Margaret Thatcher, The Authorized Biography, Volume 3: Herself Alone, by Charles Moore, Allen Lane, 1,008 pp, £35, ISBN: 978-0241324745
Margaret Thatcher died on April 8th, 2013, after a decade or more of declining health. It was over twenty-two years since her resignation as prime minister on November 28th, 1990 – thirty years ago this year. But she has not been forgotten. She continues to excite both veneration and hostility. Her personality, political style, values, objectives, successes and failures are still invoked. The terms “Thatcherite” and “Thatcherism” are mostly, though not always, used as shorthand for selfishness, divisiveness, indifference to poverty and inequality and overbearing self-righteousness.
Mrs Thatcher’s image in Ireland is not positive. But she is remembered. A search of the Irish Times archive from 2014 to 2019 turns up one hundred and seventy-one uses of “Thatcherism” and “Thatcherite”. The unlikely duo of Billy Kelleher and Marian Keyes separately called Leo Varadkar Thatcherite. A television review spoke of animals participating in a “Thatcherite fight for survival”. Though as one columnist commented, “Thatcherite is what the hard left calls the centre right, mainly Fine Gael.” By contrast, “Blairism” and “Blairite” were used only fifty-eight times in the same period, even though he was her only postwar rival in terms of electoral success and longevity in office and served until 2007.
When Mrs Thatcher died, there were celebrations in Belfast, Glasgow and the north of England. “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” was number two in the charts. At the same time, large and respectful crowds gathered to witness her funeral in London. She had remained a heroine to many people in Britain, mostly in England: the woman who revived the economy, crushed the unions, recaptured the Falklands, stood alongside Ronald Reagan to win the Cold War and challenged the advance of a European superstate ‑ the woman who had made Britain great again, only to be betrayed by her own ministers. Few people were, or are, neutral about Mrs Thatcher. But the passage of time allows for a cooler, more rounded assessment. The duelling myths about her are firmly rooted in fact: but each of them involves exaggeration, selectivity, and much emotion.
This third and final volume of Charles Moore’s biography, covering the period from Mrs Thatcher’s third general election win in 1987 to her resignation in 1990, and then her long retirement, puts the capstone on a quite remarkable historical and literary achievement. Moore, an Old Etonian, came to notice in the 1980s as a young fogey – a countercultural construct of the early Thatcher years involving tweed, sherry in the vicarage, and piercing criticism of the political and cultural shibboleths of the left. He has not changed course since then, being a supporter of foxhunting and of Brexit, and a critic of the BBC and of the ordination of women. He quickly rose to become editor of The Spectator in one of its best periods, and then successively editor of the Sunday and Daily Telegraphs.
In 1997 Mrs Thatcher asked him to write an authorised biography. This gave him privileged access to her voluminous private papers, and she also encouraged her colleagues, friends, admirers and supporters to speak to him. Her sister came forward with many illuminating letters from their youth. Mrs Thatcher imposed two conditions. First, she was not to be shown the manuscript. Secondly, it was not to be published until after her death, which did not occur for sixteen years. Moore therefore had the time to research and write without being under any pressure from his publishers. And he also did not have to worry about her reaction. The first volume was complete, and the second considerably advanced, when she died, but this third volume was written afterwards.
When Moore began his work, and for several years afterwards, the great majority of the participants in, and observers of, her story were alive and well and able to talk to him. Many were by no means acolytes. Moore particularly notes the precision of the many officials he spoke to (who included some distinguished Irish officials). Over the three volumes, six hundred interviewees are quoted at least once. He also spoke to many others. Three hundred people were interviewed specifically for this volume. He was assisted by a number of researchers, and he pays particular tribute to his US collaborator.
This massive volume of oral history complemented an extraordinarily comprehensive written record, contained in both private and official papers. This was still a time when government business was conducted above all in writing. Minutes, memoranda, reports, letters, briefing notes survive in staggering quantities. Even during the most difficult and busy times, much was written down. An Irish official active in the era of often unminuted informal meetings, FoI, routine leaking, hasty emails and unrecorded WhatsApp and text messages, can only marvel at the thoroughness, but also the frankness, and sometimes wit, of the documents – and weep.
Mrs Thatcher had a voracious appetite for work. That work included reading through the several red boxes, stuffed with documents requiring attention and often decisions, put before her each day. Not only did she read them with care, but she responded to them, often with great vigour. In addition to formal decisions, she would comment on points raised and arguments made, sometimes with warm approval, sometimes with pungent disapproval. Her handwritten notes survive in great quantity. And words were not always necessary. A straight line drawn under a phrase or sentence expressed approval, but a wiggly line – and especially a double, or triple, wiggly line ‑ was never a good sign.
So Moore had a vast array of primary sources at his disposal, the time to study them, and the independence to make his own judgments. His handling of these raw materials is masterly. The volumes are in chronological order, but within them he mostly takes a thematic approach – while now and then pointing out when a number of challenging issues were being dealt with simultaneously. For example, the second volume includes nine photographs from a single week in December 1984, during which she met Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time (at Chequers); flew to Beijing to sign the Hong Kong agreement; visited Hong Kong; then flew to the US to meet President Reagan at Camp David; and then flew home again, pulling a Christmas cracker with Bernard Ingham on the way.
The story is long and complex, but is told with lucidity and an Olympian elegance. Moore explains complicated issues and debates without oversimplification, but without becoming trapped in the weeds. The narrative moves forward compellingly. In addition to the many endnotes on his sources (eighty pages in this volume), many footnotes offer elements of detail and colour, sometimes comical – Mrs Thatcher and an unlucky Hong Kong cockroach, Nancy Reagan’s boredom at being seated beside Denis Thatcher, the breakfast at the US embassy where the ambassador’s chef had forgotten to lay in food.
This third volume, like the first two, exudes balance and judgement. For the most part, Moore sets out what happened in a calm and neutral way, with any commentary, analysis or conclusions clearly distinct from the facts. Two Irish officials to whom he spoke attest to his fairness in conveying their views. Inevitably, given his personal views, Moore is sympathetic to Mrs Thatcher’s objectives, impressed by her achievements and admiring of her character. He lays much stress on how she overcame major handicaps of gender and class to rise to the top. But he is by no means uncritical, recognising her shortcomings and failures, and, in this volume, describing her increasingly messianic arrogance and her isolation from her ministers and MPs.
This volume starts on June 12th, 1987, the day after Mrs Thatcher’s third general election win. Enemies vanquished at home and abroad, the economy thriving, her dominance within the Conservative Party unchallenged: she was at her apogee. As in a tragedy, her problems began at that point (though her triumphs continued). And, also as in a tragedy, Moore illustrates how the flaws which ultimately brought her down were the obverse of her many strengths and virtues. On the domestic policy front, most of her most important successes had already occurred: a return to economic growth, the taming of the trade unions, especially the miners, the introduction of a right for council tenants to buy their houses, and the first privatisations. The City of London had been transformed by the Big Bang of 1986. But there were still significant items on her agenda including education and health reform, together with water and electricity privatisation. The latter two were handled successfully. Herself a former education secretary, she was hostile to many of the assumptions and attitudes of the education world, and, to some degree contradictorily, sought at the same time to free schools from excessive local government control and to establish national standards through a more common curriculum. As in other areas, notably local government, a principled desire for greater autonomy was countered by a drive to centralisation in Whitehall as a means of overcoming opponents.
Reform of the health service was a still greater challenge, as it seems to be always and everywhere, with powerful interest groups, hugely complex systems, rising costs and, and public anxiety about changes to the NHS. Mrs Thatcher could afford private treatment and never herself used the NHS (she expressed surprise to Willie Whitelaw that he had) but was well aware of public opinion and, as quite often in other matters, was more cautious in her actions than in her words. Her first health secretary, John Moore, for a while seen as a protégé, simply could not cope with the pressure and had something of a breakdown. On arriving for a meeting at Downing Street while suffering from pneumonia, he collapsed: Mrs Thatcher insisted on herself taking him upstairs to lie down in a spare bedroom in her flat (she was always personally kind to people in difficulties). She replaced him with the more robust Ken Clarke who, while by no means a fan, worked well with her to push through a first iteration of the “provider-purchaser split” which has ever since been a key part of the management of the health service. Money was forced out of the Treasury to ease the change.
