Reviewed: Margaret Thatcher the Authorised Biography by Charles Moore

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

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

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

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
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“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.

 

NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.

 

NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.

 

NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?

 

NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.

 

NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.

 

NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.

 

NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.

 

NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.

 

NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.

 

NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.

 

NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.

 

NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.

 

NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.

 

NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage