “disturbingly right-wing” meetings in America, building bonds that would be of material benefit during the Falklands War (although Moore is at pains not to hyperbolize the ‘special relationship’). In a famous 1978 interview, she infuriated the Party establishment by speaking on immigration, a subject on which she had said little before, saying that many Britons feared “they might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. But she hoovered up votes that would otherwise have gone to the National Front, then on the cusp of breakthrough, and delivered huge swathes of the white working class into the Conservative camp. (She would never do anything substantive about immigration, although the numbers approved for citizenship dipped during the Eighties, from circa 72,000 a year to around 54,000.)

The incompetence of opponents also helped propel her over the Downing Street threshold in 1979, “undoubtedly”, Moore writes, “ the most truly conservative person…ever to reach No. 10 in the era of universal suffrage.” She was also almost certainly the last PM who would pay no attention to popular culture, or even the media – and who was so innocent that she once gave TV cameras the two-fingered V for victory sign the wrong way round.

Although she faced great resistance from within her own party – the so-called ‘Wets’ who regarded her as vulgar – their intellectual incoherence gave her a great advantage. At times, however, she missed opportunities, perhaps partly out of relict deference to these grandees, certainly because she often acted intuitively rather than strategically. Her intellectual influencers rarely combined political intelligence with their incandescence, so she had to rely on less ‘sound’ careerists who watered down her wishes – not that she was ever the anarcho-capitalist many wailed she was. Little happened on the economic front until she and Geoffrey Howe pushed through the 1981 Budget, largely against her Cabinet and ‘expert’ opinion, but as this book ends the economic battles that would define her mostly lie ahead.

She was also under fire, almost literally, in Ulster. She patrolled in uniform, Boudicca-like, with the troops in South Armagh’s “Bandit Country”, and would send handwritten letters to the families of killed soldiers – her Unionism all the more impassioned because she had lost one of her closest friends and allies, Airey Neave, to an INLA bomb. She found herself having to deal with rampant terrorism, hunger strikers, the oleaginous Charles Haughey, international opinion, and her own diplomats – and one can see how just a few years later she would sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement against her own instincts.

Moore provides other portents of future failures – such as her relative lack of interest in the EU, and her reaction to the Brixton riots of 1981, a typical Thatcher combination of strong rhetoric, followed by appointing a leftwing judge to conduct the enquiry. Not just trapped in moderation, she was also becoming trapped in political correctness. She was also making enemies of many senior Tories through sheer brusquerie. The scene is being set for eight years of effort and isolation, leading to treachery, talismanic exile, finally sad dotage when she would appear only infrequently, a tiny ex-titan towered over by men who affected not to notice that her famous features had fallen on one side, and her lipstick was askew.

But for now, we close the book and the curtains on Act I with her finest hour – those seventy-four days between April and June 1982 when the Falklands were in global play, and the PM was thrown upon her inner resources and not found wanting – guided to victory by her personal compass, and her willingness to trust to the courage and skill of the armed forces. At the memorial service at St. Paul’s that October, she stood funereal and indomitable beneath Wren’s great dome, determined that the military, not she, should take the credit – while the Whispering Gallery within the Cathedral and outside was alive with patriotic approbation, the Iron Lady as evocation of Elizabeth I, personification of a patria both beautiful and doomed.

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

Rise of the Dominatrix – review of Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning by Charles Moore

RISE OF THE DOMINATRIX

Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning

Charles Moore, London: Allen Lane, 2013, 859pp

When Margaret Thatcher died last April, the obsequies were at times almost drowned by vitriolic voices celebrating her demise. There were howls of joy from old enemies, street parties, and a puerile campaign to make the Wizard of Oz song, “Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead!” the top-selling pop single (it failed, narrowly). The extravagant hatred evinced by some shocked some, but it was in a way an entirely suitable send-off for a woman who always loathed ‘consensus’. She may be the last Conservative whose demise will evoke more than a yawn.

