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The making of Maggie

As the world awaits Charles Moore's authorised biography, Michael White looks at what so many writer

Margaret Thatcher has been battered more and more, personally and politically, during the almost two decades since her vertiginous fall from power in late 1990. The hubristic collapse of the free-market model of capitalism that she promoted has dealt her another blow. Who was it who first removed the seat belts and airbags from the safe-but-boring Volvo that the west built after 1945?

But what about the lava flow of books written about her life and achievements: 150 of them, by some counts? How do they stand up to the passage of time? From the moment in 1975 when she unexpectedly overthrew Edward Heath as Tory leader and Russell Lewis knocked out a celebratory 164-page biography ("a rather superficial book", scolded Fritz Stern in Foreign Affairs), more has been written about Thatcher than about any British premier since Churchill.

It is not hard to see why: she was the first woman to lead a major western democracy (since then, only Angela Merkel has joined the list); the first neo-market evangelist to take significant office; the "first unashamed English nationalist to occupy Downing Street", as Hugo Young would later write; the first British leader to scold the Kremlin and go to war (against Argentina) in a long time. Love her or hate her, she was always good copy and she changed the political weather.

As the late Patrick Cosgrave, another early biographer, admiringly predicted in the revised edition of Margaret Thatcher: a Tory and Her Party, issued after her first election victory - 3 May 1979 - "whatever else happens, Margaret Thatcher's Britain will be a bracing and challenging place to live". And so it proved.

Yet since Thatcher was overthrown in that party coup she has slipped from being one of the most sharply defined public figures in the world, hated and feted on all five continents, up there with Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, into a twilight haze where her reputation has become much more tentative.

All that may be about to change. The 30th anniversary of 3 May looms. As the former prime minister, now in need of full-time care, edges towards her 84th birthday in October, the obits are being updated. The BBC2 drama Margaret (see page 50), in which Lindsay Duncan's Thatcher is curiously sympathetic, is one such.

A few months older than the Queen, Thatcher is paying the price for a more stressful life. Retirement has been unkind, much as her friends knew it would be. John Campbell, another of her chroniclers, describes her as an "unemployed workaholic". As she lambasted the inadequacies of John Major, George H W Bush ("Don't go wobbly, George," she told the president during the first Gulf War) and pretty much everyone else, I recall likening her to Gloria "Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" Swanson in the closing reel of Sunset Boulevard. It was the movies, not her, that had become small.

Like so much else about her, the Thatcher bibliography is polarised. On the one hand, there have been committed writers such as Cosgrave (whose career as an adviser reputedly crashed after he vomited on her shoes when drunk) and Russell Lewis writing on the respectable side of the hagiographical territory occupied by Olga Maitland (1989) and Patricia Murray (1980). Lewis is still on the case. Barack Obama, he wrote recently, is "America's first socialist president", an oblique admission that Thatcher's mission to destroy the creed had not succeeded.

Then there are the foreigners, admiring Americans, German and French conservatives, wondering whether this "Ikone des Neokonservatis­mus" (they sometimes include a question mark) had anything to teach the exponents of European Christian Democracy. As time wore on and her Euroscepticism became more strident, they were inclined to think not.

Yet Thatcher's problem with her more substantial British biographers remains the obvious one. Journalists such as Young or Peter Jenkins, academics and very readable professional biographers such as Campbell, tend to be literary and intellectual liberals or lefties, the kind of people with whom Thatcher enjoyed a mutual disdain.

John Ranelagh, a former Tory official, Channel 4 executive and the author of Thatcher's People (1991), may be an exception. So may Simon Jenkins, a gut contrarian whose Accountable to None: the Tory Nationalisation of Britain(1995) marshals the compelling argument that she cajoled and centralised a great deal in the name of liberty. In Thatcher & Sons (2006) Jenkins declares Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to be her bastard children: an observation truer than many would wish.

