Features March 2020
Margaret Thatcher’s traitors
On Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: Herself Alone by Charles Moore.
Although a good rule is that book reviewers should preserve a modest discretion about their own connection with what they review, in the present case that policy would open an accusation of concealment. Having had the principal role in drafting the two volumes of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs, I might have been a natural choice to be consulted by the head of her office on the subject of the preparation of an “authorized biography.” But I was not consulted, presumably for fear that, dazzled by the financial opportunity, I would have volunteered for the job, and in the knowledge that had I asked Mrs. Thatcher, she would probably, though not certainly, have said I was her choice for the task. (I eventually wrote a more personal, shorter study, Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher. The fact that my book had the same title, Not for Turning—referring to a famous line from her 1980 Tory Party Conference speech—as Charles Moore’s first volume was an unfortunate fluke.) At the time I was somewhat distressed, not because I would have liked to write such a book—for several reasons I would have been a bad choice—but rather because I had and have serious doubts about the concept of comprehensive “authorized” biographies. A good free-market “Thatcherite” approach would be to encourage different competing biographical assessments, making available to all whatever information existed.
In the case of Mrs. Thatcher there were subsidiary reasons to favor such a strategy. First, there already existed her own account from which all could draw, notably the first volume, The Downing Street Years, which offers a highly factual, eight-hundred-plus-page analysis of her premiership. The other important accessible resource was and is the expertly edited and ever-developing online Margaret Thatcher Foundation Archive of documents stored at Churchill College, Cambridge. Had Thatcher possessed a large fund of private papers, that would have argued for a restrictive approach, perhaps even a single authorized book, but the papers were for the most part of no great interest, let alone intimacy. This, incidentally, is a further element when considering authorization. Mrs. Thatcher at least scribbled pithy comments and instructions on official papers which can still be read. They were the tools with which, often working alone in the small hours, she sought to control her administration. But as government is increasingly reduced to electronic messaging and febrile conversation, who is to say what material has what status and may be afforded what protection?
The three volumes that Charles Moore has written have largely, but not entirely, quelled my initial concerns. The result of his labors is what will certainly be the definitive of account of Margaret Thatcher’s life and times. Three volumes, each of approximately a thousand pages, leave no stone unturned, no important incident unexplored, though they leave many questions open to be debated further by others—which is as it should be.
Mrs. Thatcher kept few personal papers.
This third volume, Herself Alone, completes Moore’s work.1 The biography draws on all the published material and, more importantly, a wealth of unpublished sources. Although not a classic “official history,” composed within a Department, Moore’s work is based upon access to government papers not available to anyone else. These include highly secret intelligence materials. Such access is essential when it comes to assessing military and security matters. Moore makes particularly good use of it in his discussions of Northern Ireland and terrorism (notably Chapter Nine) and in a fascinating—if arguably tangential—discussion (Chapter Eight) of the attempts to suppress the revelations contained in the dissident former MI5 officer Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher.
Most substantially, Moore’s book benefits from hundreds of interviews that would not have been granted to anyone who did not have the imprimatur of authorization. This was because people—mainly politicians—wanted to defend their endangered reputations and have their side of the story told, and the actions of their enemies traduced, rather than search for the Holy Grail of historical truth. But motives are not important, except in judging credibility (where in some cases Moore is more trusting than I would have been).
As noted, Mrs. Thatcher kept few personal papers. The most important discoveries about her early love life—which she would never have deigned to discuss or even acknowledge—were, for example, unearthed in correspondence with her sister. But, generally, the Thatcher story is remarkably, even tediously, scandal-free because, although she had weaknesses, they could hardly be termed vices. The authorized biographer of the current British Prime Minister might, one imagines, have a more colorful assignment.