This is former Spectator and Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore’s first book, but it is an assured production, steeped in its subject, judicious in its handling of history, coloured by his journalistic instinct for revealing and amusing anecdotes. In this first of two volumes, he follows his heroine from birth up to what “may well have been the happiest moment in her life” – the October 1982 victory celebrations after the recapture of the Falklands. His heroine she may have been – and this is why she approached him to be her biographer, on the understanding that publication would be posthumous, and interviewees knew she would never read what they had said – but he maintains critical distance. There are 54 pages of footnotes referring to innumerable interviews, and a seven page bibliography, assembled over 16 years of what must have been at times an all-engrossing project, whilst incidentally editing Britain’s best-selling broadsheet newspaper. We will need to wait until the companion volume, Herself Alone, to get Moore’s assessment of her legacy, but for now, Not for Turning equips us admirably to understand what she was like as person and politician, why she was the way she was, and suggest why she would succeed in many ways, yet fall short in others.

Moore’s researches were at times made more arduous by his subject, a naturally private person who was always, as he reflected in the Daily Telegraph after she died, “keen to efface the personal”. Her memoirs gloss over emotions or incidents about which we would like to know very much more, or lend “Thatcherism” greater coherence in retrospect than it possessed. But luckily she was intrinsically honest, and Moore early learned to read subtle signs –

All politicians often have to say things that conceal or avoid important facts. She certainly did this quite often; but she did it with a visible discomfort which often undermined her own subterfuge.

This complex personage pushed into the world in 1925, and lived above a commercial premises in Grantham, Lincolnshire, a town even now a byword for provincialism (despite having been Isaac Newton’s hometown). It was one of two grocery shops run by her father Alfred Roberts, who when he wasn’t selling sausages to Midlandian burghers was Mayor and a Methodist lay preacher. “If you get it from Roberts’s – you get the BEST!” was the shops’ slogan, and her parents’ rectitude, work ethic, and attention to detail would stay with their daughter.

School was preparation for a life of application. A contemporary remembered – “She always stood out because teenage girls don’t know where they’re going. She did.” She unsurprisingly excelled in declaiming from sturdily middle-brow poets – Tennyson, Longfellow, Kipling, Whitman. Serious, too, was her sojourn in Somerville, regarded as the cleverest of the female colleges in Oxford, where she read Chemistry and thrived even under a Leftist principal.

The young Margaret Roberts, notwithstanding the pervasive progressive miasma, was already obstinately Conservative, although she had not yet refined her particular brand. She joined the Oxford Union Conservative Association (OUCA) and became its president, and co-author of a pamphlet destined to be combed over by obsessives in later years. At that time, the Conservative Party was a mass movement, and a means of social mingling, and many joined for social as much as political reasons, or simply to find a spouse of the right Right type. Moore suggests that she likewise saw OUCA as an “opening of the door”. She took elocution lessons, and met as many influential people as possible, always inveigling herself somehow onto the top table at dinners. Yet her letters to her parents and older sister Muriel are often apolitical, rarely even mentioning the War, unexpectedly spotted with spelling mistakes, full of family, clothes and rare romantic interests, the latter discussed in briskly British terms. When she first met Denis, her husband-to-be, she told Muriel that he was “a perfect gentleman. Not a very attractive creature”. (He remembered her almost equally coolly – “a nice-looking young woman, a bit overweight”.)

After graduation, she worked in industry, and in 1950 stood for Parliament for the first time, in the solid Labour seat of Dartford in Kent. She conducted a dynamic campaign, characterized by her contribution to a debate hosted by the United Nations Association, which featured her Labour opponent Norman Dodds and other speakers even further Left:

I gave them ten minutes of what I thought about their views! As a result Dodds wouldn’t speak to me afterwards and Lord and Lady S. [Strabolgi – an old Scottish title Italianized in the 16th century] went off without speaking as well.

She made an impressive 6,000 dent in the Labour majority. It is characteristic that at the count she told her activists that the next campaign would start the following morning.

