Sunday, 21 July 2013

Margaret Thatcher, Charles Moore

This long-awaited and heavy tome was finally published in April, following the death of its subject.  Impressively detailed and meticulously researched, it is destined to become the standard Thatcher biography for a long time to come.  It recounts the story of the Iron Lady's life from her childhood to Britain's 1982 victory in the Falklands War.

*

Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born on 13 October 1925 in the sleepy northern market town of Grantham in Lincolnshire.  The young Margaret had little in common with her mother and sister, but, as everyone knows, she was massively influenced by her father, Alfred Roberts.  Alfred was, of course, a grocer by profession.  An almost stereotypical small businessman and local worthy, he first realised that something was wrong with Adolf Hitler when he heard that he had banned the Rotary Club.  He was a Methodist lay preacher as well as being famously active in local politics, serving as an alderman and as the local mayor.  While he had no formal party affiliation, he seems to have come from the old Gladstonian right wing of the Liberal Party.

The Thatcher household was austere and religious, and her parents' puritanical values were a little too much even for the strait-laced Margaret - she later hinted that she found the strictness somewhat oppressive.  Once she had flown the nest, she rarely visited either her family or her home town.  It may be significant that she took her aristocratic title - Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven - from her old school, Kesteven Girls' Grammar, rather than from Grantham.  She had long since outgrown the place.  When she embarked upon her political career, her father complained that he never heard from her.  When he died, she left his obsequies early in order to keep political commitments in London.  Her later idolisation of him - "I just owe almost everything to my father" - may in part have been driven by guilt.

Margaret seems to have been quite a serious teenager, although not excessively so.  She liked sport and music, and most of her youthful letters to her sister talk more about clothes and films than about great world affairs.  She was academically successful, and also ambitious: she was appointed head girl, and she was already thinking of becoming an MP before she left school.  She decided to apply to Oxford to read chemistry - science, she said, was the way of the future - even though her headmistress, who she didn't get on with, was unwilling to give her the Latin tuition that she needed to get in.  She did not forget this.

Being a provincial grammar school girl in 1940s Oxford was not easy, and Margaret cut something of a quiet, frumpy figure during her time there.  She was active in the university's Conservative Association, and managed to get herself elected as its president at one point, but many of her fellow Tories seem to have merely tolerated her as a conscientious administrator who could be relied upon to do the boring routine work.  She had some friends, but she was far from being popular.  As a student, she was solid rather than brilliant.  She eventually graduated with a second-class degree.

Margaret seems to have had the romantic interests of a normal young woman, as well as some fairly typical worries about her weight and appearance.  Moore manages to dig up a few old boyfriends whom previous researchers had failed to find.  There was Tony Bray, a cadet officer - they had something of an on-off relationship which never quite developed into anything really serious.  Thatch was distinctly not happy about this.  Their paths crossed again years later, when he was a stockbroker and she was a government minister, and even then she could barely bring herself to acknowledge their previous involvement.  Even in old age, she refused to talk to Moore about the relationship.  He tracked Bray down in a nursing home and reports that he broke down in tears when talking about his old love.

Other romantic interests included Dr Robert Henderson, the inventor of the iron lung, who was twice her age at the time, and a Scottish farmer who she just wasn't that into - she ended up palming him off onto her sister Muriel.  And then, of course, there was Denis, who appears to have overlapped somewhat with Henderson.  Denis made little impression on Margaret at first, and she did not immediately agree to marry him when he asked her.  But marry him she did, and in doing so acquired not only financial security but also something much rarer in the climate of the times - a husband who was willing to take a back seat to his wife's career.  Affable, heavy-drinking and somewhat racist, Denis was a constant presence at his wife's side until his death in 2003.

*

The young Margaret Roberts first stood for the safe Labour seat of Dartford in 1950, and repeated the thankless experience in 1951.  She then spent most of the rest of the decade building a career at the Bar, funded by Denis's considerable means.  She commented that poking around in the undergrowth of tax and company law left her unimpressed with the politicians who had devised it.  Maybe one day, she dreamed, she would become Chancellor of the Exchequer.  She eventually won the Finchley seat in 1959.  She immediately introduced a private member's bill which, with less than wholehearted support from the Government, ended up making it onto the statute book.  The bill dealt with a trivial matter - the admission of the press to local authority meetings.  But it was an outstanding achievement for a new MP to have got anything onto the statute book at all.

In 1961, Harold Macmillan made Thatcher a junior minister for National Insurance - dealing with widows' pensions was a woman's job, after all - and she immediately made an impression on her Secretary of State.  When the department's permanent secretary observed that she seemed like a promising young woman, John Boyd-Carpenter replied: "She's trouble. What can we do to keep her busy?".  As it happens, she found plenty to keep her busy, but the Conservatives lost the 1964 election, and it was 1970 before she and they got back into office again under Ted Heath.  By this time, Thatcher had been given the Education portfolio - a middle-ranking position in which she seems to have had limited interest.  Thatcher is remembered for doing two things as Education Secretary: closing more grammar schools than any other holder of that post, and abolishing free milk for primary school children (a previous Labour government had already abolished it for secondary pupils).