Margaret Thatcher herself took little interest in the verdict of history. She felt neither a duty to disclose facts nor any desire to influence their interpretation. Whether this stemmed from pride or humility, or a mixture of both, is debatable, but it certainly made Moore’s task even more difficult than it had made mine and that of the other members of her memoirs “team” a decade earlier. In this third volume, at least, Moore, as far as I can see, makes no use of anything that she told him, so we presume she was uncooperative. There were some interviews and lunches, it seems, but from about 2001 her mind was anyway clouding fast and in the last few years her speech also became impaired. Moore is even forced to draw on the typescripts of the usually rather aimless reflections she made when we were trying to coax out of her some thoughts about events for the memoirs. It is, for the most part, an unproductive source. On top of that, Moore did not actually know her very well. He rightly admired her and, on most matters, agreed with her. He is more of an Ulster Unionist than she was, less interested in or understanding of economics, too, which is a drawback, but otherwise they would generally agree, especially about Europe. But actually knowing someone who was at once so apparently ordinary and yet unpredictably eccentric, so secretive about silly things and so honest and open about large ones, so noble and yet so petty, so lovable and—at times unfortunately—so thoroughly detestable, is not given to those who were not privileged (and cursed) to put up with her. As Moore says, he was not part of her “gang.” He viewed her for years with attention but from afar. This, for better and for worse, is, therefore, an outsider’s view. It makes it more objective. Sometimes it makes it cold.
For this final volume, Moore and his researchers and collaborators have interviewed three hundred people (including me). As with the other two volumes, the yield from this process is uneven. Some of the key players have much to conceal, and they have spent years in politics practicing that dark art. What is new and will be new even to those who were in Downing Street in that last, often tortured period of the Thatcher premiership is the contents of the unpublished diaries of key participants. In one case, I felt physically unwell at learning of the degree of treachery Moore unearths about someone who posed as her supporter, advisor, and friend.
He viewed her for years with attention but from afar.
Before commenting upon Moore’s treatment of the different topics and events, an overall judgement must be offered. This reviewer, who is far from unbiased, let alone neutral, but who was there at the time, who read much (though by no means all) of the material, who certainly did know Mrs. Thatcher in the last period of her life very well, and who has since had professional as well as personal incentives to keep reflecting on those now distant events, is in no doubt: Charles Moore has written an outstanding biography. It is not flattery but rather a mere statement of fact to say that I cannot imagine anyone else who could have performed the task even half as well. Moore’s combination of experience as the foremost conservative commentator in the British press and a former newspaper editor, sympathetic to the Thatcher aims but not “one of her gang,” qualifies him in all but one respect, perhaps—he is not a professional historian. A longer-term historical perspective would, on occasion, not have gone amiss. I felt this especially in considering his account of the closing stages of the Cold War. But then, as the late Professor Norman Stone (who was an exception to this rule) once put it (and less politely), today’s historians just cannot write. Moore, of course, to adopt one of Mrs. Thatcher’s favorite exclamations, “writes like a dream.” As an honest, independent-minded journalist, he has accepted no honors, though they almost certainly have been offered. He should be offered one of the most prestigious baubles now—and he should accept it—for what amounts to outstanding public service.
The main problem is that the book, if viewed as biography and not source material, is simply much too long. Moore explains that he felt a need to include so much information in part because it was otherwise unavailable to the public. He had hoped to complete it in two volumes but then he had to enlarge it to three. His first impulse was correct. But, as anyone facing both a prodigious amount of data and a pressing publisher will know, it is easier to write long than short, and once you have started that way you have to continue.
This third volume, in fact, looks to have been completed in haste. This is not reflected in mistakes of fact; it is, in fact, a beautifully produced text. But the final sections on Mrs. Thatcher’s life after leaving office are skimpy, and one would like to have had a longer and more substantial retrospective judgment on her to round off the book.
Unfortunately, only obsessives and specialists are likely to read all three volumes from end to end. That is a pity. Books should be devoured, not just dipped into and then stacked away on shelves. Moreover, when Charles Moore sets to writing on a topic that interests him (and that is inherently interesting), the results are not just fascinating but occasionally spectacularly good—as in sections of this third volume. Moore has probably had too much of the project—the term is not inappropriate, given the scale and the resources involved—to want to revisit it. But if at some point he could cut the total material by half, edit and shift the surplus to endnotes or appendices, and reissue it as an abridgment (as Michael Holroyd did with his George Bernard Shaw biography, and as, indeed, was done with the original two-volume Thatcher memoirs), it would evoke even greater admiration.
Herself Alone covers the period from just after the 1987 general election victory to Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013. The 1987 Conservative manifesto was dominated by proposals for social reform—notably in education and local government services—which largely ran into the sand. The story of how they did so is told, but nothing can make it uplifting or even instructive. The Thatcher government had only one striking success in domestic policy, which was the heavily discounted sale of council houses to their public-sector tenants. Topics like this, and the privatization story—which pops up again in the shape of the electricity industry, when no one is really interested in it in Volume Three—would be better covered separately in analytical rather than chronological fashion.
