In almost every one of the many biographies of Margaret Thatcher that now exist, the story is told of her being congratulated for her good luck in winning a prize when she was nine — either for reciting poetry or for playing the piano. She indignantly replied, ‘I wasn’t lucky. I deserved it.’ Now, in Charles Moore’s biography, we reach the splendid zenith of Mrs Thatcher’s career in the form of her second administration of 1983–7. We have to ask the question again: was she lucky, or did she deserve it?
Clearly, one of the chief reasons that she was re-elected in 1983 after a period of staggering unpopularity was the Falklands triumph of 1982, with which Moore concluded his first volume. That wasn’t luck, at least in the sense that it happened at all; any other politician in Thatcher’s position would almost certainly have sued for peace. But the scale of the war, and its moral clarity, were no doubt helpful.
And on the domestic side, Thatcher was certainly lucky in her opponents. Arthur Scargill, the architect of one of the principal challenges of her second term in the form of the longest miners’ strike of the period, ultimately made things easier for her by his behaviour. She was fortunate, too, in the leaders of the opposition she faced. Michael Foot was so unelectable that he could safely be treated with elaborate courtesy. Neil Kinnock, handed the one parliamentary opportunity of the decade to eject her from office on grounds of improper behaviour over the Westland affair, made a mess of it. Had she been less competent, it would have made no difference. To that degree she
But, reading the detail of this superb and utterly absorbing volume, it is clear that luck really had very little to do with it, and the most compelling episodes of her administration were created by her, and carried out at her insistence. The central episode of this volume, and the moment when Thatcher’s visionary quality changed the world, is her first encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev, before the west had really identified him as the coming general secretary in the USSR.
Thatcher had, against all conventional diplomatic advice, made ferocious speeches against the Warsaw Pact, declaring at the Berlin wall in 1982 that ‘pitiless ideology only survives because it is maintained by force. One day, liberty will dawn on the other side of the wall.’ In 1983 she had visited Hungary to ask how the USSR, under the ailing Andropov, could be brought out of isolation; in February 1984 she went to Andropov’s funeral, shook hands with his successor Chernenko, and was made aware of Gorbachev, though did not meet him.
In December 1984, Gorbachev accepted an invitation to Britain, and Thatcher invited him and his wife Raisa to lunch at Chequers. A colossal argument broke out; Thatcher ‘deliberately and breathtakingly… set about serially cross-examining him about the inferiority of the Soviet centralised command system and the merits of free enterprise and competition’. The miners’ strike, then in its ninth month, proved that ‘communism was synonymous with getting one’s way by violence’. Gorbachev gave as good as he got; at one point Raisa mouthed ‘It’s over’ to her husband, suggesting that they leave. But the argument was inspired, and the afternoon ended on a joke. ‘I can assure you,’ Gorbachev said, ‘that I am not under instructions from the Politburo to persuade you to join the Communist party.’
The Americans, hitherto very suspicious, were slowly convinced. Gorbachev’s reforms were supported. When Thatcher visited the USSR in March 1987, she was greeted by adoring crowds and, astonishingly, she was interviewed on Soviet television with sensational effect, challenging the interviewers and presenting her own case. ‘Such a thing had never happened before,’ and the Foreign Office monitor had to concede that the Soviet public had learned a good deal about their own country from a well-informed foreign visitor. There is no question that Mrs Thatcher, by boldness and conviction, in large part initiated the process that brought freedom to millions in Eastern Europe.
Charles Moore is, of course, a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, though this is in no sense a hagiography. He acknowledges the moments of strain and stress, and the occasional instances of very bad behaviour. ‘Wobbly Thursday’, the day during the 1987 election when uncertainty mysteriously crept into the campaign, found her screaming and foaming at the mouth, according to Michael Dobbs. Relations with Norman Tebbit were never good afterwards. There is the odd piece of alarming rudeness, though easy to forgive. Word had got out among the louche that she was hot stuff in person — my favourite footnote from Volume I was Alan Clark telling Moore that ‘I don’t want actual penetration, just a massive snog.’ When the film director Mike Nichols found himself sitting next to her at a dinner in Washington, she knew how to deal with him. ‘My friend John le Carré says you are a very sexy woman.’ ‘Well,’ she said. ‘I’m not.’
There is, however, an unexpected and recurrent human element here, and Moore is always alert to Thatcher’s speculative faculty and even her romantic imagination, as she contemplates what it would be like to be someone else. For her 1987 trip to Moscow, the Foreign Office had selected two silver-handled hairbrushes as a gift for Gorbachev. Nobody but the Prime Minister pointed out that it was a curious present for a man almost completely bald.
