Reviewed by: David Dutton, University of Liverpool
Charles Moore. Allen Lane: London, 2013. xxxii + 859 pp. £30 (hardcover).
Historians approach the genre of ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ biography with understandable suspicion. Whatever the advantages bestowed, most obviously in terms of access to private papers, to be authorised often also means to be constrained. Leading politicians are understandably concerned about their historical reputations. They and their families are unlikely to engage a biographer in the expectation of anything other than a sympathetic and supportive treatment. Anthony Eden spent much of his twenty-year retirement struggling to find a suitable biographer and then doing all he could to ensure that the verdict of history would be favourable. His private archive is littered with short notes, composed after he left office, reassessing controversial aspects of his public life, and helpfully headed ‘Note for my Biographer’. Charles Moore’s account of the conditions upon which he took on the commission to write the authorised biography of Eden’s even more controversial successor as British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is therefore of some importance. The project was first discussed in 1997, so Moore had several years in which to discuss his work with Mrs Thatcher herself. As her health declined, formal interviews were replaced by ‘friendly lunches’ at which Moore would ‘extract small nuggets of information from our chats’. He is, however, insistent that ‘she never once urged me to take a particular line, or even inquired what I intended to say about anything’. Indeed, despite ‘a great egotism’, ‘she was not at all touchy, or even anxious about what history might say about her’. (pp. xiii-xiv) Two simple stipulations governed the writing of the biography. Thatcher was not to read the manuscript; and the resulting book would not be published during her lifetime. (p. xiii) All of this does much to endorse Moore’s credentials as biographer. It reflects positively too on Thatcher herself.
This then is no hagiography. If there is an official Thatcher line, Moore feels no obligation to follow it. ‘I kept expecting to come under her [shadow],’ he admits, ‘but I never did. This gave me enormous freedom.’ (p. xiv) Moore is clearly sympathetic towards his subject, but by no means uncritical. He does full justice to her qualities, but never loses sight of, or seeks to disguise, her failings. Where Moore believes that Thatcher’s memoirs give a less than entirely accurate picture of the historical reality, he is not afraid to say so. Thus her suggestion that she was ‘deeply unhappy about the US/Peruvian [peace] proposals’ launched during the Falklands crisis of 1982, is met by Moore’s insistence that, however much she disliked it, the Prime Minister did in fact give this plan her approval and indeed ‘pushed [her War Cabinet] colleagues towards acceptance’. (pp. 719-20)
The present book is the first half of a two-volume biography. Moore has not chosen the most obvious of possible dividing lines – 1979, when Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister in British history and embarked on a tenure of 10 Downing Street that would exceed in length any since the early nineteenth century. Rather this first volume takes the story down to 1982 and victory in the Falklands War. Moore’s decision makes good sense. Until victory was secured in the South Atlantic, Thatcher had always been something of an underdog and an outsider – struggling to rise above her relatively humble beginnings in Grantham, one of just twelve women MPs in a Conservative party that found it difficult to take female politicians entirely seriously, leader of an opposition largely because of her predecessor’s patent failings rather than her own abilities, and even Prime Minister at the head of a cabinet, very few of whose senior members genuinely believed in what she was trying to do or in her capacity to stay the course. Once the Falkland Islands had been re-captured, Thatcher’s position was transformed. For almost the entirety of her remaining premiership she was virtually impregnable, the most dominant Prime Minister of modern times, whose personality, policies and very name would define an era in British history.
Moore offers the best account so far of Margaret Thatcher’s early life. Her own archive was not well maintained until she became Leader of the Opposition, when those around her began to take care of her private papers. Her own tidy instinct had been to throw away as much as possible once its immediate use had passed. But Moore secured access to more than 150 letters that she had written to her sister Muriel between the late 1930s and the early 1960s, a cache whose existence was previously unknown. The biographer uses this source to create a more nuanced picture of his subject’s attitude towards her background and close family than has previously been available. If Thatcher revered her father, the Grantham grocer Alfred Roberts, it was more for what he stood for than for who he was. Once she had broken free from her small-town childhood and adolescence, first as a student at Oxford and then as a would-be politician based in the Home Counties, the then Margaret Roberts felt no compelling ties to her roots or even her family. Indeed, in his later years, the widowed Alfred would gently complain to Muriel about being neglected by his other daughter, a disappointment that he could only attribute to the demands of her advancing political career. It was Muriel’s ‘affection that helps me to stand up against the awful loneliness that sometimes hits me’. (p. 158) To the journalist Godfrey Winn, Thatcher once declared that ‘I loved my mother dearly, but after I was 15 we had nothing more to say to each other’ (p. 158) – and this only a few months after Mrs Roberts’ death.
