Everything and more
Margaret Thatcher, the Authorised Biography, Everything she Wants, by Charles Moore, Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0-713-99288-5
Angela Ellis-Jones reviews the second volume of the definitive biography of Margaret Thatcher
This is the second volume of Charles Moore’s projected three volume biography of Margaret Thatcher – ‘the first woman, in the whole of western democratic history, who truly came to dominate her country in her time’. It covers the zenith of her power, from the aftermath of the Falklands War in 1982 – and her subsequent (and consequent) victory in the general election of 1983 – to her third election victory in 1987. The title, taken from a contemporary pop song, is perhaps rather strange given that the author states at the outset ‘only by writing this book did I come to understand just how insecure Mrs Thatcher’s position often felt in these years – not least to her’. But she had a lot of good luck, too: Moore shows how so many things turned out very much better than they might have done.
Most politicians have a Weltanschauung, a view of the world which explains ‘where they are coming from’ and why they do what they do. Moore explains Mrs Thatcher’s in the following terms: ‘Ever since the 1970s she had agreed with those who saw a serious, semi-organised attempt by the extreme left to subvert British parliamentary democracy. Fear of this phenomenon played a part in her attitudes on many issues – detente, local government, education policy, police reform, the Labour Party, intelligence, sanctions against South Africa, and IRA terrorism, as well as trade union militancy’ (p162). A self-proclaimed ‘conviction politician’, she was determined to defeat the forces which she saw as standing in the way of Britain’s greatness.
Unfortunately, many of her worst enemies were within her own party in the shape of the ‘Wets’. The world that confronted her when she became party leader in 1975 was largely the world the Wets had made, with some help from Harold Wilson. Pathetic spineless creatures who were wrong about almost everything, and afraid to confront the forces of disorder whether in the form of militant trade unions or advocates for mass immigration, they suddenly found it in them to oppose Thatcher’s attempts to remake Britain. This book and its predecessor show how she defeated them.
Thatcherism was a response to the failings of three decades of social democracy, perpetrated by both main parties. But it was not offered, fully formed, in the manifesto for the 1979 General Election. For example, ‘Privatisation’, which became one of the most characteristically Thatcherite policies, was not mentioned in the manifesto for GE 1979; Mrs Thatcher did not use the word in public until July 1981. It took her some time to become its cheerleader. The most immediate reason for the sell-offs was the need for the Treasury to raise money, which is why the initial impetus came mainly from the Treasury. To gain some idea of what a massive policy departure it was, consider this: in 1976 a banker named John Redwood wrote: ‘It is neither possible nor desirable to return to a free market economy. There would be too much upheaval involved in dismantling the large State and private monopolies currently operating in the economy’. Within a decade, the same John Redwood, who headed the Policy Unit from 1983 to 1985, had become a protagonist of privatisation, and later joined Rothschilds as an advisor on the subject to many foreign governments.
The biggest privatisation was the sale of council houses. On this issue, Moore could be more critical. Council houses were sold at a time when demand for housing, and consequently house prices, were quite low. (This was before immigration exploded under Tony Blair). Recently we have seen Westminster Council buying back flats, sold a generation ago for a pittance, at grossly inflated prices. This ‘flagship ‘policy was arguably the worst policy mistake of the Thatcher governments. There will always be a need for social housing, and a policy of selling off council houses at knockdown prices, which then necessitates the purchase of more housing at much higher prices to rent to those on low incomes resembles more the socialist economics of the madhouse than prudent conservative finance.
Even those who broadly supported Mrs Thatcher would have to agree that she had her faults. What I find incomprehensible is the complete loathing which so many affluent and supposedly intelligent people had for her, a level of loathing that has probably never been inspired by any previous prime minister. One cannot but conclude that it had something to do with the fact that she was a woman. In a chapter entitled ‘What they saw in her’, Moore discusses the way in which Mrs Thatcher was portrayed by various left-wing ‘intellectuals’ and entertainers. The obscene way in which many of the latter referred to her of course says very much more about them than about her. She evidently made them feel inadequate and fearful. Although they were voluble in their abuse, Moore quotes the critic DJ Taylor as saying: ‘Scarcely a single contemporary novelist bothered him- or herself to try and comprehend the nature of Thatcher’s appeal’ (p647). One striking thing about those who abused her was that they always referred to her as ‘Maggie’, rather than the more dignified Margaret. Strangely, some of her supporters also used the more demotic form.
