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28 October 2015updated 24 Nov 2015 1:32pm

Chris Patten on Margaret Thatcher: strength and self-delusion

The second volume of Charles Moore’s biography paints Thatcher as the most partisan and domineering British prime minister since the Second World War. Here, a former minister remembers her premiership.

By Chris Patten

Benjamin Disraeli, Margaret Thatcher’s 19th-century predecessor as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, hinted that he preferred biographies to history books on the grounds that biography is “life without theory”. At the risk of provoking unrest among any surviving members of the Primrose League, I am not sure that this is correct. There is plenty of theory about biography, above all the question of whether there are great leaders who shape history or whether such figures are simply history’s foundlings, at most listening out, as Bismarck said, for “the rustle of God’s cloak”.

That this question comes immediately to the fore on reading the second volume of Charles Moore’s superb biography of Margaret Thatcher – covering the period of her pomp, from the aftermath of the Falklands campaign in 1982 to her third election victory in 1987 – reflects how she was the most partisan and domineering British prime minister in the period since the Second World War. You can avoid having a view on most people and things (even, unless you are Australian, on Marmite). But I know no one who does not have a view on Lady Thatcher, from those who in Ian McEwan’s phrase “liked disliking her”, some of them celebrating her death, to those for whom she has been a totemic focus of almost spiritual devotion and inspiration. The forceful expression of these judgements brings to mind the tripartite distinction of strong opinions offered by the authors of Yes Minister: “I am principled. You are an ideologue. He is a mindless fanatic.”

The question of Thatcher’s place in history – whether she was great and, if so, how great – can come in a moment but first what is clear is that this is a very fine biography. It is definitive and raises the question of who on earth would want to tackle this extraordinary life in the future. How much more information about “the Lady” can be loaded on to the page? Moore tells us all that most people will ever want to know. While avoiding hagiography, he is sympathetic to Thatcher’s opinions and self-image, more than some of her Conservative colleagues would have been. Yet his book is far from uncritical, not least about the way she behaved to her colleagues and the way that some of her most professional acolytes behaved, presumably with her understanding and implicit support.

Overall the book is beautifully written and very readable, even when traversing bleak economic terrain. The masses of complex detail are well organised. This marshalling of the argument is a minor triumph, given that Moore has trawled through so much material, assembling rich pickings (and some more humdrum offerings) from previously unpublished records, memoirs and conversations.

The extent of the often primary sources inevitably puts in the shade Kwasi Kwar­teng’s slim book about the six turbulent months after the 1981 Budget, culminating in the bloodletting of the autumn cabinet reshuffle that year. This has already been covered in Moore’s first volume. So far as I could tell, Kwarteng brings no new information to light, writing as he does apparently from secondary sources. The story is perfectly well told, though there are occasional lapses into “garagiste” mini-sneers about the toff-ish backgrounds of some of Thatcher’s cabinet critics. Since Kwarteng is an Old Etonian, one’s eyebrows do occasionally steeple at this. A clever MP and historian, he has written much better books than this and will doubtless write more.

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Kwarteng leaves the tale at the moment when conventional opinions hold that fortune sailed to Margaret Thatcher’s rescue in the shape of General Galtieri’s invasion of the Falklands. Certainly success in the south Atlantic helped to turn a party leader into a national prime minister and gave the Conservatives unstoppable momentum in the 1983 election campaign. Thatcher might have won anyway: the economy was starting to show signs of life by the end of 1982 and Labour, under Michael Foot, was haemorrhaging support to the “Gang of Four”.

If Galtieri’s invasion was a stroke of luck for Thatcher, it was not one that anyone welcomed at the time. Yet it was one that she seized with both hands, giving bold and competent leadership to the armed forces during the six-week campaign. She was at her best that summer. It is difficult to believe that Britain would have been better served by early surrender or later defeat. Victory helped to raise British self-confidence and international esteem, a point immediately recognised by the patriotic Michael Foot.

This is surely an example of Isaiah Berlin’s argument that greatness is often the result of making the right choices when there are other options on offer. We see that selectively in the successes and failures of what came to be called, in an un-Conservative way, Thatcherism – un-Conservative because almost the last thing a sceptical Tory should want to be associated with is an “-ism”.

There was, as Moore points out, no statement defining Thatcherism; its vagueness was part of its strength. It was for prudent financing of smaller government, for lower taxes, for choice, for free markets, for tilting the balance from the state to the individual, for Nato and for the nuclear deterrent. It was against powerful trade unions, against communism, against the “professional belittlers” of Britain who had, Thatcher believed, dominated the years of decline in the 1970s. She looked back to a golden age of British greatness founded on national sovereignty, the rule of law, hard work and distrust of foreigners (except Americans). She had deep convictions but little intellectual empathy or understanding for any other view of our island story. I imagine that she would have been horrified by much of the sentiment that underpinned the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.