Not so much out of personal prudishness as in recognition of the prejudices and fears of many of her strongest supporters, Mrs Thatcher was slow to accept the need for frank public messaging on the AIDS crisis. “Do we have to do the section on Risky Sex?” she wrote on a draft advertisement. But her government acted nonetheless. In 1989 she herself quietly visited the Mildmay AIDS Hospice (the first in Europe), impressed the staff with her sympathy for the patients, and subsequently sent it a personal cheque for £1,000. She supported, if she did not initiate, the controversial Section 28 legislation banning the “promotion” of homosexuality with public funds, notably in schools: Moore argues that while her dislike and ignorance of homosexuality were real, and mainstream, her animus was less against gays than against “looney left” councils who were funding the supposed propaganda. But it was a hurtful and blinkered policy. Moore acknowledges that “Nowadays children are taught in schools about the shameful past persecution of gay people, and Section 28 is held up as a prize exhibit.”
The most damaging domestic controversy of her third term was the establishment of the community charge, or poll tax, to fund local government. Moore points out that this was the outcome of deep analysis by the Civil Service and thorough discussion in the Cabinet and was far from just a bee in Mrs Thatcher’s bonnet. On paper, it made much sense: it was to replace an antiquated, unfair and uneven system of domestic rates and to ensure that all residents had a personal interest in spending decisions taken by their council (especially, it was hoped, if it was a Labour council). However, as the time for its implementation approached, many flaws became apparent. There were significant inequalities between individuals and families, the size of the average charge was considerably higher than the modest initial estimates, and overall there were to be more losers than winners. The scheme was introduced in Scotland a year earlier than in England, suggesting that the English were using Scotland as a laboratory for a poorly planned experiment. The Conservatives were seriously and lastingly damaged. Public opposition grew as the Government scrambled to find fixes and reliefs which diluted and distorted the simplicity of the original proposal. Massive riots took place in London. More importantly, the poll tax was seriously affecting the government’s, and Mrs Thatcher’s, standing in the polls. “Her people”, above all the skilled working classes and lower middle classes who owned modest properties, sometimes as a result of privatisation, seemed to be turning against her. Her ministers increasingly distanced themselves from the tax, with her last environment secretary, Chris Patten, and chancellor, John Major, working closely to find ways to blunt its edge. The issue was still live at the time of her departure from office in November 1990, but it did more than anything else to weaken public confidence in her competence and political sensitivity.
Mrs Thatcher had little or no feel for or spontaneous interest in Northern Ireland, unionist or nationalist. But she could not ignore it. In her third term, as Moore says, “she had no ambition for new political initiatives, but a strong sense of continuing concern”. The Anglo-Irish Agreement had been in place for just over eighteen months, but she was increasingly frustrated and annoyed by its failure, as she saw it, to deliver the security benefits which she had been promised. This was a period of ghastly events: Enniskillen, Gibraltar and its grisly aftermath, Ballygawley, Deal. In 1990 she was deeply affected by the IRA murder of her former PPS, Ian Gow. She was very unhappy about the failure of the Haughey government to co-operate fully, not least on extradition (in the previous volume Michael Lillis is quoted as admitting she had a point). There were some very difficult exchanges, though also some pleasanter encounters (as the just-published State Papers for 1989 apparently confirm). However, as Moore points out, her unswerving opposition to terrorism did not prevent her from turning a blind eye to some back channel contacts with republicans, as had happened during the hunger strikes. While she in no way authorised it, Peter Brooke’s seminal assurance that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland was given close to the end of her term.
Like many leaders in their later stages, Mrs Thatcher was ever more comfortable on the world stage. She had a number of important successes. One came from her twin-track policy towards South Africa. Her staunch opposition to sanctions, even in the face of considerable pressure from all forty-eight other members of the Commonwealth (and hence Queen Elizabeth’s unhappiness) was much reviled (she did fan the flames by saying she felt sorry for the forty-eight). But she used her consequent credit with the South African government to maintain steady pressure on it to recognise that the end of apartheid was inevitable, and to show its commitment to reform by releasing Nelson Mandela. She can reasonably be credited with playing a part in the achievement of both goals – as was recognised by both sides. She developed a strong relationship with FW De Klerk and, despite difficult moments in the first period after his release, Mandela also came to respect and appreciate her.
Mrs Thatcher was also the first major world leader, something she attributed to being a scientist, to recognise the threat of climate change, even though it was too early for any concerted policy response. She convened a conference in London and made some powerful speeches, including at the Second World Climate Conference in Geneva in November 1990 – the month of her downfall. Prophetically, she linked global warming, population growth, the pollution of the oceans, the destruction of the rain forests, the excessive use of fossil fuels and the decline in soil fertility as a combined threat. While noting that the science was uncertain (as at that time it was), and supporting economic growth, she said that there was “a clear case for precautionary action at an international level.”
Her greatest interest, however, was in traditional geopolitics. Her two most important relationships were with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Her partnership with Reagan was in full flower in 1987. She valued the strength of his core anti-communist principles, while feeling the need now and then to keep his more ambitious arms control ambitions in check lest Europe be left exposed to the Soviet threat. In personal terms, he deeply admired her, and regularly deferred to her intellect and force of will. She always had a tendresse for good-looking, well-dressed and charming men. All in all, they enjoyed a sort of platonic love affair.
Perhaps her most important contribution was over time to persuade Reagan and his officials that Gorbachev was indeed a man to do business with, as she put it after first meeting him at the end of 1984, even before he became general secretary of the Communist Party. Notwithstanding, or perhaps because of, their robust discussions (she greatly enjoyed debate, and respected those who fought back) she became steadily impressed by Gorbachev and confident of his bona fides. This confidence was not shared by many within her own intelligence and foreign policy system, or by most US officials, but she persisted in making the case and in finding opportunities to bolster Gorbachev at home and abroad. She turned out to be right, and was therefore indispensable in helping to create the conditions for significant improvements in US-Soviet relations, especially on disarmament.
Mrs Thatcher’s relationship with George Bush was never as easy or as close. Moore assesses Bush as, unlike Reagan, not very comfortable with women of authority. More importantly, he was determined to establish himself as the fully independent leader of the world’s greatest power. His own foreign policy team (James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell) was particularly able. He did admire her very much, but did not want to accord her equal status. He once said “I respect her. I like her. But I’m the President of the United States.” Moore shows that she never did tell him in public that he shouldn’t “go wobbly” after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. She did use the word in a private call. At first Bush and his people were amused by what they saw as a quintessential Anglicism. But over time, particularly as a distorted anecdote grew public legs, he privately grew irritated and angry. Immediate British pledges of military support were however deeply appreciated by the Americans, and underlined how theirs was the primordial bilateral security relationship.
During the autumn of 1990, there was much anxiety about the situation of Westerners who were being prevented from leaving Iraq. Some well-meaning intermediaries (including Michael D Higgins and other Irish parliamentarians) visited. But the motives of Edward Heath were perhaps not honourable. His meeting with Saddam was exploited by the Iraqis but his more important goal may have been to embarrass his hated conqueror. All through Mrs Thatcher’s fifteen years as Conservative leader “the Incredible Sulk” sat glowering on the backbenches, missing no opportunity to carp.
The main source of tension between President Bush and Mrs Thatcher was not personal, however, but arose over their different views of how to handle the consequences of the epoch-making fall of communism in 1989/90. The really difficult issue was the reunification of Germany. Mrs Thatcher had been a fervent opponent of communism all her political life, not just on security, political and economic grounds, but also for moral reasons. More than most Western leaders, she meant what she said about freedom. So the collapse of communist regimes across Eastern Europe should have been a source of unalloyed delight and pride. Her role was widely recognised: she was received ecstatically at the Gdansk shipyards, for example.