She married Denis in 1951, the start of a quietly contented partnership that lasted until he died in 2003. As well as his earning capacity and a business brain useful whenever his wife needed to comprehend company documents, he brought to their alliance some social status, a large fund of commonsense, and a willingness (even now rare for men) to take a back seat. Performing household tasks – she cooked when she could, and enjoyed tidying (an everyday application of what Edward Norman called her “pre-existing sense of neatness and order in society”) – assuaged the faint guilt she clearly felt at being something of a Bluestocking.

Needing to earn more money, she trained for and practised at the Bar, and the experience added to her near-mystical respect for law of all kinds. She later systematized this passion for precedents –

As a Methodist in Grantham, I learnt the laws of God. When I read chemistry at Oxford, I learnt the laws of science, which derive from the laws of God, and when I studied for the Bar, I learnt the laws of man.

Between work and family, she politicked tirelessly, resenting even holidays as wasted time. (There is a telling photo of her in this book, on holiday in the Hebrides in 1978, walking in business clothes along a beach, staring at her watch.)

In 1958, she applied for selection in the north London constituency of Finchley, where the electorate was approximately one-fifth Jewish. This suited her, perhaps predisposed to philo-Semitism by her Nonconformist upbringing, certainly always admiring of law-abiding, hard-working people, and she impressed from the start. At one selection committee meeting, one astute member whispered to another, “We’re looking at a future Prime Minister of England”. Later, she would be strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers like Milton Friedman, Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman, and was a strong (if not uncritical) supporter of Israel. Macmillan once joked that her Cabinet contained “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians”.Yet she also came under fire from constituents for upholding Oswald Mosley’s legal right to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. She was of course selected, then elected in the 1959 election, and in 1961 got a junior ministerial post as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Her anxiety to prove herself and achieve something was immediately evident, with her Minister grunting to the Department’s top civil servant “She’s trouble. What can we do to keep her busy?”

As the Kingdom lost its Empire it also lost its way, and her Party drifted directionlessly. Quite apart from the threats to order and freedom posed by different kinds of socialism, ranging from Soviet-funded Marxism to saccharine egalitarianism, the economy was dominated by sclerotic state-owned concerns, with attempts at reform usually stymied by ultra-Left trade unionists. There was a decline syndrome of spiralling spending, ballooning inflation, inbuilt inefficiency, and industrial (in)action. The Conservatives seemed powerless to act, or even to think, although monetarism was gaining ground among cleverer Conservatives. Thatcher was frustrated by the Party’s unwillingness to engage in what she could see was an ideological rather than a mere electoral battle. Emblematic of Conservative complacency was the reaction of the free-market Economic Dining Club, whose members were reluctant to let her join, fearing she would dampen their masculine conviviality, and compel them to engage in discussions before dinner.

On other matters, she was more old school – in favour of corporal and capital punishment, against pornography, drugs and easier divorce. But she was never a reflexive moralizer, voting to legalize both homosexuality and abortion (the latter because she had met a despairing disabled child). Whatever her private views on any subject, she was then (and would always be) “trapped in moderation”, to borrow the title of one of Moore’s chapters – compelled to work within a framework where the odds were always against her.

Natural allies lacked stomach – for example, businesses refused to help in the fight against the closed shop, because they wished to avoid unpleasantness, and the alternative would be too complicated. Again, in the 1960s and 1970s, even many Tories wanted comprehensive education, and although she managed to save 94 grammar schools while Education Secretary (1970-1974), she was compelled to allow 3,286 comprehensives. She hated the egalitarian educational orthodoxy, although sometimes she would have to defend it publicly. Moore cites one interview in which she claimed that primary schools were “much better…much more progressive”, while she was saying privately to aides that all those schools offered was “rag dolls and rolling on the floor”.

She had learned how to combine being a conviction politician with being a pragmatic politician – and to ensure that when she had been bounced into a course of action she should make her unhappiness known to the Right-of-centre grassroots. She was sincere, but she was also a superlative Party manager. Yet she really tried. “You came out of a meeting with her”, one Education official remembered, “feeling that you’d had three very hard sets of tennis”. He nevertheless remembered her fondly, because she was unfailingly kind and generous to staff.