There is no question now that the inner-city riots of the period were dreadful. Thatcher’s immediate response — ‘Oh, those poor shopkeepers!’ — was much mocked at the time and later. But could it be that the regeneration projects, such as the developers who put £1.5 billion into Canary Wharf and created 90,000 jobs, were a better response than Faith in the City, the Church of England report that made 23 recommendations, every one of which entailed increased public expenditure? Who had really thought about what it would be like to live in these circumstances?
We will disagree, I think, about the miners’ strike. Scargill didn’t help his cause by calling a strike without a ballot, and in spring, when coal stocks at the power stations had been built up to their highest level of reserve; and by refusing to make any compromise over clearly uneconomic pits. In my view, Scargill was engaging in a subversive attempt to bring down a government through undemocratic means, and the government did join in a political struggle. Whether the coal industry was, then and subsequently, run down either through vindictiveness or a sense of exasperated neglect is impossible to say. But there were certainly more government expressions of concern about individuals attempting to preserve their economic way of life in mining than were believed at the time or subsequently. Proponents of the Billy Elliot version of the miners’ strike will no doubt find something sinister rather than touching about Thatcher’s request that a personal letter from her thanking a working miner should go out in a plain envelope, so as not to create difficulties in the community.
To me, however, the effect of this is to suggest that Thatcher was much more imaginative, and even liberal on some matters, than is generally assumed. She was the first British prime minister, for instance, to ask the South African government release Nelson Mandela, imprisoned since 1963. Though strictly moral herself in small Methodist ways, she was quite relaxed about the shakier behaviour of others. Cecil Parkinson only went when there was no alternative over his affair with Sara Keays. Thatcher knew all about the cottaging and cruising habits and quiet bibulousness of her PPS, Peter Morrison; and when Matthew Parris, then an MP, came out to her as gay, she merely said, ‘That must have been very hard for you to say, dear.’ (Michael Alison, her saintly but oddly frightening PPS, a predecessor of Morrison’s, was standing at the door with the probably personal initiative to ask Parris for the names of all the other gay Tory MPs he could think of, so that Alison ‘could pray for them’).
The nearest thing to disaster from this period is the Westland affair. (It’s notable that other great scandals of the time, such as the supposed rift with the Queen over a Sunday Times story, have diminished to nothing as the facts of the matter emerge.) The Westland affair, a colossal and intricate argument between Thatcher, her defence secretary Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan at the DTI, was difficult to follow at the time, and certainly needs close attention now. A discussion about the future owners of a helicopter manufacturer, it sharply divided dirigiste from laissez-fairy, and individually involved pro-European and pro-American sentiment. In the end it came down to who told whom what to leak. Moore gives the first truly full and trustworthy account, thanks to Colette Bowe, the crucial press officer. The facts of the case were such that Thatcher’s resignation could have been forced. Again, she was lucky; Bowe was, in her private views, a supporter of the Thatcher project. And Kinnock, who could have led the charge in the Commons, made a total hash of the case. Thatcher survived the day.
It’s all rather a long time ago. In one painful chapter, Moore gleefully recounts the utter inability of the lumpenintelligentsia, in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s delightful coinage, to do anything but spew ineffective bile in Thatcher’s direction. (‘Loathsome, repulsive in almost every way’; ‘watching her choose clothes at Marks and Spencer, there was something really quite obscene about it’, ‘Maggie, Maggie, you cunt, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, you fucking cunt’, and ‘Mrs Thatcher and her spayed Cabinet, whose main achievement in the last eight years has been the legitimation of self-interest’ — Sir Jonathan Miller, Lady Warnock, the Exploited and Julian Barnes.) All this comes in Moore’s book directly after Thatcher’s world-
altering trip to Moscow in 1987, which tells its own amusing story.
Just as Iona Opie, the chronicler of nursery rhymes, found children in a Wiltshire playground chanting about ‘the Bone Man’ a century and a half after Napoleon’s death, so Thatcher has turned into a monstrous bogey figure among a generation that never knew her. Writers who were small children at the time of her departure from office, who know nothing of the task of dealing with national monopolies and can never have set foot in a communist country in Europe denounce her, and find an eager audience.
Readers of Moore’s magnificent, humane biography will be reminded that, in October 1984, the IRA attempted to kill Mrs Thatcher — and did kill five innocent colleagues, and the wives of colleagues. Two months later, her policies and her conduct quite unaffected by that dreadful experience, she met Gorbachev for the first time and began to change half the world. In between, a minor Labour backbencher of the utmost inconsequence called Jeremy Corbyn made his own contribution by inviting the political friends of the mass murderers to tea at the House of Commons. Who would have met Gorbachev if the Brighton hotel bombing had fully succeeded in October? I think a fair and patient reader of the facts of this daunting life will come to the conclusion that it was we, in the end, who were rather lucky.