But she was deeply hostile to German unity. A teenager during the war, she instinctively disliked and distrusted Germany. Her husband, Denis, was also extremely blunt on the subject. She feared the power of a Germany which, standing at the heart of Europe, would be its biggest and most powerful state. (The 1989 Irish State Papers reveal that she showed the taoiseach a number of alarming maps). A private seminar with academic and other experts at Chequers revealed anxieties about the “German character”: when this leaked, the Germans were deeply offended. She was worried about German commitment to nuclear deterrence. On a personal level, she had little affinity with Chancellor Kohl. She was not alone in her worries. French president Mitterrand also disliked the prospect, and privately they shared their fears. But Mitterrand was never going to stand in the way of Kohl.
Progress towards German unity accelerated inexorably during 1990. Mrs Thatcher hoped and tried to prevent it, then to slow it and to complicate it. One of her arguments, while perhaps self-serving, demonstrated some prescience: she worried about the impact on Gorbachev and on Russia’s concern for its own security. But she was on the wrong side of history: outpaced by events and steamrollered by Kohl. Crucially, Bush was unequivocal in his support for unity. He and his team became increasingly impatient with Mrs Thatcher, and pressed on without her. By mid-1990, Bush was woundingly speaking of Germany as the most important European partner of the US (though the Gulf War restored some of the UK’s lustre).
An even more neuralgic aspect of German unification was its impact on European integration. Germany wanted not a “German Europe” but a “European Germany”, firmly embedded within more strongly developed European structures. France saw this as an opportunity to create a new single currency to replace the overmighty deutschmark. Mrs Thatcher wanted neither. Up to 1987, she had handled Britain’s EC membership quite adroitly. She was victorious in the long wrangle over the budget and a British rebate. The drive to a single market owed much to the UK. But then it all began to go wrong, and the long path to disaster began. Difficulties on both the domestic and the European fronts became poisonously intertwined. The first problem was an increasingly acrimonious dispute with her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, over British monetary policy. He was a highly self-confident man, at the height of his standing as the architect of a boom and of a radical approach to deregulation and tax cuts. Mrs Thatcher was not comfortable with the great credit given to him for his part in the 1987 victory. Lawson became convinced that control of the money supply would not on its own combat inflation, which although it had fallen, remained stubbornly high (and rose again later). Exchange rate stability was required. So he informally, and to some degree furtively, adopted a policy of shadowing the deutschmark. The prime minister, and her economic advisers, were strongly opposed, and their differences became increasingly public. Moore points out that while most of the discussion was technical in nature, Mrs Thatcher’s views sprang mostly from the loss of sovereignty she saw entailed in greater integration.
Lawson doubled down by becoming an advocate of British entry to the EU’s exchange rate mechanism. He was actually lukewarm about the European Community in general. His support for ERM entry had an economic basis. But his main ally, the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, was a committed pro-European who supported it for mainly political reasons and later looked forward to British membership of a single currency. They combined to try to push Mrs Thatcher in a direction she did not want to go – also arguing that limited British engagement would help slow down progress towards a single currency. This traditional Foreign Office homeopathic approach turned out to be wrong then, as on later occasions. The British consistently underestimated the commitment of their partners, above all Germany and France, to European integration and political union, and overestimated their ability to put procedural spanners in the works.
The row about the ERM lumbered on, with acrimonious internal arguments before and after European Councils. Eventually, Mrs Thatcher humiliated Geoffrey Howe by demoting him from the Foreign Office in July 1989. He was replaced by the rising star John Major. Just three months later Lawson resigned, feeling his position to be untenable. His reputation was also damaged by a return to rising inflation. Major became chancellor, a signal of his status as her preferred successor. As inflation continued to rise, Major adroitly managed Britain’s entry into the ERM one year later, with her very reluctant acquiescence – she could not risk losing two chancellors. (This would later turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory when the markets humiliatingly forced the UK (and Ireland) out of the ERM in 1992.)
The ERM was not Mrs Thatcher’s only European concern. Following the ratification of the Single European Act in 1987, the highly ambitious and energetic Commission president, Jacques Delors, was pressing for further integration. Mrs Thatcher greatly respected his ability but was alarmed by his objectives. In mid-1988 the European Council set up a committee chaired by Delors to report on how to achieve a single currency. Delors, also an enthusiastic proponent of a social Europe (a term Mrs Thatcher found vague and repugnant) came to the TUC conference and was serenaded with Frère Jacques.