Good luck came to her aid when Ted Heath refused to take her leadership challenge seriously, and in 1975 she took his place as Conservative leader, the first woman to lead any major Western political party. She revelled in the attention, and did not mind being hated – “The day that I am not causing controversy, I shall not be doing very much”. She was the last Conservative leader willing to endorse inequality – “Equity is a very much better principle than equality”. She attracted contumely even from her own advisers for supporting Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Zbigniew Brzezinski was astounded to learn that she was “inclined to favour the white position”; in one speech she even said “The whites will fight, and the whites will be right.” In the end, on Rhodesia as on so many other matters, she bowed to inevitability – but arguing fiercely as she retreated. (Moore notes laconically, “What happened much later in Zimbabwe…was to confirm Mrs. Thatcher’s pessimism”.) She attended what despairing F.C.O. officials called “disturbingly right-wing” meetings in America, building bonds that would be of material benefit during the Falklands War (although Moore is at pains not to hyperbolize the ‘special relationship’). In a famous 1978 interview, she infuriated the Party establishment by speaking on immigration, a subject on which she had said little before, saying that many Britons feared “they might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. But she hoovered up votes that would otherwise have gone to the National Front, then on the cusp of breakthrough, and delivered huge swathes of the white working class into the Conservative camp. (She would never do anything substantive about immigration, although the numbers approved for citizenship dipped during the Eighties, from circa 72,000 a year to around 54,000.)

The incompetence of opponents also helped propel her over the Downing Street threshold in 1979, “undoubtedly”, Moore writes, “ the most truly conservative person…ever to reach No. 10 in the era of universal suffrage.” She was also almost certainly the last PM who would pay no attention to popular culture, or even the media – and who was so innocent that she once gave TV cameras the two-fingered V for victory sign the wrong way round.

Although she faced great resistance from within her own party – the so-called ‘Wets’ who regarded her as vulgar – their intellectual incoherence gave her a great advantage. At times, however, she missed opportunities, perhaps partly out of relict deference to these grandees, certainly because she often acted intuitively rather than strategically. Her intellectual influencers rarely combined political intelligence with their incandescence, so she had to rely on less ‘sound’ careerists who watered down her wishes – not that she was ever the anarcho-capitalist many wailed she was. Little happened on the economic front until she and Geoffrey Howe pushed through the 1981 Budget, largely against her Cabinet and ‘expert’ opinion, but as this book ends the economic battles that would define her mostly lie ahead.

She was also under fire, almost literally, in Ulster. She patrolled in uniform, Boudicca-like, with the troops in South Armagh’s “Bandit Country”, and would send handwritten letters to the families of killed soldiers – her Unionism all the more impassioned because she had lost one of her closest friends and allies, Airey Neave, to an INLA bomb. She found herself having to deal with rampant terrorism, hunger strikers, the oleaginous Charles Haughey, international opinion, and her own diplomats – and one can see how just a few years later she would sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement against her own instincts.

Moore provides other portents of future failures – such as her relative lack of interest in the EU, and her reaction to the Brixton riots of 1981, a typical Thatcher combination of strong rhetoric, followed by appointing a leftwing judge to conduct the enquiry. Not just trapped in moderation, she was also becoming trapped in political correctness. She was also making enemies of many senior Tories through sheer brusquerie. The scene is being set for eight years of effort and isolation, leading to treachery, talismanic exile, finally sad dotage when she would appear only infrequently, a tiny ex-titan towered over by men who affected not to notice that her famous features had fallen on one side, and her lipstick was askew.

But for now, we close the book and the curtains on Act I with her finest hour – those 74 days between April and June 1982 when the Falklands were in global play, and the PM was thrown upon her inner resources and not found wanting – guided to victory by her personal compass, and her willingness to trust to the courage and skill of the armed forces. At the memorial service at St. Paul’s that October, she stood funereal and indomitable beneath Wren’s great dome, determined that the military, not she, should take the credit – while the Whispering Gallery within the Cathedral and outside was alive with patriotic approbation, the Iron Lady as evocation of Elizabeth I, personification of a patria both beautiful and doomed.

This review first appeared in Chronicles in April 2014, and is reproduced with permission