Reviewed by: Alwyn W Turner Author: Charles Moore Publisher: Allen Lane Price (RRP): £30
This is an authorised biography, as Charles Moore explains in his preface, only in the sense that Margaret Thatcher chose the author. Beyond making that decision, she showed no interest in the project or in Moore’s conclusions. It is, then, to be seen as just another biography of the former prime minister, to sit alongside – and to face comparison with – earlier such works, particularly those of Hugo Young and John Campbell.
Its great advantage over those previous books is the access to papers and people allowed by Thatcher’s endorsement. Moore draws, for example, on the unpublished diary of Airey Neave, who managed her 1975 campaign for the Conservative party leadership, as well as quoting liberally from a stash of hitherto unseen letters written by the young Margaret Roberts to her sister. From these latter, we learn of her teenage partiality for “pink uplift bras” and the movies (she wanted to dance like Ginger Rogers but didn’t much enjoy the film Love on the Dole), and discover more than has ever previously been revealed of her love life prior to her marriage to “her social superior”, Denis Thatcher. How much of this material goes beyond trivial detail, however, is debatable.
It is only once Thatcher is elected to parliament in 1959 that we find ourselves on safer ground. The account of her time as a minister and in opposition in the 1960s, in particular, is rewarding, and Moore’s judgments often challenge received wisdom. He argues strongly that the roots of what was to become known as Thatcherism are discernible early on, and that she spent the late 1960s “working to what would now be called an agenda, and it was a feminist one”.
The story continues into government, temporarily ending with the Falklands War of 1982 (a second volume will follow). It’s an appropriate place to leave off. Although that conflict was of only passing importance to the nation, it transformed Thatcher herself. Up until that point, as Moore makes clear, there was pragmatism as well as principle in her leadership, a sense of priorities that allowed her to jettison non-essentials such as the negotiations over Rhodesia. After the Falklands she became an increasingly remote figure, ever more distant from voters who had responded not to the Iron Lady, the scourge of socialism, but to Maggie, the suburban housewife who stockpiled sardines and corned beef as a hedge against inflation.
Moore’s account, though, is already removed from that world. Perhaps due to his day job as a political commentator, there is little sense here of a country beyond Westminster, or the significance of non-political figures. Enoch Powell, one of those who prepared the public for the arrival of Thatcher, looms large, but Mary Whitehouse, who fulfilled the same role, merits just half a sentence. The result is that, even as PM, Thatcher is presented as having little influence on the psyche of Britain; the rioting that broke out in 1981 is dismissed simply as being “typical of the situation in which Mrs Thatcher’s government found itself”.
The Thatcher that emerges from this version is a politician certain of her instincts and principles, but frequently overwhelmed by political reality. As Moore writes of her response to the IRA hunger strike: “She was perplexed, even confused, about tactics.” As a biography, it is impressively detailed and clearly written. It will be mined by historians for years to come, even if the poring over government papers might try the patience of some readers. As a guide to the politics of the era, it is partisan and flawed, lurking far too long in the corridors of power. It adds to – but certainly doesn’t supplant – those books by Young and Campbell.