In her first meeting with the press after defeating Edward Heath in February 1975, the new leader of the opposition modestly paid homage to her predecessors: “To me it is like a dream that the next in line after Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath is … Margaret Thatcher.”
Accidentally, she had voiced what many other people in the room also felt. As Charles Moore explains, “The fact that her election did indeed seem like a dream was a large part of her problem.” In and out of her party and across the country, many people found the ascent of Thatcher outlandish, even bizarre: “The oldest, grandest, in many people’s eyes the stuffiest political party in the world had chosen a leader whose combination of class, inexperience and sex would previously have ruled her out. And it was not obvious that it had really meant to do so, or that it was confident of its choice,” writes Moore.
From the beginning, she sounded different. When a BBC interviewer asked how she felt on winning the leadership election she replied, in a manner very unlike Macmillan, Douglas-Home or Heath, “I almost wept when they told me. I did weep.” She looked different too, particularly back when she still had frizzy hair and wore too much jewellery. When she appeared for the first time at a meeting of Tory backbenchers, Geoffrey Howe was unexpectedly overcome. “She was flanked only by the all-male officers of the committee. Suddenly she looked very beautiful and very frail as the half-dozen knights of the shires towered over her. It was a moving, almost feudal, occasion. Tears came to my eyes.”
Much has happened since then. She became prime minister, she became a symbol to love or hate, she became the Iron Lady, she became an “ism”, so much so that many of the events in this book will be very familiar to those who lived through them: the 1979 election, the Irish hunger strikes, the Falklands War. Yet the arguing, posturing and eulogising that followed her death made it clear that the strangeness and the improbability of her life story have been forgotten. We all think we know what happened to her and why – but do we really?
Moore’s great gift is his ability to make Thatcher’s story fresh again, and above all to remind us of how odd she was. By beginning at the beginning, by showing us the reality of the childhood we only know through clichés – “grocer’s daughter”, “scholarship girl” – by introducing us to the boyfriends we’ve never met and by quoting from her chatty, breathless letters to her sister (“I decided to buy a really nice undie-set to go under my turquoise chiffon blouse”), Moore shows us how impossible it would have been for anyone who knew her as a young woman to imagine what she would become.
He also captures her unsettling personality, her “actressy” manner, her stiffness in public, her private warmth, her inept outbursts and faux pas, almost always using the language of people who were there at the time. During the decade and a half he worked on this authorised biography – of which this is only the first volume – Moore had unprecedented access to her private papers, on condition that nothing be published until after her death. He interviewed just about everyone who knew Thatcher, from her private secretaries to her political enemies, and he did so meticulously, in reverse order of age. (This meant, according to an acquaintance, that “a call from Charles was like a call from the Grim Reaper. When you got it you knew you were now the oldest on the list.”) The thoroughness of the research, the hundreds of interviews, and above all the access to her family and friends, enabled Moore to produce a multifaceted picture of a compelling life.
Moore is at his best, in fact, when presenting different views of the same situation: of the 1981 budget, he notes that its “paternity, or indeed maternity” is still hotly disputed, and then goes on to give several versions of its origins – or when illustrating the very different impressions Thatcher could make, even on ideological allies. John Hoskyns, who later became one of her advisers, was repulsed after his first meeting, writing in his diary that, “She is a limited, pedantic bore, with no lateral grasp, very little humour… God help the Tories.”
Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was captivated when he met her in 1975, when neither was yet in power: “That evening Ronnie was still going on and on about this wonderful woman he’d met,” remembered one of his aides. To those around her, she was, as Moore explains, “inspiring, admirable, brave and, to many, surprisingly lovable” but also “intensely annoying”.
Some of these contradictory impressions are explained by the fact that she was female in an almost entirely male world. In later years, many assumed she had no interest in other women or awareness of herself as a role model, but Moore shows over and over again that this was not the case. Throughout her career she was asked constantly to speak about “the role of women” and she consciously resisted, though not because she hadn’t thought about it or didn’t care. On the contrary, she understood that the topic could be used to sideline her.
When Heath asked her to make a speech on the subject at the Tory Party conference of 1968, she was very clear: “Ted said would I do ‘women in politics’,” she remembered. “I thought that was much too dull.”
Asked by the Daily Mirror to discuss the same subject, she replied, somewhat tartly, “They’ve been around since Eve, you know.” By speaking as a politician, and not just as a female politician, she hoped to set a new standard for others.
At the same time, she was a controlling, “type A” female long before anyone knew that such a thing existed; a woman who constantly “juggled” her children, husband and job. She had full-time nannies, put hairdressers’ appointments in her official diary under code names, kept catalogues of her dresses, maintained a bank account separate from her husband’s. In 1964 the strain became too much for Denis, who departed for two months, by himself, to South Africa. Moore thinks he was contemplating divorce, which would have ended her political career. “I am very glad to have come through it,” she said years later – implying that she might not have done.
Her oddity was also connected to her brilliance, another one of her qualities now lost beneath layers of history and controversy. Thatcher got to Oxford from Grantham not because she had connections but because she worked incredibly hard, even overcoming objections from a teacher who told her to forget Oxford because “you haven’t got Latin”. She said, “I’ll get Latin” and went to take lessons from a Latin teacher at a local boys’ school. Later, she passed the Bar exam after studying tax law on her own.
The same autodidactic instinct impelled her to study economic and political theory. Although this is very much a narrative biography, it is also a book about ideas: where they come from, how they affect people and how they get shaped into policies. And Thatcher proved unusually receptive to what were then very unfashionable ideas.
In the summer of 1968, when the rest of the world was turning on and dropping out, she was reading library books on Conservative political philosophy. In the Seventies, under the tutelage of Keith Joseph, Ralph Harris and others, she ignored the received wisdom and plunged into Keynes, Friedman, Hayek and a lot of very dry economic textbooks. At a 1975 dinner party thrown by Katharine Graham, the powerful hostess and publisher of The Washington Post, she turned to the future chairman of the US Federal Reserve and asked him about different kinds of monetary measurements: “So, Dr Greenspan, why is it that we in Britain don’t have an M3?” Alan Greenspan found the subsequent conversation startling: “She had a level of understanding of the way the world worked that most people in the political realm are unable to acquire.”
Graham, on the other hand, thought she was “a vulgar fishwife”. But then Graham, in 1975, was a far more fashionable person, intellectually and socially, than Greenspan, and far less likely to admire a woman who wanted to discuss monetarism at the dinner table.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Thatcher’s instinct for political controversy in her later career was, in part, a reaction to the snobbery and sexism she encountered on her way up. Personally and politically she was outside the mainstream, and so she sought out people and ideas which could help her defeat those who then occupied the centre.
In the end, this combination of biography and intellectual history works perfectly. After all, Thatcher’s ideas were shaped by the place where she was born, by the people she met, by Oxford in the Forties and Finchley in the Fifties, by her quirkiness, by her provinciality and her romantic choices. To understand what happened to Britain during her prime ministership and afterwards, it really is important to understand who she was: Moore’s Thatcher will now become the definitive account.