After several disappointments Thatcher was eventually chosen to stand for the Conservatives in the relatively safe seat of Finchley in north London, though, as Moore reveals, her selection as candidate may have owed something to the creative counting of votes by the local party chairman. As a young MP and, fairly soon, a junior minister, her performance was competent rather than spectacular. She gave few indications of the policies or the qualities that would come to characterise her premiership. Some of her views were recognisably right-wing, but there was nothing that was ‘dangerously unorthodox’. (p. 140) Her support in 1961 for an amendment which would have restored corporal punishment for young offenders was, Moore notes, ‘the only occasion in her entire parliamentary career when [she] voted against the line of her own party’. (p. 154) She accepted Beveridge’s ‘sensible’ blueprint for the welfare state, a stance from which, arguably, she never totally departed, (p. 163) and she largely backed the social reforms of the 1960s, associated with Labour’s Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins. What impressed those Tory colleagues who worked closely with her, such as her first ministerial boss John Boyd-Carpenter, was her capacity ‘to absorb almost any amount of detail and argue it through late-night sittings in the House of Commons’. (p. 179)
Such skills did not lead inexorably towards the party leadership, still less the premiership, and for several years Thatcher prospered as the ‘token woman’, elevated from a small group of largely undistinguished female Tory MPs. When her chance came in 1975, good fortune favoured her. She faced in Edward Heath a sitting leader who seemed to have gone out of his way to alienate large numbers of his own MPs. The party, Heath told the future Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, consisted of ‘shits, bloody shits and fucking shits’. (p. 287) But if Heath had become almost unprecedentedly disliked, there was no clearly marked-out successor, especially once sober Tory MPs had assessed the risks that a period with Keith Joseph at the helm would entail. Thatcher, though personally devoted to Joseph and increasingly responsive to his monetarist critique of previous economic policy, had, Moore believes, already decided to stand for the leadership before the accident-prone Sir Keith ruled himself out of the contest. The grandees of the party could not get too excited about her candidacy. ‘We don’t need to take this Thatcher business seriously, do we?’ enquired the veteran R.A. Butler. (p. 275) But Thatcher’s performance in the Commons and her bravery in taking on the hated Heath convinced a sufficient number of backbench MPs to support her cause.
Moore’s account of the years of opposition from 1975 to 1979 and of the first three years of the Thatcher government is particularly good. It emphasises just how isolated she was at the top of her party – even her supposedly ever-loyal deputy, Willie Whitelaw, told Roy Jenkins ‘how absolutely ghastly life was with that awful woman’ (p. 382) – but also that, even within the small band of ‘true believers’, there ran deep divisions. Nor was Thatcher’s own position that of the consistent, uncomplicated crusader, her vision clearly fixed on established goals. Moore reveals a woman who veered between boldness and caution, handicapped by inexperience, nervousness and an on-going social insecurity. If anything meriting the title ‘Thatcherism’ existed at this time, it was not ‘a philosophy, but a disposition of mind and character embodied in a highly unusual woman’. (p. 536)
In the construction of both her shadow cabinet and first cabinet Thatcher seemed almost determined to create problems for herself, committed as she was to a working coalition of a range of political opinions at the top of the party. Some appointments – and some that she considered making – are hard to explain. That of Reginald Maudling, who shared few of her beliefs and who was in any case descending into alcoholism, as shadow Foreign Secretary is particularly baffling. Moore makes it clear that she was never entirely at ease with Geoffrey Howe, despite his essential ‘soundness’ on economic policy and that she had first dangled the offer of the shadow chancellorship before Edward Du Cann who preferred, however, to retain his lucrative positions in the City. In government she appointed Francis Pym to succeed Lord Carrington as Foreign Secretary despite the latter’s advice: ‘Margaret, you mustn’t do that. You hate him. It’ll all end in tears.’ (p. 675)
Once in power, her position became, if anything, more difficult as ministers, officials and advisers disagreed in their assessment of how best to control the money supply and deal with the problems of British industry. By the end of 1980 her loyal press secretary, Bernard Ingham, was reduced to reporting the favourable predictions in the latest edition of Old Moore’s Almanac! The Conservative party’s fortunes were beginning to improve by the beginning of 1982, but it was the Falklands War which transformed the Prime Minister’s position. In some ways she was even more isolated than over economic policy, even though the cabinet was all but united over the necessity of despatching a task force to the South Atlantic. In the event, the war brought out the best in her – ‘not only the well-known [qualities] of courage, conviction and resolution, but also her less advertised ones of caution and careful study’. (p. 752) Against accusations that she sought to steal the limelight of victory, Moore insists that she ‘hated the idea of upstaging the military or the monarchy’ and was anxious to avoid the intrusion of any political element into the service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral. (p. 756) But Moore notes too, with one eye perhaps on the second volume of this excellent and scrupulously fair biography, that the Falklands also ‘helped to create the dangerous idea that she acted best when she acted alone’. (p. 753)