BY TONY LEON
There is a twist of irony in one of the many put-downs which Margaret Thatcher received from the Labour Party, whose government she ejected from office when she was first elected Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979, the first of three hugely consequential and epoch-changing terms in which she served in this post, during which she profoundly altered the terms of political and economic trade in her country.
It came from the opposition party’s intellectual “bully boy’” or “bruiser” — as top politician Denis Healey became known. He accused the famous “Iron Lady” of being a prime minister who “wraps herself in the a Union Jack… and glories in slaughter”, a reference to her decision to reclaim by force the Falkland Islands from the Argentine military junta which occupied them in 1982. Although he was forced to withdraw this remark by the Speaker of the House of Commons, this hard fought conflict is the end point of the Charles Moore’s first volume of his official biography which was published in 2013, shortly after Thatcher’s death in April, at the age of 87. But as Moore correctly asserts, the triumphant recapture of the isolated South Atlantic Islands, “made her all the more unassailable in the time to come”. But in several instances, as this exhaustively researched, fluently written and unusually insightful book — which is both generally admiring of its subject without ever lurching into hagiography — reveals, Healey was wide off the mark. Thatcher in fact was deeply preoccupied at all times during the conflict at the peril faced by the young servicemen of her armed forces. Badly advised by her foreign office, she increasingly relied on her armed services’ chiefs. Contrary to her well-earned reputation for hard-headed hectoring of subordinates, in all military matters, at least, she deferred almost entirely to her generals’ and admirals’ advice and never overrode it. For all her bullying and imperious manners, often on display elsewhere in the volume, when it came to the lives of the task force members engaged in the campaign she displayed a very different side: after an early set-back in the war, Moore reveals: “she wept… because it was the first military adventure of the war, it was her first experience of what it was like to send men to into situations in which they might die. Her natural, maternal instincts human sympathy and her ardour for the British servicemen’s welfare made her even more sensitive to this than the average male political leader would have been.” There were hidden layers behind the armour of the Iron Lady and Moore is adept at revealing them.
But Healey also in general terms declaimed how important it was for politicians to have what he termed “hinterland”, by which he meant measures of intellect and interest outside the corridors of power and parliament. It could be argued that 758-pages are perhaps too exhaustive a study to consider before Thatcher’s first term in office even ends. But in fact this book, which commences with Thatcher’s birth in 1925, above her father’s grocery store in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham, is worth the effort: it plumbs the many levels, seldom on display in public, of its multi-faceted subject. But it also provides a fascinating social and economic exploration, alongside the obvious political emphasis, of life in Britain, after the First World War and in the crucial years pre- and post-World War Two.
Moore states his biographical purpose upfront in the introduction. Although his subject was driven by significant doses of egoism and vanity, she was interestingly little concerned with how history would remember her; and unlike many other famous political she was seldom confronted by either self-doubt or even very much introspection at all. “So Mrs Thatcher’s biographer,” Moore notes, “finds himself examining a life unexamined by the person who lived it.” He certainly succeeds in this task of opening the shades on some of the great themes, the nature of her ambition, the foundations of her beliefs, the development of her political skills, her attitude to love, marriage and children, not least among them. And then there is one of the most obvious and hitherto less examined aspects of all, her sex: “The fact that she was the first and only woman leader of a British political party made everything different… The attitudes of colleagues, rivals (especially the misogynist Tory leader Edward Heath whom she ousted in 1975) and voters towards her – and her approach to them – were radically affected by her sex. Her handbag became the sceptre of her rule.”
Indeed, there is copious detail how, from a very young age, Margaret Thatcher was preoccupied by the clothes she wore, the challenges of her figure and even the flirtations of her political polar opposite, French socialist president Francois Mitterrand.
But, as to be expected from a biographer who variously held the editorial helm at three of Britain’s most prestigious publications – The Spectator, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph – this volume provides far more than fascinating personal revelations. It zeroes in on the postwar economic and political malaise which afflicted Britain with the tag in the 1970s of “the sick man of Europe”, and chronicles the processes which Thatcher undertook, often in the teeth of the most stringent opposition (not least from those in her own ranks whom she dismissed as “wets”) to put things to rights. The epic internal and external battles she waged against those determined to prevent her from pursuing her rigid monetary policies to cure the high inflation and high deficit public finances which confronted her on achieving office, are well told and chronicled.
Given that Thatcher had little time for those she dubbed “terrorists” whether of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the African National Congress (ANC) sort, South African readers will have to await the second volume to glean more of her views on the latter. Ironically, she held a strong regard for Nelson Mandela after he was released,which he apparently reciprocated despite seldom agreeing on any major policy. But of some local interest will be the first foreign policy crisis which she faced shortly after achieving power in 1979, the resolution of the conflict in Rhodesia. This biography provides many interesting perspectives on how she tackled this challenge, and contrary to prejudice (especially from her husband Denis who believed that “the whites will fight and the whites will be right” in the event of Robert Mugabe and his “Marxist terrorists” taking over). But her ultimate decision showed a cautious pragmatism and a cleaving to the political centre. She wore dark glasses on her arrival at Lusaka airport for the critical Commonwealth summit there in July 1979. Her Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington enquired why this was necessary: “Margaret answered very clearly, ‘I am absolutely certain that when I arrive in Lusaka they are going to throw acid in my face.'”
In fact, cajoled by Carrington and charmed by the autocratic but kindly Kenneth Kaunda, Thatcher settled for an all-inclusive process involving all the warring parties at Lancaster House. It was precisely her rightwing disposition and prejudices, a la Nixon-in-China, which forced her own party, predisposed toward Ian Smith and “kith and kin in Rhodesia” to accept it.
One of the Conservative colleagues who was elected to parliament for the first time in October 1959, and who (having met them both I can attest to this fact ) unlike the more famous Thatcher enjoyed a sense of humour, Julian Critchley, once memorably said, “Margaret Thatcher was a woman of very common views, with extremely uncommon abilities.” Moore does not quote this put-down in his book. But by the end of it, he demonstrably proves that only the latter part of the quotation is indeed accurate.
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning is published by Allen Lane, and is available from Kalahari.com. Read AERODROME’s interview with the author, Charles Moore, here.
Tony Leon is Executive Chairman of Resolve Communications (Pty) Ltd and served as Leader of the Opposition, Parliament of South Africa, and then as South African Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.