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Margaret Thatcher: Tales of Power and Vainglory

The most telling tale in Charles Moore’s winsome biography of Margaret Thatcher spotlights the moment of her greatest political triumph: the military defeat of Argentina in mid-June 1982, after a 74-day war that cost nearly a thousand lives on windswept islands in the south Atlantic. With Union Jacks fluttering high in the skies of Britain, Prime Minister Thatcher flung herself into the detailed planning of the glorious victory celebrations. When the Dean of St Paul’s wanted to include a Spanish version of the Lord’s Prayer in the thanksgiving service, Thatcher’s eyes reportedly ‘widened in absolute horror’. At the clergy’s suggestion that the service be one of ‘reconciliation’, Thatcher ‘struck the table a tremendous blow’, snarled the words ‘A service of reconciliation!’, then threatened to go public, to denounce the wishy-washy lassitude of the clergy. Some hours later, instead of the Queen, she took the salute at a victory march-past in the City of London. At a victory dinner at No. 10, she praised ‘the spirit of Britain’ and quoted the Duke of Wellington: ‘There is no such thing as a little war for a great nation.’ Her dinner guests were hugely impressed. ‘She spoke like Queen Elizabeth I’, recalled the senior diplomat Sir David Goodall. ‘She looked like Queen Elizabeth I!’

On the battlefield: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the South Atlantic, 1983 opinione.it

Prone to xenophobia, consistently hard-line, indulgent of state power, a political fighter blinded by hubris, on occasion a table-thumper: all these qualities land a hard blow against the more tender-hearted Margaret Thatcher that Charles Moore tries to project in the first instalment of his two-part ‘authorised’ biography. Moore rightly observes that his subject is ‘someone about whom it is almost impossible to be neutral’, but thanks to his prodding and probing of previously inaccessible letters, diaries and interviews with her colleagues, friends and family, we learn that the Iron Lady indeed had a private life – an ascetic life ‘with no space for self-examination’.

When plumbing the depths of her private life, Moore reveals that quite early in her political career she developed a taste for mixing in Tory circles dominated by ‘the well-off, the ex-military and the landed Etonians’. Moore is particularly attracted to her role as a woman within these circles. Instead of tackling the all-important question of how democracies can create spaces for dignified tough women who bring a different style to high politics, he wraps her in gendered imagery, domesticates her, especially in the opening sections of the biography. ‘Her handbag became the sceptre of her rule’, he says. Every decision she takes, every move she makes comes dressed in heels, brown tops, black hats, half-yards of peach curtain material, nightdresses and perms. When Margaret Thatcher moves to No. 10, she insists on paying for a new ironing board out of her own pocket. When Maggie cleans, she does so with ‘characteristic domestic enthusiasm’. Moore also notes that a significant factor in Mrs Thatcher’s political success was her ‘female conscientiousness’.

What kind of ‘female conscientiousness’ drove Margaret Thatcher? Was it her definition of breakfast: black coffee and vitamin C tablets while listening to the BBC World Service and Radio 4? Or perhaps her early support for the legalisation of abortion, the de-criminalisation of homosexuality, the return of birching and the withdrawal of free milk in schools? Or that the milk snatcher sometimes sent flowers, with hand-written notes offering ‘the scent of flowers from an English country garden for you’. Or (to speak in her language) that she typically played the role of a man’s woman, a figure of power whose perfume, bold lipstick and taste for whisky intoxicated more than a few men, including junior minister Alan Clark (he confessed to Moore he didn’t want ‘actual penetration – just a massive snog’) and French President François Mitterand, who famously described her as a leader blessed with the eyes of the Roman emperor Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe.

Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand after signing the Channel-Tunnel Canterbury treaty between France and Britain, February 1986 abc.net.au

The oddly unconvincing feature of Moore’s effort to rescue Mrs Thatcher from obloquy by invoking her ‘femininity’ is her unequivocal personal rejection of any such talk. The mother of twins was always so profoundly irritated by questions about being a woman that her press officers had to warn foreign journalists off the subject. In both word and deed, Thatcher expressed hostility towards feminism, which explains why Britain’s first female head of government insisted on being known as the first British prime minister with a science degree. ‘Who are you?’, she asked Dr John Ashworth, the Chief Scientist, as he entered No. 10 for the first time. ‘I am your Chief Scientist’, Ashworth replied. ‘Oh,’ said Thatcher, sharply, ‘do I want one of those?’ Ashworth explained he was preparing a report in the new subject area of climate change. Thatcher hurled a fierce stare. “Are you standing there and seriously telling me that my government should worry about the weather?’ She then announced to the Chief Scientist that her government had no room for a minister for science. ‘I’m a scientist’, she said. ‘I shall be my own Minister for Science.’

The chief flaw in this biography is that in spite of a marvellous myriad of such details it has no articulated thesis, no parables, no memorable conclusions. Perhaps Moore’s planned second volume will offer good reasons for remembering Margaret Thatcher. That is after all the point of biography: to lift individuals out of time and to confer upon them a form of immortality. Trapped within the biographical method of persuasion through induction – one damned ‘fact’ after another – this biography instead leads readers nowhere. Some part of the problem surely stems from its ‘authorised’ status. Charles Moore, editor of the conservative The Daily Telegraph from 1995-2003, was handpicked by Thatcher as her official biographer, on the condition that the finished work be published posthumously. Thatcher’s choice paid off. Charles Moore thinks like a Tory, writes like a Tory, for an imaginary heartland Tory audience. He supposes that the remarkable ‘facts’ of Thatcher’s life will automatically win over his readers, that the stories he tells speak for themselves, proving even to faint hearts that she will forever remain ‘a national archetype’, a figure as great as ‘Henry VIII, or Elizabeth I, or Nelson, or Winston Churchill’.

The No! No! No! speech to the House of Commons, 30 October 1990

Is Margaret Thatcher to be remembered in this way? A valiant fighter for Britain against waverers and weaklings in Europe and elsewhere? She certainly thought so. Immediately after her enforced resignation (in 1990), she was asked what had changed during her eleven-year leadership of the country. She answered with a single word: ‘Everything’. The pity of this biography is both its failure to confront the hubris buried in that utterance and its strange complacency about the massive political questions Mrs Thatcher bequeathed to Britain, and to the wider world. Are military adventures fuelled by pompous talk of ‘the people’ damaging to democracies? Did Thatcher’s policy commitment to ‘sweeping Britain clean of socialism’ through de-regulation and privatisation and hostility to ‘Europe’ pave the way to the present banking crisis and its terrible aftermath? Why did she leave a legacy of hatred in parts of Northern Ireland, so staunch (one of her favourite words) that some communities celebrated her recent passing by burning her effigy, and by plastering walls with the bitter words, ‘Iron Lady Rust in Peace’? And when historians look back on her thumping flag-waving reign, will they be inclined to see that by promoting the vices of ‘greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees’ (Glenda Jackson) she destroyed the conditions of fair-mindedness and universal citizenship? A Britain where life for many millions of people has come to resemble Hobbes’s state of nature: more solitary, poorer, nastier, brutish and short? Scribble on, Charles Moore, but don’t dare dodge these tough but consequential questions.

Kicking Up a Racket: Belfast punk band, Stiff Little Fingers, playing ‘Fly the Flag’, an anti-tribute to ‘narrow-minded’ Margaret Thatcher, Dortmund, Germany, 30 November 1980

A shorter version of this review first appeared in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.