Thatcher was indeed responsible for both of these things.  She had a statutory power to veto conversions of grammar schools to comprehensive status, but she rarely used it.  She allowed 90% of the proposed conversions that crossed her desk to proceed.  She was instinctively unsympathetic to comprehensivisation - and both of her own children were educated privately - but the tide of opinion was running so strongly towards comprehensive education that neither she nor the Conservative Party as a whole had much inclination to resist it.  And Thatcher was indeed the "milk snatcher" - though the epithet, while accurate, was not entirely fair.  She had initially opposed the policy in question, and it is not generally remembered that her cuts in spending on milk and other peripheral items was tempered by a willingness to increase core capital expenditure on schools.  In all, her conduct at Education displayed a pragmatism which was evident throughout her political career, but which both her admirers and her enemies generally chose to ignore.

The Heath administration was blighted by the problems of inflation and the growing irresponsibility of the trade unions, some of whose leaders were becoming more nakedly political.  Heath had initially made a serious attempt to limit union militancy, but it ended up unwinding disastrously amid the chaos of the prices and incomes policy and the three-day week.  Thatcher had a front-row seat as the National Union of Mineworkers brought down an elected British Government.  It was a lesson she remembered when Arthur Scargill attempted another coup d'√©tat a decade later.  Don't take the unions on all in one go, she said.  That had been Heath's mistake.  And never, never jail illegal strikers - go for the union's funds instead.

If Thatcher had left politics after the Heath government fell, she would not be remembered as a great reforming minister.  Heath considered sacking her at one point, but Francis Pym told him that he couldn't because she was the token woman.  Pym may have lived to regret this advice.  Thatch seems to have been relatively quiet in Cabinet - Moore notes that she only made one outburst, at the very end, when Heath had lost the February 1974 general election and was attempting to stay in Downing Street by negotiating a coalition with the Liberal Party.

After defeat at the polls, confidence in Heath's leadership evaporated.  After a second defeat in the October 1974 election, it became clear - if not immediately to Heath himself - that he was on the way out.  For the first time, Thatcher was mentioned as leadership material, a development which seems to have been by no means unwelcome to her.  Not that she was the front-runner, of course.  She ended up challenging Heath only when it became clear that Keith Joseph and Edward Du Cann, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, were not viable candidates.  When she did challenge Heath, and won more votes than him on the first ballot of the leadership election, a series of more conventional (and male) candidates piled in on the second round, led by Willie Whitelaw.  Her eventual victory was anything but inevitable.

As party leader, Thatcher immediately began to carve out a niche for herself as a right-winger, an anti-socialist at home and an anti-communist abroad.  As early as 1975, she met Ronald Reagan, who had recently completed his second term as Governor of California.  She disliked the Heathite moderation of Jim Prior and Reggie Maudling, and she thought that even the convinced monetarist Geoffrey Howe was too soft.  She explicitly rejected the postwar consensus and sought to build a more hard-edged, self-consciously ideological form of conservatism which owed more to neoclassical liberalism than it did to the Toryism of Burke, Disraeli, Churchill or Macmillan.

Yet even in this period she tempered her right-wing principles and rhetoric with skilful recognition of the realities of practical politics.  She couldn't simply wish away the Tory left, or the wider circumstances around her, so she worked with and around them as required.  She campaigned for a Yes vote in the 1975 EEC referendum.  She said little about privatising nationalised industries and shrinking the state.  She negotiated her way through the Conservatives' serious internal divisions on Scottish devolution.  Even her stance on the trade unions was relatively guarded.  This was a fairly consistent pattern of behaviour, which continued when she ascended to the premiership - Moore refers to it as "the flexibility which is always necessary for political survival".  When she came across a serious obstacle, Thatcher generally didn't confront it head on, even if she sounded as if she wanted to.  She may have been opinionated, but she wasn't stupid.

*

At length, the country ran out of patience with Labour.  The Winter of Discontent had deprived the portly, reassuring figure of Jim Callaghan of his strongest card - the notion that only he could do a deal with the unions to keep the country together.  On 4 May 1979, Margaret Thatcher was swept to power and entered Downing Street promising to bring harmony where there had been discord.

