Reviewed: Margaret Thatcher the Authorised Biography by Charles Moore

Charles Moore admires Margaret Thatcher, but he cannot fully relate to her.

Margaret Thatcher.
An irresistible ascent - Margaret Thatcher. Photo: Bryce Duffy/Corbis.

Margaret Thatcher: the Authorised Biography – Volume One: Not for Turning
Charles Moore
Allen Lane, 896pp, £30

One of the fascinations of this biography is the way Charles Moore searches for the underlying personality of Margaret Thatcher, whom he admires but cannot fully relate to. Good biographies, and this is an exceptionally good one, tell us things we did not know about the life of their subject. In the absence of any diaries, Moore draws on 150 letters that the then Margaret Roberts wrote to her sister, Muriel, from the end of the 1930s up to the beginning of the 1960s. These cover the war years, her time at school in Grantham, Somerville College, Oxford, where she went shortly before her 18th birthday in October 1943, and her attempts to become an MP.

The letters reveal more about her private life, Moore claims, than all his other sources put together. Only her sister would have known as much about Margaret’s early loves, one of whom she more or less passed on directly to her sister. She writes with tenderness about another close male friend, Robert Henderson, in January 1950: “I think we are both getting very fond of one another – in fact more than that. I hope so.” At 47, he was twice her age when they met and already had a distinguished medical career. A bachelor, he was the medical superintendent at Southern Hospital in the constituency of Dartford, where she was the adopted Conservative candidate and fought two general elections in 1950 and 1951.

Eventually, however, she married Denis Thatcher, whom she was seeing at the same time, perhaps because he had asked her and Henderson had not. Her letters give the distinct impression, which their long and successful marriage bore out, that Denis was ready to accept her powerful ambition and to support her financially but also, crucially, temperamentally.

Politics was a fast-developing passion. Thatcher joined the Oxford University Conservative Association as soon as she arrived and ended up as its president. In those days, a woman could only attend Oxford Union debates in the gallery and then only if she was given tickets by a member.

Dorothy Hodgkin, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was her tutor. Described by one of Thatcher’s contemporaries as a “brilliant chemist but an awful tutor”, she held different political views from Margaret but liked her. She gave this careful assessment: “I came to rate her as good. One could always rely on her producing a sensible, well-read essay and yet there was something that some people had that she hadn’t quite got.” Nevertheless, Thatcher’s scientific background as a chemist gave her political position an extra dimension, not revealed much in this first volume, which ends after the Falklands war, but that became a feature as she took a serious and informed interest in environmental issues as prime minister.

What is surprising is how Thatcher was helped in pursuing her political ambitions by a number of powerful and rich Conservatives, notably Lord Bossom. His son Sir Clive was a Conservative MP between 1959 and 1974 who, like me, frequented a bohemian bistro in Chelsea. With no condescension and with no little admiration, he referred to her as the “Blessed Margaret”.

Searching to find the key to Thatcher’s growing support in the party, Moore spends some time, rightly, on Enoch Powell. After Powell’s highly controversial and populist speech on immigration on 20 April 1968, in which he saw the “River Tiber foaming with much blood”, Ted Heath rang around shadow cabinet members. “Enoch must go,” he told Thatcher. She responded by warning Heath not to “heighten what [Enoch] said too much” while also letting it be known in the party that she was quite sympathetic to Powell. She never minded being seen to be on the Tory right. Positioning like this is not uncommon in the race to the top of a party but she was unusual in remaining where she was ideologically and not moving to the centre ground. Nevertheless, she was determined not to be easily typecast: she was in favour of abortion, fairly relaxed about sexual conduct and had no hang-ups about appointing or being seen around gay men, many of whom she rather liked.

Moore rightly gives a mere 36 pages to the Heath government of 1970-74, for Thatcher was not a very influential member of it. As secretary of state for education and the only woman cabinet minister, she removed free milk from all children over the age of seven. She inherited 1,137 comprehensive schools in England and Wales, approved a further 3,286 and rejected only 326 – an early example of her pragmatism. Later, she disguised this by presenting Shirley Williams as the progenitor of comprehensives.

It was not until the early 1970s that I met Thatcher properly and we were able to talk to one another as people rather than as politicians. She had been giving dinner to a psychiatrist with whom I, as a neurologist, had worked at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. We bumped into each other during a division in the House of Commons and she asked my wife and me to join them for coffee. The discussion revealed the strengths and weaknesses of someone who was, I had already sensed, a most unusual person.

She was sufficiently concerned about a constituent’s worries over her teenage son’s health to bother, when she was exceptionally busy, to arrange to meet the doctor who was treating him. Yet it soon became apparent that she neither accepted nor wanted to understand that any adolescent could be depressed. For her, it was all due to a lack of personal drive, effort and will.

As she spoke, her voice hardened and she became ever more assertive about the im - possibility of the adolescent’s condition having anything to do with depression. My wife, normally an active conversationalist, clam - med up, staggered by such an uncomprehending position.