Mrs Thatcher had had enough. Taking up an invitation to speak at the College of Europe at Bruges, in October 1988, she set out her stall. In an elegant and forceful speech (written mostly by her private secretary for foreign affairs, Charles Powell, an ever more influential member of her inner circle, and the author of many of the sharpest lines quoted by Moore) she began with a broad historical sweep, stating that “Britain’s destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”. She also emphasised the West’s duty to support freedom in eastern Europe. But she then moved on to attack the centralisation of power in Brussels – especially, she said, as the Soviet Union was beginning to move in the other direction. The Community should foster “willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states”. In a memorable and provocative sentence, she said “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” Controversy was immediate. The speech was rightly seen as targeting Delors. It evoked horror in many capitals and in the FCO – and much enthusiasm in some, but by no means all, parts of the Tory party. Geoffrey Howe was very unhappy, recognising that her fundamental views diverged irreconcilably from his. But he did not resign – yet.
Skirmishing on Europe continued for the next year. At European Councils Bernard Ingham maintained the everlasting practice whereby the British media were briefed that the battling PM had either won, or stood alone in resistance – never agreed or compromised. Matters came to a head after the European Council meeting in Rome in October 1990. Strongly against her wishes, the other eleven members agreed conclusions endorsing January 1st, 1994 as the starting date for the second stage of EMU (including the creation of a European Central Bank) and referred positively to the idea of political union. Remarkably, the conclusions made clear that this was not a full consensus, as the UK had not agreed. Andreotti, the Italian prime minister, had, with the support of Kohl, Mitterrand and Delors, and not without pleasure, stitched her up. In her report to parliament in the following week she was in fighting form, supported by the loyal Sun with its “Up Yours Delors” headline. She attacked the European Council’s failure even to discuss trade, as she had wanted, and excoriated its move forward on EMU and political union. Britain would never give up the pound sterling unless it freely exercised its sovereign right to do so. The debate moved on. Then came the phrase for which it is remembered: to Delors’s idea that the European Parliament should be the democratic body of the Community, the Commission its executive, and the Council its senate, she simply said “No. No. No.” Events now hastened forward. However, as Moore says, for those long waiting to make a move against her, “‘No. No. No’ was not so much a shock as a cue.”
Moore chronicles the events of the following month, ending in her fall, over eighty detailed pages. He starts with the powerful resignation speech of Geoffrey Howe, increasingly bullied and criticised by her during long years of loyal service, and then the mounting of a leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine, the next biggest beast in the party and in exile from cabinet since 1986. A first ballot of MPs was held. And though she won it was not by quite enough to prevent a second ballot. The machinations of most of the cabinet essentially forced her hand and made her go. Even though one knows the ending, it’s still compulsive reading. Moore gives due weight to the dramatic moments; her hearing, while in Paris for the first CSCE Summit, the result of the first round of voting; the evening when her ministers went one by one into her office to tell her that while they of course supported her she would not win; her bravura speech in the House of Commons after she had announced her resignation; and her tearful departure from Downing Street. But he also forensically analyses the manoeuvring within the party. She was lamentably served by her campaign manager, Peter Morrison, a heavy drinker and shooting party enthusiast (it is remarkable how many shooting parties seem to have occurred at critical moments). Few if any Ministers wanted Heseltine to succeed her. But they did think she should go. So, little by little, they worked out what needed to be done. On the basis of Moore’s account, John Major might rightly be described as the most cunning, ruthless and devious of them all.
Why was Mrs Thatcher effectively forced to leave? Partly, it was because of government failures: inflation had risen steeply once again and the poll tax was massively unpopular. Her views on Europe were out of kilter with those of most of the senior members of her party, if not of the grassroots. Critically, Neil Kinnock and Labour were ahead in the polls. And Moore describes how many ministers, and former ministers, were simply fed up with her. She had become increasingly imperious and opinionated. She treated many colleagues badly (though she was always very kind to staff and to those sick or in trouble). She relied increasingly on a small number of advisers and civil servants (chiefly Charles Powell and Ingham – both of whom did their jobs superbly). Maybe she was beginning to lose her grip just a little. She had just marked her sixty-fifth birthday. Denis had more than once, including on the tenth anniversary of her becoming PM, in May 1979, suggested she should stop. But her fall was sudden and traumatic, and caused lasting divisions in the Conservative Party. Even Chris Patten, a leading critic, came to think that it would have been better for the Tories had she carried on and lost an election.