But by and large the biographer's tone is that of a policeman examining a nasty crime scene. In Young's much-admired One of Us (1989), the abandonment of full employment, poverty reduction and a consensual civility as bedrock policy objectives is distasteful to the author, a liberal patrician who once speculated that Thatcher was always civil to him because "she doesn't read a word I write".

Both he and Peter Jenkins (the author of Mrs Thatcher's Revolution, 1987), the leading liberal columnists of their day, were also implacably offended by her anti-Europeanism, though less so by her assault on the unruly trade unions. Jenkins, the earthier of the two, his work redolent of late-night whisky and cigars, seems more attracted by her animal spirit in defying decades of national decline. From a chat we had, I inferred that Peter voted Tory shortly before his premature death at the age of 58, in 1992. Young also died early, at 64. She soldiers on.

Most such volumes emphasise the personal and therefore provisional nature of her many triumphs, a prescient point now that Tories and Republicans are urging the nationalisation of banks. Cabinet colleagues and advisers, many of whom wrote memoirs after fallings-out and/or being sacked, add their own half-bricks to the stone-throwing. The British people were never Thatcherised, they conclude. The National Health Service still stands.

Sacked in 1981, the cerebral Whig grandee and Keynesian diehard Ian Gilmour was the first of many. He saved his considered verdict until 1992, with a cover photo showing the pair in a waltz. His book was wittily entitled Dancing With Dogma. Even the loyal Howes and Lawsons turned on her in the end. She was, as Campbell put it, "simply too commanding a personality" to work in a co-operative fashion for long.

Thatcher co-authored her own two-volume memoirs, better than critics had feared. But it falls to Charles Moore, a clever High Tory, former Telegraph editor and now her official biographer, to seek to restore his heroine's reputation at a difficult time, when her "freer, more promiscuous version of capitalism'' (in Hugo Young's phrase) is reaping a darker harvest.

The work is overdue. But Moore will not hover long over Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice (1989), Leo Abse's Freudian take on her remarkable career. Potty training, penis envy, a lack of maternal love, is that what it was all about?

Michael White writes for the Guardian

Margaret Thatcher: brought to book

One of Us, Hugo Young (1989). Written by someone who was there at the time, this early biography is brilliantly engaged with its subject while remaining detached from party affiliations.

Margaret Thatcher, John Campbell (two volumes: 2000, 2003). Strongly centred on Thatcher herself, this epic explores the contrast between the dominant, successful politician and the conventional, rather naive housewife.

Margaret Thatcher, Clare Beckett (2006). Simon Hoggart wrote in our pages that this book (part of the 20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century series) tries "to reconcile her subject as a woman and as an honorary man (not always an easy task)".

The Downing Street Years and The Path to Power, Margaret Thatcher (1993, 1995). The Iron Lady gives her own account of her ascent to prime minister and 11-year spell in office.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: a Political Marriage, Nicholas Wapshott (2007). Wapshott's exhaustive work reappraises the relationship between Thatcher and the US president. As the White House press secretary James Brady remarked: "It took a crowbar to get them apart."

Maggie: an Intimate Portrait of a Woman in Power, Chris Ogden (1990). Ogden provides a fascinating contemporary account of Thatcher, charting the difficulties faced at a time of growing dissent within her cabinet.

The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (2004). Hollinghurst's elegant fourth novel portrays a particular kind of privileged gay lifestyle during the Thatcherite 1980s. In one memorable party scene, the protagonist enjoys a dance with Maggie herself.

Thatcher & Sons: a Revolution in Three Acts, Simon Jenkins (2006). Tracing her influence over her successors in office, an illuminating account of how both main parties have come to be wedded to an ideology of modernisation inherited from the 1980s.

Margaret Thatcher: a Portrait of the Iron Lady, John Blundell (2007). An unabashed champion of Thatcherism, Blundell offers a somewhat wide-eyed account of Maggie's years in power.

What a Carve-Up! (US title: The Winshaw Legacy), Jonathan Coe (1994). A well-plotted farce of life in Britain in Thatcher's shadow, Coe's signature novel was an instant classic.

John Ridpath

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict