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Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, by Charles Moore, and Not for Turning, by Robin Harris - review

4 May 2013

9:00 AM

4 May 2013

9:00 AM

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One Not for Turning Charles Moore

Allen Lane, pp.859, £30

Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher Robin Harris

Bantam, pp.493, £20

It is a measure of Lady Thatcher’s standing that her death has been followed not only by the mealy-mouthed compliments from political opponents which are normally forthcoming on such occasions but also by robust denunciations. Nobody would have sung ‘Ding, dong, the Wizard is dead!’ after the deaths of Jim Callaghan, John Major or Alec Douglas-Home. Even the more controversial Harold Wilson got a bland send-off in his obituaries. Ted Heath was asked by a journalist whether it was true that, when he heard of Margaret Thatcher’s eviction from the party leadership, he had exclaimed ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’. No, he replied, after some deliberation. ‘What I said was “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!” ’ Only the fear lest, wherever he was, she might be rejoining him, would have stopped him indulging in four resounding ‘Rejoices!’ when the news came of her death.

People cared about Margaret Thatcher; even if they did not know her personally they felt passionately about her, whether for or against. This poses problems for biographers. They have got to reflect the intensity of feeling that their subject inspired yet not succumb to it themselves; they must be dispassionate about the passion. On the whole Charles Moore and Robin Harris manage this well and contrive also to be commendably balanced when it comes to politics. As a distinguished former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Moore’s views, it must be assumed, are somewhat to the right of centre. Harris was for long involved with the Conservative Research Department. Both these books are patently written by authors who share most of the views of their subject. But neither is partisan; left-wing readers will be able to read these books without their blood boiling at the one-sided nature of the presentation.

Moore devotes 859 pages to the first 57 years of his subject’s life; Harris takes only 493 considerably smaller pages to cover all 87 years. Any direct comparison of the two books is therefore difficult. Moore’s is the inside job: his is the ‘official biography’, he has seen a mass of papers not yet available to other researchers and, because of his privileged status, people have spoken to him with a freedom they would not normally have allowed themselves. His book contains little by way of sensational revelations but there is much that is new.

Sometimes there is too much; the catch about being ‘official’ is that one feels an obligation to put everything in. There is, for instance, an excess of detail about the love affairs that Margaret Roberts indulged in before she met Denis Thatcher. This has its fascination, though. Miss Roberts decided that the prosperous Scottish farmer who was wooing her was not suitable for the sort of life she planned for herself but was nevertheless too good to waste. With ruthless efficiency she detached herself from him but delivered him, bound hand and foot, to her sister as a husband. She herself settled for ‘a Major Thatcher … age about 36, plenty of money … As one would expect, he is a perfect gentleman. Not a very attractive creature — very reserved but quite nice.’

Harris is far from being an outsider. He worked for Thatcher when she was in office and helped with her autobiography after her fall. On the jacket of his book he quotes a letter from her in which she tells him that his decision to write her biography was ‘neither unexpected nor unwelcome’. He advances his closeness with her and the work he had done on her memoirs as being the reasons why he was not asked to write the official biography. No doubt this is true: perhaps also it was felt that Charles Moore would make a better job of it. Harris is readable and well-informed, but on the evidence of these two books the choice of official biographer was the correct one.

The heroine of these books (and, like her or not, ‘heroine’ must be the right word) emerges as a woman of independent mind and total commitment to whatever cause she was pursuing: that cause being almost invariably, but by no means exclusively, the furtherance of her own career. ‘Margaret,’ her father told her, ‘never do things just because other people do them. Make up your own mind what you want to do and persuade people to go your way.’ She did not know the meaning of the word ‘relaxation’. ‘She never experienced nothingness,’ her daughter Carol remarked — a poignant comment coming from her, since Thatcher’s frenzied life rarely left room for the normal functions of parenthood.

Indeed, though she genuinely loved her husband, and realised how important he was to her, she had little time for anything outside her working life. ‘The Robertses are not very good at feelings,’ her niece explained. ‘They deal with facts and reality.’ Nor, even within the parameters of facts and reality, was she prepared to devote much attention to anything that did not impinge on immediate events. When the Government Chief Scientist, in 1979, tried to interest her in the then unfashionable subject of climate change, she stared at him incredulously: ‘Are you standing there and seriously telling me that my government should worry about the weather?’ Though she was not totally inflexible, once she had decided on a course of action she was hard to budge: it is interesting that both authors have elected to give their books the title or subtitle ‘Not for Turning’.

To some she seemed inhuman, or perhaps superhuman. Yet she could be suddenly and touchingly vulnerable. Having convinced herself that the dispatch of an expeditionary force for the reoccupation of the Falkland Islands, though terrifying hazardous, was militarily feasible, she bulldozed her way through all opposition and allowed no trace of anxiety to appear in public. Like Queen Victoria, she was not interested in the possibilities of defeat. Yet when news came that the destroyer HMS Coventry had been bombed and 19 men had died, her husband found her sitting on her bed weeping: ‘Oh no, oh no! Another ship! All my young men!’ He sat down beside her and said: ‘That’s what war’s like, love. I’ve been in one. I know.’ When 1,500 soldiers were being landed by a troop-carrier and exposed to attack from the air, she found the suspense almost unbearable. ‘You couldn’t find me some decisions to take, could you?’ she asked a private secretary. ‘I find all this waiting around very difficult.’

In the half of his book covering territory which Charles Moore has not so far approached, Robin Harris provides a detailed and fascinating account of the shenanigans which immediately preceded Thatcher’s fall. He has a low opinion of politicians. Michael Havers’s credibility was non-existent: he ‘spent his lunchtimes telling journalists at the Garrick Club all the tastiest government gossip’. Francis Pym was weak, devious and ‘not nearly as intelligent as his supporters pretended’. Geoffrey Howe was ‘raddled with bitterness’. Peter Morrison, her parliamentary private secretary, was a ‘terrible speaker’ and an alcoholic. Tory MPs in general ‘constitute the most elusive and mendacious electorate imaginable’.

Almost the only Conservative figure to remain unscathed is Douglas Hurd, who ‘behaved impeccably throughout’ and only came forward as a candidate for the leadership when Mrs Thatcher had finally bowed out. It will be interesting to see whether Charles Moore is any more charitable when the second volume of his biography appears.

For anyone who is seriously interested in Margaret Thatcher or the political history of Great Britain in the quarter of a century after her entry into politics, Moore’s book is essential reading. Even for such readers it may at times appear a little too detailed and leisurely in pace, but it is an immensely impressive achievement and takes its place among the great political biographies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

For those who are less dedicated, or want the whole story in a single volume, Harris’s book will serve them well. It is daunting to think how many other books on the subject are probably gestating at this moment. One can already compile a list of ‘the 100 best books about Winston Churchill’. The studies of Margaret Thatcher will never rival this, but they may not be too far behind.

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