Thatcher: The Letting Go

Thatcher: The Letting Go

When Sir Geoffrey Howe got up to deliver his resignation statement in the House of Commons on Tuesday, November 13, 1990, the room felt expectant, in the words of Charles Moore in Herself Alone, “like a theatre audience before a new show.” (p. 662) Howe had been a senior member of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet since the beginning of her term in office, most recently as British foreign secretary. But he had had enough. A few days earlier, he had told Thatcher he would quit, news that surprised but did not initially distress her.  Howe was considered loyal but boring by Thatcher’s inner circle, a safe pair of hands; the Labour politician Denis Healey once referred to an attack from Howe as “like being savaged by a dead sheep.” The parliamentary Conservative party, already heaving with rumors, knew otherwise: Howe’s discontent mirrored their own discontent. After eleven and a half years in office, she had stopped listening, both to people on the street – she had pushed through an extraordinarily unpopular and regressive poll tax - and to people in her cabinet. Her unpopularity in both places was growing.

          Howe’s speech captured that mood. He spoke, writes Moore, “with great care, and with dry wit, but also with contained passion.” His words “drew gasps as his point hit home.”  The speech makes fascinating reading today because so much of it concerned Britain’s relationship to Europe , and because it represents a liberal internationalist worldview that has now vanished from the Conservative party. Though the details of the policies he was discussing mean little now, at base Howe was talking about attitudes. Thatcher, he said, looked at Europe “as a continent that is positively teeming with ill-intentioned people.” Instead of seeking cooperation and mutual benefit, she kept leading Britain into “isolation.” As a result, she was “running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation.” He ended by declaring that it was time “for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I myself wrestled for so long.” [p.663] Although this sentence was ambiguous, his fellow members of parliament immediately understood it as a call to challenge her for the leadership of the party. In retrospect, it also sounds like the first warning bell of the Brexit debate that was to unfold a quarter-century later.

          Even in 1990, the political impact was enormous. This was the first important parliamentary speech to be delivered on television – cameras had been put into the debating chamber some months earlier - and it was heard across the country. In its wake, Michael Heseltine, the Tory MP and former minister, challenged Thatcher for the leadership of the party. Moore gives a day-by-day, almost hour-by-hour account of what happened next - the intrigues and secret meetings that led to her resignation - as remembered by most of the major players. Some of the details are almost too good to be true, such as the story of Thatcher’s hairdresser, Paul Allen, who arrived at 10 Downing Street to fix her hair before her appearance in parliament on her last day in office. He realized he had forgotten his comb, but Thatcher was too upset to be asked for one. He snuck upstairs into her private apartment, and “knocked softly on every door lest the prime minister should be behind it. She was not. Allen extracted the comb and fled downstairs.”  But he did her hair, which of course looked magnificent throughout her rousing final parliamentary statement. Afterward she was swept away in a limo, tears in her eyes, and deposited abruptly in a house she owned, but had never inhabited, in the London suburb of Dulwich. There was no food in the refrigerator.

          Following an internal battle, John Major defeated Heseltine for leadership of the Tory party and became the next prime minister. Although Major, much like his American counterpart, George H.W. Bush, is now remembered as a better leader than he was given credit for being at the time, the Tory party soon regretted Thatcher’s downfall, and indeed tore itself apart over it for years afterward. Even Howe came to regret it. Feeling “battered” from a barrage of angry letters - this was an era before Twitter, when ordinary mail still had the power to wound - he wrote Thatcher an apology a few months after the event. He said that he was sorry their long partnership had ended badly. She never replied.

          This dramatic description of Thatcher’s fall is the emotional high point of the third and final volume of Moore’s trilogy.[1] Not merely the authorized biography, Moore’s is the definitive biography of Thatcher, and perhaps one of the definitive books about Britain in the late twentieth century. Eerily, the tale of her downfall echoes one of the highlights of the first volume, which is the story of how she was selected to be party leader in the first place. By Moore’s telling, that choice was a kind of accident, made at a moment when the country was gripped by what seemed to be an unsolvable economic crisis. At the time, many people found Thatcher’s selection 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.” The ambivalence persisted, from the beginning to the end. A part of her party would always regret choosing her, and a part of the party would always regret letting her go.

