Margaret Thatcher

There are two ways to take an English vacation this summer. One is to book a flight and traipse around the Sceptered Isle, and the other is to sit back in your favorite chair with a copy of this extraordinary book, written by Charles Moore, currently a columnist and a former editor of several British newspapers (The Spectator, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Daily Telegraph, colloquially referred to by some as the Torygraph). While some reviewers have described it as an in-house Establishment toast, it is far more than that, although clearly it is no roast. In 900-plus pages (which include close to 200 pages of endnotes), Moore has written three books in one — and each is a worthwhile read.

One is a social history of a striving, middle-class small-town family on the eve of the Second World War — something that could be a BBC miniseries if only there were sufficient evidence of humor and love in the family. But young Margaret and her older sister, Muriel, live a pinched and drab existence in the household of a successful local grocer and  alderman. We see Margaret study her way out of her barren life to achieve academic success, winning  a scholarship to major in chemistry at Oxford. She pursues her interests with great passion: clothes (about which we learn much more than we might wish), conservative campus politics, and young men — but not chemistry, alas, at which she is at best a solid student. Once done with her Oxford degree (she manages to stay out of the war) she drifts in and out of several jobs, but her political talents, especially public speaking, are impressive. She reads law at the Inns of Court in London, begins her practice (American lawyers will be especially interested in how one started a legal career in the U.K. in those days), and runs several times as a Conservative candidate for the House of Commons, eventually carrying the day. She also marries Denis Thatcher, but not before arranging for another suitor to transfer his affections to her older sister — an early manifestation of the Cabinet-reshuffling talents required of British leaders.

The second book could be titled  “Mrs. Thatcher Goes to Westminster,” as the narrative shifts to a familiar type of British political biography. Thatcher moves up the greased pole, becoming a junior member of the Shadow Cabinet (in opposition to the Labour Government of Harold Wilson), then leader of the Conservative Party in the Commons, and finally prime minister. This story is all about relationships, alliances, and political marriages and divorces. Moore provides his American readership with a scorecard, so we have some idea of the players, and offers illuminating character sketches of the leading Tories (but does much less on the Labour side), so that the clash of personalities comes alive in these pages. He provides not only the immediate political context but also the larger battle of ideas within the Conservative ranks. Thatcher is distinguished early on by her clear exposition of principles: at one point early in her career in the Commons she remarks, “I loathe this modern tendency to try to find a form of words that takes the meaning out of anything that you might say.” The persona she develops in these pages corresponds to the Goldwater/Reagan wing of the American GOP: she is a true believer, not only in free market economics and its superiority to governmental solutions but also (and perhaps more important) in the “British character” — and behind that, of course, in the English. Moore explains what the strength of these beliefs meant in the course of each policy issue that Thatcher faced, whether it involved decolonization in Rhodesia (she was skeptical), education reform (she was unconvinced that selective grammar schools should be replaced by non-selective “comprehensive” schools), and fiscal and monetary issues (she hewed closely to the maxims of Milton Friedman, among others). Moore is very clear that Thatcher was conservative, but in his telling she was a politician rather than an ideologue, adept at providing balance within her party both as leader of the opposition and prime minister. Only in the Cabinet’s economic portfolios did she insist on true believers. Otherwise, for the junior ministerial positions, she was interested in talent more than ideology.

Moore explores every facet of Thatcher’s thinking about merit: she was, for example, quite negative about pressures from Jews in her constituency (Finchley); yet many of her most respected advisers and colleagues were Jewish, and Thatcher’s relationships with them, especially her very close work with Keith Joseph, are woven throughout the numerous policy studies that form the heart of the book. There is also — and this will interest students of comparative politics — a very detailed and incisive analysis of how the British government actually functions at the top, focusing on relations between Thatcher and the civil servants in Whitehall. Thatcher was not interested in processes or management; however, Moore observes, “She used every remark, every memo, every meeting as an opportunity to challenge existing habits, criticize every sign of ignorance, confusion or waste and preach incessantly the main aims of her administration” — and, in his account, she managed to move Whitehall quite a distance in her direction. She did have her blind spots: upon meeting Dr. John Ashworth, her chief scientist, she asked, “Do I want one of these?” And when he pressed on about climate change at their first meeting, she stared at him in disbelief, responding, “Are you standing there and seriously telling me that my government should worry about the weather?”

As Thatcher moves up in the world, so she moves out into the world. By the last third of the volume, she and we have moved away from insular town and university life, past the clubby atmosphere of Inns of Court and the House of Commons, and into the world of great powers and superpowers. The narration is now about transatlantic networking, trade policies involving the European Community, monetary coordination within the European Monetary System, U.K. elections for the European Assembly, and her agreement with President Reagan that the Soviets were “arrayed against every principle for which we stand.” Moore concludes with one of Thatcher’s greatest successes: the British campaign to retake the Falkland Islands (a.k.a. Malvinas) following the 1982 invasion by Argentina. He stays away for the most part from the military campaign (though we are led to believe it was difficult because of the logistics and the initial enemy naval and air actions) and focuses instead on decision making within the “war cabinet” and transatlantic relations with the United States. It is as much a study of American decision making (Haig at State puts pressure on Thatcher, Kirkpatrick at the UN tilts toward Latin American authoritarian regimes, but Weinberger at Defense gives the U.K. crucial weaponry and intelligence), and the relationship between Thatcher and Reagan during these events is presented through a series of telephone conversations. This is a chapter that will interest anyone who closely follows Anglo-American alliance politics, though it is clearly a jingoistic version (Thatcher strong and resolute, Reagan weak and vacillating), that will warm the heart of everyone in the regiment.

Moore seems to have interviewed everyone, but often the actual value of the interview or the use of a written source lies in his own corrections: a quote attributed to Lincoln about not “strengthening the weak by weakening the strong” was actually penned by William Boetcker; “Hands are not actually kissed” when Mrs. Thatcher goes to Buckingham Palace and is received by the queen after her election victory; a quote from St. Francis of Assisi is “not, in fact by St. Francis, but by a nineteenth-century follower”; the night of the handover of power, the staff at 10 Downing and the new P.M. ate cottage pie in the State Dining Room, not the sandwiches or shepherd’s pie that some remember. Yet for all the trivial corrections, Moore nevertheless always has an eye on the prize: the attempt by Mrs. Thatcher to redirect British culture away from what she saw as an excessive reliance on government, and to break the power of organized labor and rentiers over the moribund British economy. Moore is sympathetic to these (and other) goals pursued by Thatcher, but he is also a shrewd judge of character, willing to point out Thatcher’s weakness as a parliamentary leader: at one point she received a memo from her advisers entitled “Your Political Survival,” which went on for many pages, criticizing her style (“You lack management competence”; “You bully your weaker colleagues”; “The result is an unhappy ship”; and so on). Moore also makes clear that Thatcher’s leadership in wartime (like Churchill’s) did not extend to sensible ideas about strategy or tactics, but unlike her predecessor, Mrs. Thatcher usually understood the limits of her competence in military matters.

For the most part this is an admiring account of how Mrs. Thatcher became the Iron Lady through her successes when it counted. Ultimately, Thatcher’s leadership boiled down to the fact that, as her chief of staff David Wolfson observed, “she was a woman of beliefs, and beliefs are better than ideas.” Especially, as in Mrs. Thatcher’s case, if one is imbued with the belief that one is better suited to lead than anyone else in the realm, and by dint of hard work and personality, one convinces colleagues to believe in that idea as well.