Moore devotes more than a hundred pages to Mrs Thatcher’s time after leaving office. She was emotionally and practically utterly unready for retirement, and the first months were very difficult. She was a workaholic who did not have close friendships outside politics, or a range of interests. She did not see much of her children. Charles Powell thought that she never had a truly happy day after office. Things did settle down. A loyal and efficient group of staff and advisers was put together. Rich friends and acquaintances in Britain and, especially, the US welcomed her to their homes. She became a baroness, and a member of the Orders of the Garter and of Merit. Queen Elizabeth attended both her seventieth and eightieth birthday parties. She wrote her brisk and readable memoirs; gave speeches; and continued to comment. But none of this really made up for her loss.
Having initially supported Major, she grew steadily more resentful of his role in her downfall, and more critical of his policies and leadership: and he got ever more annoyed by her self-appointed role as “backseat driver”. Nor was she of much help to his successor, William Hague. Her view of the EU became ever more hostile and her opinions in general (including, sadly, on climate change) more reactionary. In her final ten years dementia took a grip on Mrs Thatcher, and Denis, her loyal supporter throughout, died. In some ways she became softer and gentler, spending hours looking at pictures of dogs and cats. She was told that a film, The Iron Lady, was being made about her, but not that it included a depiction of her decline. However, shown a photograph of Meryl Streep, who played her, she commented approvingly that she was attractive. Little by little her life ebbed away and she died aged eighty-seven in a private room in the Ritz which had been made available to her by its owners as a place to rest after various medical interventions.
Moore completes his 2,800-page magnum opus with a short, eloquent epilogue which tries to sum Mrs Thatcher up. To paraphrase: her achievements were immense, for good or ill. Above all, she drove a massive and innovative overhaul of the British economy, the essential elements of which were essentially unchallenged for almost thirty years, and which restored domestic and international business and political confidence in Britain after the sorry 1970s. She played an important role in the end of communism in Europe, based on her relationships with the leaders of both the US and the Soviet Union. She led the UK to victory in a difficult and dangerous war, the loss of which would have destroyed her. Her government negotiated the handover of Hong Kong, oversaw the end of white Rhodesia and worked in its own way for the end of apartheid in South Africa. She led in putting climate change on the international agenda.
On the other hand the economic policies of the early and mid-1980s, aimed at squeezing inflation out of the system and curbing the power of the trade unions, led to enduring human misery in the industrial and mining towns and villages of the Midlands and North, though other parts of the country did very well. This was ultimately the result of global trends in manufacturing and coal mining ‑ similar carnage occurred in similar communities elsewhere, not just in the US but in Mitterrand’s socialist France. But what particularly damned her in many eyes, then and later, was that she did not seem sorry, or to do much to help. In a 1987 interview with Woman’s Own she notoriously said “there is no such thing as society.” This has been quoted ever since as proof of her selfish individualism. (Moore points out however, as did the bishop of London at her funeral service, that she was somewhat unfairly represented: she was making the positive case for individuals and families to meet their own responsibilities, rather than relying on others, and the precise phrase was used in a passage on the upbringing of children). That so many of the places damaged in the 1980s, long deep-dyed red, voted for the Conservatives in the recent election is proof that at last she may be passing into history.
She lit the touch paper which decades later led to the Brexit explosion (Moore thinks it likely she would have voted for Brexit though Charles Powell does not). She legitimised Euroscepticism within the Conservative Party. In her last days in office and thereafter, she was the first mainstream politician after the 1975 referendum to suggest another one (on the single currency, not membership). She therefore began the destruction of the mainstream consensus on Britain’s place in Europe. In nationalist Ireland, her legacy in popular memory is dominated by the deaths of eleven hunger strikers in 1981. Very many people found her policy unbending and her attitude to the prisoners harsh and unfeeling, though in private she expressed some sympathy for them and their families. She certainly unwittingly helped lay the foundations for the rise of Sinn Féin. The British government did in fact try to find a solution, including through its Derry back-channel, and the republican leadership’s own motives may have made such a solution more difficult. But the popular verdict will hardly change.