          Moore is in the latter camp. One of Britain’s best-known conservative columnists– and a former editor of the Spectator, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph, the three most important British conservative publications,  he does not hide his admiration for Thatcher, and this may not be a bad thing: nobody who did not admire Thatcher would be able to do what he has done. The research and writing of the three volumes took him more than two decades. He read thousands of documents and interviewed hundreds of people, including three hundred for this volume alone. (He did it in reverse order of age: “A call from Charles was like a visit from the grim reaper,” one interviewee told me. “When you got it, you knew you were now the oldest on the list.”)  Yet Moore maintains a genuine objectivity as well, always seeking to understand and reflect the views of people who did not admire Thatcher. Summing up her downfall, for example, Moore observes that Thatcher’s vices were “inseparable from her virtues. Her intelligence, courage, nonconformity and commitment set her way above the common run of politicians, but these involved a pig-headedness which was sometimes more than frail Tory flesh and blood would bear. So when she slipped, too few were left to break her fall.” At the end, as at the beginning, she was “a woman isolated in a man’s world - herself alone.”

          Moore remains focused, in this volume as well as the early ones, on the qualities that made Thatcher so odd, so unlike other people, as well as those that made her so simultaneously loved and hated. She was strangely formal and refused to dress down, preferring stiff suits and Ferragamo shoes even in the country, or even when everyone else was in blue jeans at the Reagan ranch..  She had an ability to speak with fierce clarity and absolute certainty, an attribute that was both inspiring and polarizing. She treated her staff with great kindness and respect yet was rude and ungracious to her cabinet peers, and dismissive of her critics. She never overcame some of her prejudices, from an inability to understand Scottish nationalists or northern Irish Catholics to a very deep dislike of Germans, even postwar Germans. Once, Helmut Kohl invited her to visit him in his hometown in the Rhineland. His intention was to show her, as he told one of her advisers, “that I’m not really German. I’m European.” He meant that he was attached to his region and its customs, that he wished to live in peace with Germany’s neighbors, and that he had no dreams of empire or domination. Thatcher, who didn’t understand what it meant to be European in this sense at all, hated the food she was served (the local delicacy was pork belly) and the “filthy” sweet wine. She declared, on the plane home, that “that man is so German.”

          But one also might respond that Thatcher herself was so English - and in ways we didn’t fully credit at the time. Partly, this was because she was simultaneously an English patriot and a British internationalist, someone who believed that there was no contradiction between her love of her country on the one hand, and her belief that her country could promote democracy and free markets around the world on the other . In our own era, these instincts have come to seem contradictory. Venturing into geopolitics now loses votes in Britain, or is believed to do so. Democracy, as a cause, is out of fashion in Britain too. So are free markets: Although the Conservative party and its current prime minister still pay lip service to free trade, they have, in reality, just happily left the world’s biggest free trade zone. With each passing year, British politicians are more provincial, more focused on home to the exclusion of “abroad.”

          But in the 1980s, nationalism and internationalism didn’t seem contradictory. In part, this was thanks to Thatcher’s own deep, ideological commitment to winning the cold war , as well as her intuitive sympathy for eastern Europeans, especially Poles. Her good luck to have been prime minister while Ronald Reagan was president also helped.  The two were in agreement about their anti-communism, about free trade, about democracy. They were also in agreement about the importance of a networked, allied Western world. Reagan’s power as American president gave Thatcher status; her ideological sympathy made him seem less lonely. Moore describes in some detail their cooperation over particular issues – there is more of this in his previous volumes as well – and their personal harmony. Some of the passages will make the modern reader blink: it is almost impossible to imagine, for example, the current American president coordinating a speech on nuclear policy with his British counterpart, as Reagan did with Thatcher. It is also impossible to imagine the current president making the speech that Reagan eventually gave, following this consultation. It contained the sentence that famously expressed the essence of the Western alliance and its doctrine of deterrence: “A bomb dropped on Amsterdam would be the same as a bomb dropped on Chicago; If we all maintained this attitude, a bomb would not be dropped."