He had hoped to complete it in two volumes but then he had to enlarge it to three.
The tale of the attempt to reform local government finance, by introducing the principle that (almost) everyone should pay something for services received, thus reinforcing local democracy and responsibility, though equally depressing, is at least highly instructive. The Community Charge, or Poll Tax as it was derisively termed, was the single most important miscalculation that brought down Mrs. Thatcher. It was, in retrospect, highly unconservative, at least in the traditional Oakeshottian sense, because it was a radical, rationalizing measure that turned out to have unforeseen consequences, notably huge hikes in local tax bills for which no ready explanation was available. Alongside the rolling Poll Tax disaster was the failure to keep a grip on inflation, which resulted in unpopular higher interest rates to quell it.
The responsibility for that failure must fall—though in debatable degrees—on both the Prime Minister and her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, who later resigned in protest, allegedly, at the outspoken criticism of his policy from Alan Walters, Mrs. Thatcher’s economic advisor. From this point onwards (Chapter Four: “The Shadow of Lawson”), Volume Three becomes interesting reading. The technicalities of who told what to whom about the “shadowing of the deutschmark,” i.e., the adoption of a policy of pegged exchange rates with a view to joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism (erm) of the European Monetary System are, in fact, much more than technicalities, though they cannot be addressed in a book review.
The three important questions arising from the covert political warfare between Number Ten on one side and the Treasury (Lawson) and the Foreign Office (under Sir Geoffrey Howe) on the other are as follows.
First, did Lawson deceive Mrs. Thatcher about the policy? The answer here seems clearly that he did—though, perhaps in response to objections from Lawson himself, the text of the passage in which Moore makes his judgement is oddly confusing and indeed confused. Mrs. Thatcher, incredibly but demonstrably, only learned of the policy after it was revealed to her by journalists. Moore writes:
The scales now fell from her eyes, but it seems reasonable to assume that they could have fallen earlier if she had wanted them to.
A bottle of stout for anyone who can make sense of that.
Second, did Mrs. Thatcher or Nigel Lawson cause the upturn in inflation? Here the answer is not so clear. Both wanted to keep interest rates down and, indeed, too low, albeit for different reasons—he to keep down sterling and she to keep down mortgage payments. So the answer here seems to be: both.
Third, was there a conspiracy between Lawson and Howe to change government economic policy? The answer, as Moore shows, is that there was, though Lawson just wanted the erm while Howe, a committed Euro-enthusiast, wanted to see a fully fledged European currency which would be used in place of sterling.
European policy, as the above suggests, was a constant and in the end catastrophic feature of political life during this final Thatcher period. Handling it was especially difficult because of the lack of a common viewpoint between Mrs. Thatcher and the Foreign Office—both its staff and its ministers. The solution she adopted made a kind of sense, but it was full of dangers. Mrs. Thatcher effectively made her own independent foreign policy—most significantly in the highly Euroskeptic Bruges speech in 1988, which offered an alternative vision to that advanced by the Euro-federalists and which urged a model of cooperating sovereign states (with no European currency). But much less successful and, despite Moore’s valiant attempts to find something to be said for it, profoundly irrational was Mrs. Thatcher’s attitude to Germany, whose reunification—as this book confirms in details that are new to me (Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen)—she went to extraordinary lengths to stop. Someone should have forced her to see reason. She did not have to like the Germans. But when a British Conservative Prime Minister finds herself in secret talks with a French Socialist President (Mitterrand) and a Soviet Communist Leader (Gorbachev) to frustrate a German Conservative (Kohl) and millions of Germans desperate to live in a single Western-oriented state, then something has gone badly wrong.
The solution she adopted made a kind of sense, but it was full of dangers.
She had by this stage no one at hand to oppose her when she was wrong and to point out important nuances when she was right—as, indeed, she was about European policy as a whole. This was a tragedy for her and the country. She had fiercely resisted attempts by the head of the Civil Service to move her private secretary dealing with Foreign Policy, Charles Powell (now Lord Powell of Bayswater), who became what amounted to a second and arguably more powerful Foreign Secretary. It was unfortunate that the most serious attempts to remove him coincided in the summer of 1989 with what was known even at the time as the “ambush,” before the Madrid European Council, staged by Howe and Lawson, with both threatening resignation if she did not set a date for sterling to join the erm. She felt doubly cornered and she dared not yield on Powell. The fact remains that Powell had, though, no authority to stand up to her on a matter of substance—his owing his position to her obviously precluded it. All this isolated her from outside advice—and not just advice from the Foreign Office. Powell’s role dwarfed that of her political advisors. He was omnipresent. In her last weeks in power he was still filling her diary with meetings when she stood at the edge of the political chasm.