Moore records that the refusal by Oxford University of an honorary degree in 1985 ‘hurt her more deeply than any other insult offered to her during her time in office, apart from the vote that forced her out in 1990’. In support of the statement that Mrs Thatcher’s government had done ‘deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain’, 275 academics’ signatures were collected. Congregation rejected the degree by 738 votes to 319. It didn’t do them any good. According to the Cabinet Secretary, Robin Butler, the decision ‘had a disastrous effect upon fund-raising for the university, especially in the United States’. Yet another example of left-wing incompetence!
Moore demolishes any idea that Mrs Thatcher was an uncultured person – ‘Mrs Thatcher was always anxious to acquire more cultural knowledge’ (p653) and ‘she was always eager to learn more, asking to be taken round museums by their directors incognita to be instructed about their collections’. As a child, she learned to play the piano, and had a lifelong love of classical music. One could say that she was the last cultured British prime minister – none of her successors has been remotely in the same league. All, including Old Etonian Cameron, who should know better, have fallen over themselves to display their proletarian (lack of) taste in music and art.
Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood politicians of modern times – often deliberately so. At her funeral, the Bishop of London comprehensively demolished criticism of her ‘no such thing as society’ comment – yet some people persist in wilfully misunderstanding it. Also, as Moore says, ‘The phrase ‘the enemy within’ was taken up by critics as the epitome of her divisive approach’ (p164) yet Attlee had spoke of an ‘enemy within’ when warning about Communist infiltration of trade unions.
The demonization of Thatcher was and is accompanied by a corresponding uncritical adulation of those who opposed her. Moore writes of how ‘All through the [Miners] dispute, there were horrible attacks on working miners and their families – the wife of a working miner who was held down by youths in Nuneaton while others scraped her face with a Brillo pad; the miner who, a fortnight after returning to work, committed suicide because of threats; the mobs that beset the homes of working miners’. Throughout the dispute, Mrs Thatcher strongly supported the wives of working miners.
This story might have come to a tragic end in October 1984 when a bomb ripped through the Grand Hotel, Brighton, on the night before Mrs Thatcher was due to address the Conservative party conference. The bomb had been planted with a long-delay timer several weeks before by an IRA man, Patrick Magee, when he stayed in the room in which, he thought, the prime minister would later stay. Providentially, Mrs Thatcher was put in a suite away from the area that Magee had targeted, although, if she had been in her bathroom at the time of the blast, she would have been injured. Five people were killed. Magee, sentenced to life for murder in 1986, was disgracefully released under the terms of the Belfast Agreement in 1999. For the rest of her premiership, Mrs Thatcher showed enormous courage in living with the omnipresent threat of assassination, as did other Ministers.
As regards foreign policy, what dominates these years was the friendship between Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan based on their shared love of freedom, their understanding of the forces which threatened it, and their determination to fight back. With much justification, the admiration was greater on his side than on hers. She used this to achieve some important things. For example, the US-UK extradition treaty contained a loophole, barring extradition if the acts concerned were ‘political’ in nature. In December 1984 the New York federal court denied the extradition of an IRA gunman on these grounds. After Mrs Thatcher’s support for the US over Libya in 1986, Reagan endevoured to close the loophole with a new treaty. But things did not always run smoothly, as the Grenada episode showed.
This book contains a very interesting account of her first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1984 in London. Despite their sharp disagreements over the merits of their respective systems of government, they recognised important personal qualities in each other. Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who did not seem to be a prisoner of the system. Like Reagan, Gorbachev responded to an impressive and very attractive woman who clearly wished to lessen tensions between the two superpowers. But Mrs Thatcher was never under any illusions about Gorbachev. In February 1986 she advised Reagan that : ‘under the veneer he is the same brand of dedicated Soviet Communist that we have known in the past, relentless in pursuing Soviet interests and prepared to take time over this’ (p589). At the time of the Reykjavik summit, Thatcher feared that Reagan’s aversion for nuclear weapons would lead him to accept Gorbachev’s plan for a nuclear-free world by the 2000s; as Thatcher saw it, Europe would then be threatened by the overwhelming Russian superiority in conventional forces. The Thatcher-Gorbachev summit in Moscow in 1987 – one of her finest hours – had many acrimonious moments, but it was smiles all round for the TV cameras. Moore’s account of both the 1984 and the 1987 meetings shows a far higher level of confrontation than Gorbachev revealed in his Memoirs (1996).