Thatcher sat and listened to this speech, “enthralled.” At the end she whispered to Reagan, “Brilliant, Ron. Brilliant.” And from her point of view, of course, it was: here was the world’s most important leader declaring that America’s military resources were Europe’s military resources, thanks to the fact that America and Europe – not just America and Britain -  shared the same values. That commitment to the joint Western project showed itself in other ways too. At least while she was prime minister, Thatcher’s Englishness did not come into conflict with the idea of European integration. The idea of the European Single Market, a free trade area so profound that it would eliminate all borders and customs checks and require its members to coordinate their regulations, was partly hers. Thanks to that decision, raw materials, equipment, and spare parts for decades traveled back and forth from Britain to the continent with as much ease as if they were moving within the same country. Neither Thatcher nor anyone else thought through all of the consequences of that decision, especially the fact that a unified regulatory regime, while it had enormous advantages for business, gave other countries some influence over UK law (and vice versa). This, later on, would be one of the most important sources of anti-EU sentiment in Britain, including Thatcher’s own.

          But other things were shifting too. The change from Reagan to Bush, coupled with the end of the cold war, left Thatcher outside the White House inner circle. Partly this was because her personal chemistry with Bush was not the same as it had been with his predecessor. But American priorities suddenly shifted as well. This became most dramatically clear when both Bush and Kohl began pushing for the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall – a moment when Thatcher’s anti-German instincts kicked in. It’s long been known that Thatcher tried to prevent reunification, not least by teaming up with Francois Mitterrand, the president of France, who encouraged her, briefly, before throwing his lot in with the Germans. According to Moore, she went one step further. At one point, her American counterparts were stunned to realized that she was contemplating an alliance with Mikhail Gorbachev, then still the Soviet leader, against Germany as well. Bush aides were aghast: “The idea that we would have to rely on the Soviets to balance our ally, Germany? Our strategy was to embrace Germany!” All the way through unification, she was passing notes back and forth to her own aides, fulminating about German nationalism. This is the moment when her internationalism began to recede and her own English nationalism began to matter. One of her colleagues described the agenda of the cabinet at this time as “parliamentary affairs; home affairs; and xenophobia.”

          After she left office, her provincialism deepened. As Moore explains, this is partly because Thatcher gradually lost touch with the realities of world politics. She had lost Reagan, she had lost the cold war as an ideological guide, and there was no set of causes, of similar weight, to which she could easily attach herself in the 1990s. She was resentful of Major, whom she later unfairly suspected of helping Howe and Heseltine remove her from office, and she sniped at him from the sidelines. She fell back on her prejudices and instincts, including her intuitive dislike of Europeans. Moore even suggests delicately that she was overly influenced by the speechwriters and ghostwriters who helped her produce books and memoirs, especially as she began to show the first signs of the dementia that eventually destroyed her memory. There were occasions, he notes, when her later public writings fit “too easily into an identikit right-wing mode which she had not followed when she held power.”  While prime minister, she had been interested in fighting climate change, for example, as well as in expanding the Single Market. Out of office, she became more critical of both of those causes, though she never turned openly against British membership of the EU.

          Unlike other British leaders, most of whom fade into a background world of company boards and high-level commissions, Thatcher and her post–prime ministerial views continued to matter. Partly because of the way she had been suddenly ejected from power, Thatcher remained a kind of lodestar for people who were disappointed by the way things went under Major. Like Bush, Major played an important part in reuniting Europe after the fall of communism, but unlike Thatcher, he didn’t try to lead a moral crusade. He didn’t tout a transformative economic reform program or call for revolutionary change. He thought that governing quietly, from right of center, in cooperation with European allies as well as the US, was enough, after the turbulence of the Thatcher years. He was sufficiently popular in the country to be reelected in 1992, but he inspired no great admiration among Thatcherites who wanted the revolution to continue. In subsequent years, Thatcher’s would-be heirs fought with one another and with the rest of their party until finally, in 2016, the purest and most loyal among them emerged as the leading Brexiteers.

