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Margaret Thatcher: The whole picture

Book review of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography authored by Charles Moore

Benjamin Schwarz | NYT 

Photo: Amazon.in
Photo: Amazon.in

Her party still genuflects to her, and a core within it — ageing members of the Conservative associations in the shires and no-longer-young fogies in Westminster — reflexively venerates her. In the bleak cities and the former pit villages of the north, the veterans of bitter labour struggles to save now-vanished industries habitually curse her, perhaps along with the party named for them that forsook them long ago. In the London of Cool Britannia’s tastemakers, loathing for her remains hot. She has always aroused a quasi-aesthetic repulsion within the metropolitan class; and, indeed, it is that continued detestation of what Jonathan Miller in the 1980s sneeringly called “her odious suburban gentility” that most potently keeps her memory alive.

But Margaret Thatcher is far too consequential to be retired as a plaster saint or to stand in for the creative destruction of global capitalism or to serve as the touchstone by which the bien-pensants establish their bona fides. It’s time that history claimed her. With Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography — Herself Alone, the third and concluding volume of Charles Moore’s 2,700-page work, the Iron Lady can begin to be assessed as a fully rounded personality and a historical fact.

With ethical and scholarly discipline, Moore, a political columnist of a decidedly right-wing cast for The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator (and formerly the editor of both conservative publications, as well as The Sunday Telegraph), has produced a scrupulously evenhanded work. His use of evidence, absorbed from vast archival sources and hundreds of interviews, is punctilious, his judgments measured, his wit dry and sympathetic, his prose classically balanced. This sonorous, authoritative biography makes no empty claim to definitiveness. But it is a work for the ages: It will be the font from which every serious appraisal of Thatcher and Thatcher’s Britain draws.

Covering the period from Thatcher’s third general election victory in 1987 to her death in 2013, this book considers in detail scores of topics and events. Some are still very much with us, like Thatcher’s growing anxiety over the impact that movement toward European integration would have on Britain’s sovereignty, an issue that split her party and cabinet and occasioned her downfall. (Moore easily demonstrates that Thatcher’s Euroskepticism, which intensified when she was out of office with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, was instrumental in galvanizing the political forces that pushed for Brexit.)

Clearly, the specific ends Thatcher sought — which included nothing less than the final destruction of what was known as “the postwar settlement” that had defined Britain’s politics and economy for 35 years — could not be realized without contention. More fundamentally, Thatcher thought that any goal worth pursuing and any policy worth enacting demanded contention. Every session of Commons, every summit, every press interview — and, crucially for her political fortunes, every meeting with what were supposed to be her colleagues in the cabinet — was combat. Thatcher didn’t seek consensus. She sought to win. Her guilelessly antagonistic style ran the somewhat narrow spectrum from what Moore nicely characterizes as “bossy headmistress” to the icily forensic.

But to caricature Thatcher as either a hectoring virago or as a latter-day Boudicca is not just to indulge in lazy sexism; it contorts her psychology, her history and her approach to politics. A philistine who used ideas solely to pursue her practical and above all moral purposes, Thatcher was the antithesis of an intellectual: “I am not by nature either introspective or retrospective,” she declared. But she lived to argue. Indeed, to her politics was argument.

Thatcher was proud to be the only trained scientist ever to be prime minister, and she believed in the value of evidence. (Of the Strategic Defense Initiative, she explained to Ronald Reagan: “I’m a chemist. I know it won’t work.”) Because she surely worked harder and slept fewer hours than any prime minister in British history, she regularly knew more about her ministers’ departmental briefs and policies — and the positions of her fellow heads of government — than they did. Convinced by her severely upright Methodist father that “integrity mattered above all else, and it was important to hold opinions because they were right” (as the historian David Cannadine puts it), Thatcher was, as Moore discerningly notes, an “eager seeker after truth.”


Because she didn’t seek compromise, her mind could be changed. Although Thatcher had subjected Mikhail Gorbachev to prolonged cross-examination upon first meeting him in 1984, and although his response led to heated and prolonged debate between them, that encounter concluded with her famously declaring that “we can do business together.” Thatcher’s recognition of a sea change in Soviet policy and her advocacy of Gorbachev — in the teeth of initially strenuous American objections — are in retrospect the decisive steps in ending the Cold War.

The demonisation of Thatcher — a process she made all too easy — was both a symptom and a cause of the infantilisation of the left, as it blamed deindustrialisation on the malign “Maggie” rather than on profound changes in the world economy. This rendered the left unable to grasp the import of that transformation, and incapable of and uninterested in helping the working class to create an effective political program to cope with it.

Moore probably sees Thatcher’s relationship with the left differently. As a polemicist, he will, appropriately, deploy the Thatcher he has illuminated for his own purposes. Others will draw very different conclusions from the same evidence. Surely that is no matter to him. With this masterpiece, Moore has given us Margaret Thatcher. She now belongs to history.

MARGARET THATCHER
The Authorized Biography — Herself Alone
Charles Moore
Alfred A Knopf; $40; 1,006 pages




©2019 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, November 24 2019. 23:54 IST
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