She started out pragmatically enough.  She appointed senior Heathites to her Cabinet.  She generally kept the "wets" away from the vital area of economic policy, but did she retain Jim Prior as Employment Secretary.  She was lukewarm about Geoffrey Howe's abolition of exchange controls, and she refused to recognise the pro-white power-sharing settlement established by Ian Smith in "Rhodesia".  She complained loudly, and famously, about the disproportionate British contribution to the EEC budget, but she ended up accepting a compromise brokered by the patrician Tory diplomat Lord Carrington.  She maintained her friendship with Reagan, but she was not afraid to argue with him loudly when necessary - there was no Blair-style cringing before American power.

She and Geoffrey Howe applied what they thought were monetarist principles to the economy.  The economy duly went haywire.  Milton Friedman, the father of monetarism, complained that they had got it all wrong.  The money supply turned out not to respond to Thatcherite policies in the way expected, though this could have been because the Treasury was inadvertently using the wrong measure (M3 rather than M0, in the jargon).  Inflation remained high and unemployment shot up.  There were riots in the inner cities.  Yet even now Thatcher made compromises where she needed to: she shovelled money into British Leyland and bought off what threatened to be an expensive strike by the miners, who at this point were still led by the relatively moderate Joe Gormley.

It became obvious that Thatch would never win a second term, even assuming that the Conservative Party permitted her to remain as its leader.  Labour assumed that she would lose the next election, and allowed itself the unaffordable luxury of a fratricidal civil war.  Moore reports that the SDP splitters didn't even consider what effect their actions would have on her electoral prospects - they were assumed to be zero.  Interestingly, the SDP seems to have forced Thatcher's hand in dealing with the trade unions by posing as the progressive anti-union party.

By 1981, the worst was over.  Thatch restored some of her authority through a Cabinet reshuffle, and the economy showed signs of returning to something like normality.  Yet she was still on probation.  There was serious discontent about her leadership both in the party and in the country.  Francis Pym was manoeuvring himself closer to the prime ministerial chair - just in case, as he said, anything should happen to her.  What really saved her bacon was a wholly unexpected war at the other end of the earth, which transformed the political climate in Britain and ensured that she and not Roy Jenkins would enter Downing Street after the next election.

For the previous few years, the Foreign Office had badly mishandled negotiations with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.  We had told the Argentines that we were prepared in principle to relinquish sovereignty over them - after all, they were just a set of cold rocks, and no-one yet knew about the oil - but progress towards finding a practical deal was glacially slow.  There had been a brief Falklands crisis in the late 70s, which Jim Callaghan had swiftly squashed, but the islands had become a bit of a nuisance.  British sovereignty was a historical accident, but the alternative proposed - a Hong Kong-style "lease-back" arrangement - was a messy compromise which we never quite brought ourselves to agree to.  Eventually, the Argentines ran out of patience.  In 1982, General Galtieri, who was facing his own economic problems at home, decided to force the issue.

At the outset, it was far from clear that Britain was going to fight over the islands.  The Navy initially treated the idea of intervention with scepticism, and it took the personal intervention of Admiral Sir Henry Leach to convince Thatch to retake the islands.  She was happy to let him and other professional military men take charge.  It was observed that her own inexperience was a good thing, since someone who had served in the forces, like Willie Whitelaw or Francis Pym, would probably have realised what a huge risk the expedition was.  In fact, she was careful not to shut the door on a diplomatic solution.  She entertained thoughts of compromise even after the guns began firing, and she was genuinely worried about the danger that she had sent her young soldiers and sailors into (this was the context of her famous "Rejoice!" - it was relief at a difficult operation successfully concluded, not warmongering jingoism).  On the other side of the North Atlantic, the Americans were divided amongst themselves over what to do.  However, Reagan eventually decided to back the UK, as indeed did most of Britain's European partners - the notable exception being Charles Haughey's Ireland.

Ireland was one place that Thatcher never understood.  In particular, she had no clue what to do about the North.  She was emotionally unionist, but she had no real understanding of the unionist people - tellingly, she referred to them as "they" rather than "us".  Beyond her visceral unionism, she never really knew what to do with Northern Ireland, and she seems to have vaguely resented having to govern the troublesome place at all.  She authorised contacts with the IRA and initially, in 1980, did a deal with the hunger strikers in the Maze - only when they came back again in 1981 did she dig her heels in.  By the time the second wave of hunger strikes was over, ten men lay dead, including the legendary Bobby Sands, who had managed to get himself elected as an MP in the meantime.  It wasn't entirely her fault - there was a lot of intransigence, misjudgement and simple failure of tactics on both sides - but by any assessment she emerged from the episode with blood on her hands.  Of course, she never understood this.  In old age, she would apparently remember the "poor devils" who she believed had been forced by the IRA leadership to starve themselves to death.  She commented that she couldn't even remember their names.  Irish republicans proved not to have any such problems with memory.