Mrs Thatcher is also remembered for her “out, out, out” reaction to the three options proposed by the New Ireland Forum in 1984: a unitary state, a federal Ireland, and joint sovereignty. This was very clumsy and, unintentionally, caused serious problems for Garret FitzGerald, who showed remarkable patience ‑ though maybe it would have been just as well had the Forum report confined itself to its genuinely innovative thinking about the nature of unity and the need for modern nationalism to accommodate the identities and aspirations of both communities. However, though never convinced of the arguments in favour, she allowed her very able (and sympathetic) Cabinet Office and FCO officials to negotiate with the Irish government the ground-breaking Anglo-Irish Agreement, and acquiesced in the exclusion of the pro-unionist NIO. And though she came to regret much about it, she did not waver in her public support, despite furious unionist opposition. For Ian Paisley she was a “wicked woman”, a Jezebel. Enoch Powell’s searing attack in the Commons angered her greatly.
What shines through every page of this biography is Mrs Thatcher’s quite remarkable force of character. To become leader of her party, she had to overcome what was at the time the immense obstacle of her sex. The parliamentary party was overwhelmingly male, but came to recognise her abilities, though this did not keep many, including ministers, from reflexively misogynistic grumbling. Not only was she a woman, but lower middle-class – a class often mocked by the upper class, the working class and liberal artists and intellectuals. Jonathan Miller was repelled by her “odious suburban gentility”. Feminists argue that she was not herself a feminist, and did little to help other women (true, but Moore points out just how few women MPs there were, and that the most likely, Edwina Currie, damaged herself in a controversy).
She came through some very difficult and politically challenging periods in her first term, with many “wet” ministers, originally promoted by Heath, who neither liked her nor agreed with her economic policies. Her work rate was extraordinary and unremitting. She famously slept little. Moore makes fun of her dislike of holidays. This relentless single-mindedness came at a personal cost, which became fully visible in retirement, but it was her choice. Her practical intellect, the focus she brought to issues, her insistence on clarity, her delight in debate and argument, all made her formidable. (I remember reading reports of meetings between Charles Haughey and Community leaders in advance of our 1990 EC presidency – while most of the discussions were rather bland, that with her stood out for the focus and urgency with which she made use of her command of detail).
Above all, she had simple but robust principles. Moore does point out that she was capable of caution, delay and fudge if strictly necessary. But people thought they knew where she stood, and they usually did. She was deeply patriotic, and proud of Britain. She admired the military and, while dubious about diplomats, mostly recognised the work of the Civil Service. She valued effort, thrift and self-reliance. She believed in duty and obligation, personal freedom, the freedom of the market, and the right of people to improve their and their families’ lives. She disliked socialism and detested communism. She was not someone for shades of grey, for sparing people’s feelings or for backing away from conflict. She prized victory, not consensus. Many found these ideas and instincts and their expression simplistic, old-fashioned, and smugly self-righteous. They loathed her self-righteousness and seeming indifference to the plight of others. As Moore admits, there were “many unprejudiced people who found her totally unsympathetic”. But as many others strongly agreed with her and admired her crusading zeal.
Moore’s penultimate sentence may be a rare infelicity. “The woman so often criticised for being ‘uncaring’ cared more than any prime minister before or since about what she thought was her task.” To care deeply about one’s work says nothing about being caring as this is normally understood. And Churchill in World War II? Surely he cared.
However, his last words are surely right: “She gave everything she could.” There will never be agreement about Mrs Thatcher, her policies, or her achievements. But can anybody deny that she was a towering and transforming figure in the history of her times?
Rory Montgomery is a former Irish diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to the EU, Ambassador to France and Second Secretary General at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has recently been nominated as an Honorary Professor at Queen’s University Belfast and a Public Policy Fellow at Trinity College’s Long Room Hub for research in the arts and humanities.