Another group of foreigners whom Mrs Thatcher clearly impressed were the Saudis. The prime minister effectively acted as a saleswoman for defence equipment, securing a contract worth £42 billion over twenty years, estimated as ‘the biggest single deal anyone has ever done for the United Kingdom’. In the view of the Saudi Prince Bandar, ‘Before her, no one really cared what Britain thought or did. In her time, all over the world, they asked ‘What does Thatcher think? Where will Britain be?’(p289).
For all the Left’s bluster about the desirability of sanctions on South Aftrica, which she opposed, much to the chagrin of most other Commonwealth leaders, it was the case that ’Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned since 1963, but Mrs Thatcher seems to have been the first British prime minister since 1963 to request the South African Government to release him’.
There was unfortunately one area of foreign policy in which Mrs Thatcher was not as astute as she might have been: Europe. She was not well-served by successive Foreign Secretaries and civil servants. In 1982 Francis Pym told Thatcher that the ideas that Helmut Kohl was floating about ‘progress towards the unification of Europe’ were ‘innocuous in substance’ (p21). How misguided can you get? Pym’s successor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, although considerably more perceptive, was nevertheless too much of a Europhile to gain Thatcher’s confidence, and she soon sidelined him. As regards her position on Europe Moore comments: ‘Throughout the years of tumultuous European negotiations which began in 1979 and culminated in the Single European Act of 1986, Mrs Thatcher never made time to develop systematically her own vision of Europe. She therefore stuck, in principle at least, to the inherited pro-European doctrines which the Conservatives had made their own under Heath and which had helped them against a Labour Party divided on the issue. It was only later that she worked out – and publicly declared – what she thought’ (p408).
There are many things in this work which enhance one’s admiration for this extraordinary woman. But there is one episode which detracts from this. On the day before polling day in 1983, Thatcher, totally confident of victory, offered Cecil Parkinson, the party chairman, whatever Cabinet job he wanted. He told her of the embarrassing position he was in: his former secretary, Sara Keays, was expecting his child. ‘Mrs Thatcher reacted in a way which surprised him. ’What’s that got to do with anything?’ she asked. ’They tell me Anthony Eden leapt into bed with any good-looking woman. You can sort this out’ (p62).
Just before the party conference, Parkinson gave a statement to the media, in which he explained the situation and said that he had promised to marry Ms Keays, and then changed his mind. The Express reported ‘Maggie says he will not have to quit Cabinet’. By the end of conference week, Parkinson had resigned, evidently to Thatcher’s dismay. Until this point Margaret Thatcher had been my heroine, but I was shocked at her attitude, especially given that she had proclaimed the Conservatives ‘the party of the family’. What she actually said to Parkinson on first hearing of his appalling behaviour puts her in a totally amoral light. She wished to bring Parkinson back to the Cabinet as Trade and Industry Secretary in 1985, but was advised against; he eventually returned as Energy Secretary in 1987.
Thatcher showed a similarly breathtaking lack of judgment concerning Jimmy Savile. In May 1983 the prime minister was keen that Savile be knighted for his services to charity. She asked Robert Armstrong whether he thought that this would be a good idea. He said he did not, because he had heard stories about Savile’s misbehaviour with women (though not allegations of child abuse). After Armstrong had ceased to be Cabinet Secretary, and after she had appeared on Savile’s Jim’ll Fix It show on three occasions, Thatcher ensured that Savile was knighted in 1990. And this is the woman who said of the Soviet Union ‘their creed is barren of conscience, immune to the promptings of good and evil’! (p113).
Mrs Thatcher was evidently a bad judge of character, lacking in moral discernment. In appointing Jeffrey Archer Chairman of the party, she overruled advice that his judgment was unreliable. In connection with Peter Morrison, whom she appointed deputy chairman, Moore comments ‘Mrs Thatcher did not herself approve of such [promiscuously homosexual] behaviour, but neither did she think it was her business’. Surely it is important that people in senior positions in politics should live exemplary lives. How can they tell us what to do, when they can’t behave themselves? The idea that there aren’t enough good people from whom a selection of parliamentary candidates can be made is absurd.
This issue highlights the tension between liberalism and conservatism in the Thatcher psyche. Another context in which this tension appears is that of free trade and protection. The recent episode of the Tata steel plant at Port Talbot should give anyone pause for thought as to whether unrestricted free trade is as good idea as it appeared to Mrs Thatcher in the 1970s and 1980s, or whether patriotism demands protection. Again, there is the irony that a prime minister who preached the virtues of sound money and living within one’s means presided over an economy which became increasingly fuelled by debt. Hopefully, in his third volume, Charles Moore will address these contradictions.
ANGELA ELLIS-JONES is a writer and researcher