          Moore – a Brexiteer himself – is careful to avoid claiming that Thatcher would have supported that cause. With her devotion to geopolitics and her passionate interest in the world, it’s hard to see how she could have. Nor was she ever fanatical about very strict notions of sovereignty, as some of her followers later were. Several years after leaving office, she gave a speech in Zagreb, Croatia, in which she spoke openly about the limitations of sovereignty, and the importance of universal values. “The state is not, after all, merely a tribe. It is a legal entity,” she said. “Concern for human rights … thus complements the sense of nationhood so as to ensure a nation state that is both strong and democratic.” But it is not hard, by contrast, to understand why so many of her followers wound up on almost the opposite side of that statement, arguing that the nation was indeed a kind of tribe.  They picked up on the “English” part of her personality  - the strain of provincialism that made her suspect, in Howe’s words, that Europe was “positively teeming with ill-intentioned people”  – and chose to celebrate those prejudices, instead of her internationalism or her belief in universal democratic values. The deep European integration, the borderless trade and regulatory harmony which Thatcher most valued is precisely the aspect of European Union membership that the advocates of Brexit are now seeking most urgently to bring to an end. They also sought to maintain her radicalism: that feeling she gave them of being on the cutting edge, in the avant garde, in opposition to the boring centrists and predictable leftists, was something they longed to preserve. The 2016 referendum gave them the chance to be revolutionaries once again.

          As a national figure Thatcher remained controversial, for those reasons and many others, right up until the end of her life. Britain is still arguing over her economic legacy as well as her foreign policy legacy: her struggle against trade unions, her closure of coal mines, her privatization of industry. In retrospect, it is now clear that her reforms revitalized Britain at a crucial moment, pulling the country out of the despondent state it had reached in the 1970s. It is also clear that her reforms gave financial markets, and the people who earn money in them, an enormously distorted role in the UK economy, at the expense of other economic sectors, including those that employ the kinds of working-class people who voted for Thatcher. Much of British politics, both inside and outside the Conservative party, now consists of arguments over how the country should change its course in order to compensate for the errors of the Thatcher years, without losing the achievements.

People from all sides of the political spectrum still agree that she changed the country in ways that cannot be undone, and she is both praised and hated for it. That divisive legacy led to an outburst of ugly rhetoric after she died. After announcing her death in 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament from its Easter recess so that speeches could be made in tribute; he also declared that the Queen would attend her funeral, a tribute to her significance to British politics. At the same time, anti-Thatcher street parties broke out spontaneously in Belfast, Brixton, and Glasgow, and the song “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” rose to number two in the UK pop singles charts. There were fears that the funeral procession might be disrupted by protests or even terrorism.

          Yet on the day itself, all was quiet. I attended the funeral at St. Paul’s cathedral, and sat toward the front, with the foreign delegations. Arrayed before us were not only all of her friends but all of her enemies: Heseltine, who stabbed her in the back; Major, whose prime ministership she sought to undermine; and Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader who never managed to defeat her. All of them sat and listened as the Bishop of London gently acknowledged their strong feelings and then sought to put them to rest, delivering the most eloquent eulogy I have ever heard. He reminded the room not of what where she ended up, but of where she had come from, living above her father’s shop in Grantham, struggling to get into university, working to join a world that had long rejected people like her: “In a setting like this, in the presence of the leaders of the nations, or any representatives of nations and countries throughout the world, it is easy to forget the immense hurdles she had to climb.”

But he also sought to temper some of the ill-will. “After the storm of a life lived in the heat of political controversy, there is a great calm,” he said: “The storm of conflicting opinions centres on the Mrs Thatcher who became a symbolic figure – even an "ism" Today the remains of the real Margaret Hilda Thatcher are here at her funeral service. Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.” I won’t say that ended the historical argument, but it did, somehow, stop the public bitterness – and the country moved on.

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