*

The figure that emerges from Moore's narrative is serious, driven, ambitious and egotistical - her daughter Carol remarked that she had been the Iron Lady to her children long before the Russians coined the term.  The Leaderene, Attila the Hen, was always there, even at the start.  Yet there was also humanity, and at times even frivolity - a young girl who worried about getting fat, enjoyed watching Bette Davis at the "flicks", danced the Argentine Tango and boasted about the new handbag her boyfriend had bought her.  As a young woman, she was regarded as pretty and charming, and in middle age and beyond she had a striking capacity to awaken romantic feelings in men as disparate as David Owen, Alan Clarke and Philip Larkin.  She was kind and considerate to her staff - even while she mercilessly bullied her ministers - and she maintained friendships with eccentric individuals from outside the traditional Tory establishment, including homosexual men.

Far from being a soulless philistine, she had an appreciation for music and literature, and her reading ranged from Hayek to Dostoyevsky.  She loved to dance, at embassy balls and the like, well into her time in office, to the extent that she had to be dragged off to bed by Denis.  She was a clever woman, and she kept up her work ethic and barrister's attention to detail during her years in power.  She seems to have been genuinely surprised when she finally realised how stupid and lazy Ronald Reagan was (though their personal friendship remained warm).  She showed a little more self-awareness than some commentators realised.  She was a human being, not a caricature - despite the fact that both her friends and her enemies conspired to turn her into one.

Moore himself accepts that Thatcher became something of a myth - a political idol for right-wingers and a hate figure for the left.  As her premiership rolled on, and as she sank into retirement, Thatcher the flesh-and-blood human being became increasingly irrelevant as Thatcher the icon took over.  But the myth-making was not merely something that was done to her by others: Moore insists that she believed her own legend.  She really did think that she had saved Britain from socialism.  She really did believe that Thatcherism had changed the world.

"All my ideas about [Britain] were formed before I was seventeen or eighteen", she once said.  This was essentially true.  Not that her views never evolved, of course - as a student and a young Tory candidate, she had endorsed the Beveridge Report and denounced free trade.  Even at the start, however, the themes were familiar.  The beating heart of Thatcherism was individualism, and Thatcher's individualism seems to have been a direct inheritance from her father's Gladstonian liberalism.  When some aristocratic Oxford student friends were talking about how wealth ought to be redistributed to the workers, she innocently asked them how they would apply that principle to their family estates.  As a young aspirant politician, she was already seen as being on the right of her party.

However, it was only after defeat in 1974 that Thatcherism really came together as an ideology.  The midwives included the right-wing intellectual Sir Keith Joseph, an eccentric character who destroyed his own career by publicly flirting with eugenics, and Sir Alfred Sherman, a rather unpleasant former communist turned freemarket fundamentalist.  From the start of her leadership, she saw things in black and white.  Capitalism - good.  Socialism - bad.  Strong beliefs - good.  Consensus and compromise - bad.  Yet the rhetorical rejection of compromise was often just that - rhetorical rather than real.  Enough has been said about the concessions that she made to political reality, and to her colleagues on the Tory left, to illustrate what Moore calls "the constant battle in her own breast between her cautious and radical instincts".   Perhaps her hatred of compromise was inflamed by the fact that she did so much of it herself.

Moore argues convincingly that the real Thatcher never advocated the kind of flint-hearted, devil-take-the-hindmost policies commonly associated with her.  In particular, she never questioned the basic foundations of the welfare state - though she certainly did worry about benefits being paid to undeserving recipients and the need for the system to be affordable.  Moore also argues that her core commitment lay not in neoliberal economic doctrines but in a belief in traditional British institutions.  This is a less convincing claim, given that the monarchy, Parliament, local government, the Church of England, the armed forces, the great national universities and the BBC ended her decade in power by turns smaller, less respected and less powerful than they had begun it.  Moore is at pains to point out that she understood and valued the virtues of community and public responsibility, but on any objective assessment it was overwhelmingly her individualism that won out and defined her politics.  There was a real conflict within her own personality between the small-town conservative Christian and the libertarian freemarket capitalist, but the conflict was an unequal one.  Restoring Victorian moral values ultimately mattered less to her than smashing the unions and deregulating the City.

*

After a lifetime in political journalism, this was Charles Moore's first full-length book.  His literary style is workmanlike rather than brilliant.  He is not a neutral observer, but his conservative bias mostly does not intrude into the text in any very obvious way.  He is not shy of criticising his subject, or of analysing her in ways that her more excitable admirers would probably object to.  At times, he pulls his punches.  He skirts over the rumours that her father sexually assaulted girls who worked in his shop.  He is rather coy about discussing her relationship with alcohol, a subject about which he could perhaps have said more (he has no such compunction about portraying General Galtieri as a piss artist).

Nevertheless, this is about as good as any official biography can be expected to be.  I might even buy the next volume when it comes out.