The concluding volume of Charles Moore’s life of Margaret Thatcher is – as its predecessors are – a triumph

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

This outstanding biography comes to an end, not in an atmosphere of triumph and achievement, but in a welter of frustration, division, anger and conspiracy. There is a widespread view that Margaret Thatcher’s first two administrations, from 1979 and 1983, were huge personal successes; the third, from 1987, was her mad period. That is unfair, and avoids the truth that she was partnered in this last phase with figures who conspired to frustrate policies arising from some accurate and perceptive insights.

The end result is that where the first two volumes contained one episode after another of rare, unalloyed triumph, this final one inevitably tells the story of resentments building up, cabals of the misguided doing their best to put an end to the phenomenon, complaint and gleeful plotting. Enoch Powell’s maxim, talking about Joseph Chamberlain, that ‘all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure’, was much quoted at the time and since. She felt that failure very painfully; whether she had reached the end, or whether this was, in fact, a point from which she could have recovered, will go on being much debated.

The truth was that, as time went on, Mrs Thatcher’s partners around the table were much less congenial to her than before, and much less willing to join in a shared endeavour. Sometimes this was indeed her own fault. The German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had never been to her taste, though it is true that, like some English people of her generation, she found it impossible to get on with Germans. Kohl’s pride and aspirations for his country she lazily found indistinguishable from German politicians of earlier generations. When Nicholas Ridley gave an interview to this magazine in July 1990, calling the European Monetary Union ‘a German racket’ and saying that ‘you might as well give [our sovereignty] to Adolf Hitler’, there is no doubt that she regretted having to sack him, and the views were quite similar to her own. Germany, however, and its prospective unification, ought to have been the climax of what she had worked so hard for — the end of the Soviet bloc. Her dislike of Germany and of Kohl’s undoubted heaviness (‘That man is so German’) removed her from the centre of the events she had largely created.

The international situation was compounded by the fact that Ronald Reagan’s successor in America, George H.W. Bush, was not at all her sort of man — writing smutty limericks to wile away dull summit meetings — and felt himself that he wanted to make his own alliances rather than inherit his predecessor’s. He grew irritated in time that Thatcher’s advice to him over the Gulf war — ‘George, this is no time to go wobbly’ — became shorthand for the idea that she had had to stiffen his resolve. Where Reagan had found Thatcher useful to engage with Gorbachev, Bush saw no reason not to skip the middlewoman and talk to Kohl and the Russians directly. She was reduced to cosy complaints with Mitterrand on the sidelines.

At home, too, she started to lose authority with her colleagues. One of the many surprising things about the story is the degree to which the prime minister was at odds with government policy — and remaining, in some cases, unaware of it. She had no idea that her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, was shadowing the German deutschmark until shown incontrovertible evidence while being interviewed by journalists. To a large degree, European and other government policy was conducted with the knowledge that Foreign Office policy might be destroyed at any moment by guerrilla tactics from No. 10. A detailed conspiracy took shape between Lawson and her long-suffering foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, and ultimately ousted her. The story of the astonishing events that turned her out of office in autumn 1990 has been told many times in detail; Moore unearths some truly startling material, and clearly demonstrates the lengths her successor, John Major, went to in order to secure his own candidacy.

Some of the most signal achievements recorded in this volume have disappeared from public awareness — they just don’t accord with the cartoon image of Mrs Thatcher that has prevailed in polite society. She was the first head of state, apart from Norway’s Gro Harlem Brundtland, to devote a major speech to the subject of climate change, in September 1988, for instance. She managed to overcome some prejudices of her age and class, and put in place an effective campaign against the Aids epidemic which has made her health secretary Norman Fowler a hero among Aids researchers and campaigners to this day. (Section 28, on the other hand, was
a sop to enraged backbenchers, which she would be surprised to see looming so large within her perceived legacy.)

She worked very effectively to bring apartheid in South Africa to an end, and muzzled her impatience both at posturing but useless Commonwealth leaders (‘the Canadians can be so sanctimonious’) and, after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the ludicrous demands of his ANC colleagues that he refuse to meet the evil, fascist, imperialist British.

And, of course, the way that her career in Europe finished has tended to conceal the fact, apparent from earlier volumes, that she worked hard to bring about the end of tyranny in eastern Europe. After she left office, in the same powerfully idealistic way, she campaigned to change the course of events in the former Yugoslavia against an establishment belief worldwide that nothing much could or should be done. Only with the arrival of Blair and Clinton did leaders start to agree with her here.

This is a magnificent political biography, which takes its place next to Robert Blake’s Disraeli and Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson on the highest level. It is a huge literary challenge to make sense of lives of such public complexity: the topics of engagement must be separated out into their own discrete narratives, but an overall forward movement must be conveyed. Though the biographer can devote separate chapters to Northern Ireland, ERM questions and South Africa, these subjects would have piled upon the prime minister on the same day and in the same red boxes. Moore does a superb job in conveying, towards the end of Thatcher’s time in office, the rioting in the streets, the resignations, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the return of double-digit inflation, until the parallel narratives of themes subside into the single chronological story of betrayal and sacking. It is extraordinarily compelling.

One of the principal reasons for this is Moore’s broad human sympathy and worldliness, often emerging in some very funny details. I love his puncturing Sir Nicholas Fairbairn’s self-regarding account of himself in the phrase ‘bon viveur’ with the more precise footnote ‘alcoholic’. He is neither intrusive nor unnecessarily euphemistic about Thatcher’s last illness. She was clearly loved by her carers and her old friends, who shared her enjoyment of the hymns on Songs of Praise, and the unexpected outbursts. There is a lovely story of Jane Gow and Pam Powell being surprised by an exclamation over tea of ‘Poppycock!’ — ‘and they all laughed together like little girls learning a new, faintly naughty word’. At the end, when politics and prose had gone, she still loved poetry, and took great pleasure in reciting favourites in turn with her carers. The beauty of this great biography is that it has really understood the poetry that always underlaid the Thatcher view of the world.

The acknowledgements pages have been tantalising readers since the first volume appeared in 2013. May one make a request to Penguin? The hundreds of people Moore has interviewed must have led him to some extraordinary places. In time, I hope he will put together a volume along the lines of James Pope-Hennessy’s The Quest for Queen Mary, with plain descriptions of his encounters with great and small connections of Margaret Thatcher. What was it like to spend time with Thatcher’s sister Muriel, or interview Nancy Reagan, John Major on the defensive, Peter Carrington, Mandy Rice-Davies (who was an intimate chum of Denis’s in later life) or Henry Kissinger? Soon this will be a lost world, and though Moore has done an enormous amount to help future generations to understand it, there is this one more service he could do us.

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