Powell’s presence also intrudes excessively in this account of her life. Some sections are so heavily based on Powell’s numerous memoranda to the Prime Minister that she fades into the background—notably in the chapter on South Africa. At these points the sources have taken over, and he is the only source. A dear friend to Mrs. Thatcher to the very end and always a great public servant, Powell had influence. But this influence was also ultimately one of the factors that destroyed her. She had been so coddled by deference that she had lost the psychological means, though not the will, to fight for her political survival when she had to—and down she went.
The tenth anniversary of her becoming Prime Minister went as badly as Mrs. Thatcher feared it might. The Conservatives, for the first time under her leadership, lost an election—that to the European Parliament. From this point on (Chapter Ten), Moore’s book becomes still more pacey and gripping, albeit in a disturbing way. I can testify to the mood of growing despair, at least among the Prime Minister’s political advisors. Every day seemed to bring bad news; consciousness of the awful opinion polls cast an ever greater pall; no one in the Cabinet seemed trustworthy, with even their advisors proving less amenable and collegial; the chatter was constantly of fight-backs and new starts and learning lessons, but her authority was waning as the younger generation of Ministers eyed up their chances. The talk of political bunkers is not a cliché. They exist.
It is against this background of a worsening economy, the poll tax heading remorselessly down the track, dissent and embarrassment on the question of Europe—worsened by bad relations with Ronald Reagan’s successor, President George H. W. Bush, which were largely his fault but no less damaging for that—that the extraordinary saga of Mrs. Thatcher’s flirtation with climate change must be considered. It was a welcome diversion from the dismal daily political agenda. It played up to her vanity—she often liked to remind people that she was a scientist, and now thought she could demonstrate the fact. Chapter Thirteen describes how she fell under the influence of climate alarmism, analyzes her 1988 Royal Society speech, and mentions her fascination with the quasi-pagan notions contained in James Lovelock’s “Gaia” concept. Eventually his book was removed from her. Moore does not sufficiently grasp the degree to which, though she never recanted, she later became alarmed at the cost of measures proposed to curb carbon emissions and talk of carbon taxes. By then, of course, it was too late. The single greatest threat to capitalism and sovereignty in the form of globalist climate alarmism had been unleashed. What Mrs. Thatcher would have made of Greta Thunberg is, of course, speculative. But I suspect she would have told her sharply to go back to school.
Chapters Nineteen (“No. No. No.”), Twenty (“The Challenge”), and Twenty-One (“The Fall”) should be read all in one go. The story is one of spiteful, cowardly, sexist, devious, dishonorable, systematic, mendacious betrayal. Her chief rival, Michael Heseltine, does not, himself, come out of it badly—he had his ambition as she had hers—nor do her few loyal but usually elderly or insignificant friends. Her first campaign manager was drunk for most of the time. Her second, it now appears, had other things than her survival on his mind. Those ministers who, at the end, during the sad one-on-one meetings where she begged for support, turned on her—some roughly, more with oleaginous and insincere regret—may, indeed, have received some buffets and tongue-lashings, but they were by and large her creations. That is above all true of John Major, the Chancellor, apparently indisposed after his wisdom teeth were extracted, but who at this juncture, while protesting fidelity, was craftily planning and plotting his way to the top while she floundered. Dante has “Traitors to Their Benefactors” populating the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell. Moore’s account offers a further range of suitable candidates.
The sources used in these chapters were open to Charles Moore as they were never open to anyone else. The participants themselves took notes; they knew that this was history unfolding. It was in many cases all that history would ever hear about them, but not even with their own self-serving accounts can they be said to grace its pages with distinction. The thought struck me, after re-reading what occurred, that there has never been a party as morally shameless as the British Conservative Party, though perhaps that just shows my ignorance of the others. Thirty years on, the stench of betrayal still seems to emanate from each tautly written page. This is how it was.
1 Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: Herself Alone, by Charles Moore; Alfred A. Knopf, 1,006 pages, $40.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 7, on page 4
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