As we rose to leave, Thatcher, right in front of her, said to me: “Is your wife always so quiet?” I have never forgotten that conversation. It showed Thatcher conscientious to a fault yet insensitive to someone she perceived as a non-achiever. This became ever clearer over the years in her attitudes towards poverty, social problems and the ethos of organisations such as the NHS.

On the eve of the first ballot for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, in which she defeated Heath, she said on tele - vision: “All my ideas about [Britain] were formed before I was 17 or 18.” There is a good deal of truth in this comment. It explains her simplistic view of life, which was part of her appeal, as well as the source of an off-putting certainty. On the day of her election as leader, she told ITN: “You don’t exist as a party unless you have a clear philosophy and clear heritage.” The philosophy was kept in her handbag – Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, of which she is supposed to have said, “This is what we believe.”

Nevertheless, she was pragmatic as prime minister. Encouraged by her foreign secretary Lord Carrington, she dumped some of her previous prejudices, like her passionate support in opposition for Bishop Muzorewa and the internal settlement in Rhodesia. In February 1981, when the moderate miner’s leader Joe Gormley was close to calling a strike, without any cabinet discussion, she told her energy secretary David Howell, “Bring it to an end, David. Make the necessary concessions.” She cost the country £400-500m in the process. Also, as Moore remarks, this contributed to the myth that the miners were invincible, something that was tested to destruction during the strike of 1984-85.

The economic gloom deepened throughout 1981 and the cabinet grew increasingly divided. Her home secretary and confidant Willie Whitelaw warned her: “There comes a moment in politics when you have pushed the tolerance of society too far. We aren’t there but we aren’t far off.”

An opinion poll in the summer of that year showed the SDP/Liberal Alliance on 45 per cent, Labour on 29 per cent and the Conservatives on just 25 per cent. On 28 August, John Hoskyns, the first head of her policy unit, who had built and sold a computer company and was her leading non-career civil servant, addressed to her what he called a “blockbuster” memo entitled “Your Political Survival”. It recognised that: “Your government has achieved the beginning of a nearrevolution in the private sector and especially in industry.” It even ventured, “Things in the economy are better than people realise.” But it went on: “Your own credibility and prestige are draining away very fast.”

Hoskyns then listed her faults. “You lack management competence . . . Your own leadership style is wrong . . . You bully your weaker colleagues . . . You give little praise or credit, and you are too ready to blame others when things go wrong.” A few weeks later, after no discussion, she hissed at him: “I got your letter. No one has ever written like that to a prime minister before.” She was not correct. Clementine Churchill had written a more lovingly phrased but equally blunt letter to her husband in June 1940.

As if to confirm Hoskyns’s diagnosis, late one night in December 1981, Thatcher burst into a meeting at the Treasury, “quite full of whisky”. She berated Geoffrey Howe, who was preparing his Autumn Statement with officials. “If this is the best you can do, then I’d better send you to hospital and deliver the statement myself.” The fuse was being put in place for Howe to ignite publicly nearly nine years later in his now celebrated resignation statement. However, within a few months, in March 1982, there were definite signs that the economy was beginning to turn.

Then, on 31 March, there followed what Thatcher described as “the worst moment of my life”. John Nott, the defence secretary, arrived bearing intelligence about an impending Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands. Moore offers a vivid reconstruction of a meeting that evening in the prime minister’s room in the House of Commons. Nott and his permanent undersecretary Frank Cooper told her that the recapture of the Falkland Islands was all but impossible. She knew from her Foreign Office private secretary in No 10 that this view was shared by the chief of the general staff. The then chief of defence staff, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, was away in New Zealand.

In the middle of this discussion, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, the first sea lord, arrived from Portsmouth, in uniform. He had dropped in to his office in the Ministry of Defence to find a naval staff briefing on the Falklands that advised: “Don’t touch it.” But this was a man of resolution and intelligence, as I knew from my time as navy minister between 1968 and 1970.

Leach asked the prime minister for political clearance to assemble a task force. “What does that mean?” she asked and Leach explained about ships, aircraft carriers and helicopters. “How long can it take to assemble the task force?” she enquired. “Three days,” replied Leach. “How long to get there?” “Three weeks.” “Three weeks?” Thatcher exclaimed. “Surely you mean three days?” “No, I don’t,” Leach said. “Can we do it?” she asked. “We can, Prime Minister.” “Why do you say that?” In language that echoes down the years, Leach replied: “Because if we don’t do it, if we pussyfoot . . . we’ll be living in a different country whose word will count for little.”

The rest is history. Leach’s analysis was echoed in the emergency parliamentary debate on 3 April, a rare occasion on which the Labour leader Michael Foot and I were in total agreement. The prime minister’s grave decision was supported by all parties. However, the Thatcher premiership was never the same again. She would succumb to hubris and that started with her taking the salute, instead of the Queen, at a victory march-past in the City of London, something that this book mistakenly passes off as of little consequence.

David Owen was foreign secretary from 1977-79 and a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party