Some of that “-ism” was translated into success. Both she and Ronald Reagan – from whom she could have learned a lot about man management – heard (to quote Berlin again) “the hoof-beat of history”. Privatisation and the City’s Big Bang were part of a global renaissance of capitalism that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown never wanted or dared in office to try to roll back.

It was not all good. There was insufficient competition for private-sector cartels and later events showed the folly in many cases of knocking together high-street and investment banks. Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney was funny on television but pretty deadly and very expensive when running a bank.

Overall, however, I believe that Margaret Thatcher’s economic policy helped to prevent the relative decline of Britain becoming absolute. In particular, her defeat of Arthur Scargill and his unballoted industrial action in some of Britain’s coalfields (outside Nottinghamshire, that is) helped to make the country more governable. The carefully planned campaign to defeat Scargill – the build-up of coal stocks, the salami-slicing of the laws on trade unions’ privileges – led to a bloody victory on the picket lines, which was, alas, both necessary and deeply troubling. Without that “victory”, industrial progress and worries about climate change might well have eventually closed down much of a business that put so many brave men in danger underground. But the political (and probably the economic) cost would have been much greater. For two democratic governments to have been turned out of office by the National Union of Mineworkers would have changed Britain and our economy significantly. Thatcher saw this struggle through to the end, the very bitter end. Other leaders might have given up the fight.

Elsewhere the story is more mixed. Although her relationship with Reagan and Gorbachev put her firmly on the right side of geopolitical change – and even perhaps managed to hurry it along a little – Lady Thatcher had an instinctive dislike of the virtues of internationalism and consensus-building. In practice, nevertheless, she did not scupper developments and agreements that she probably knew were inevitable, however personally disagreeable to her.

For example, she went along (with much ill grace) with the negotiation of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, which paved the way to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998. (The Brighton bombing in October 1984 made that Hillsborough negotiation more difficult.)

Her dislike of the European Union – its politics of compromise and the windy rhetoric about unlikely and even undesirable destinations – did not prevent her from accepting the single market, with its requirement of a big extension in majority voting. She accepted that we would have to quit Hong Kong but understood better than others that there was a human dimension to this and that it was pretty disagreeable for a democracy to have to hand over the territory to a totalitarian regime without ever consulting its citizens. As I discovered in due course, this admirable instinct stayed with her to the end.

In all these areas, Thatcher did what she knew she had to do, though not without a degree of self-delusion about what was happening. She also liked others’ fingerprints to be all over whatever agreement eventually captured her head – though not her heart. It was in those areas that civil servants and ministers had to try to rein in or at least inform her prejudices and convictions and not indulge them. The heroes were men (there were few women about except her personal staff) who would go along with her final decisions but not without struggling to make these decisions more sensible. They were part of an establishment that leaned heavily in the direction of intelligent compromise and international agreement: men such as the cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong, her private secretary Robin Butler, her political secretary Stephen Sherbourne, platoons of smart diplomats and – as Charles Moore describes him – the “almost saintly” David Goodall, who was the principal Promethean pushing the Anglo-Irish boulder up the hill. Goodall’s private reflections on Thatcher and her treatment of her entourage are elegantly written and full of acerbic insights. He notes the general view that she behaved like “everyone’s mother in a bad temper” but adds that she was never as rough with civil servants as with ministers.

Some of the civil servants closest to her plainly thought that the instinctive attempts by their colleagues to persuade her to shift the ground into which she had invariably dug her bunkers and artillery positions justified going beyond the customary bounds of civil-service behaviour. They were clever and industrious but they usually amplified and augmented her opinions and undermined ministers who might be in disagreement with her.

The worst example came during the Westland row, over whether Michael Heseltine should be allowed to put together a European bid to buy the ailing helicopter company. The trade and industry secretary Leon Brittan was thrown to the wolves (some of whom in the Commons plainly fed on a diet of anti-Semitism) and an excellent and honourable civil servant, Colette Bowe, was hung out to dry by some Downing Street officials. Stephen Sherbourne recalled (rather understating the point), “They were too personal to [Thatcher] and too powerful.”

Both Machiavelli and Sun Tzu believed that a leader should behave well to advisers and magnanimously to the defeated. These sentiments were foreign to Margaret Thatcher and her blind spot on this contributed significantly to public attitudes to her and her ideas. Writing about her colleagues in her memoirs, she admitted, “My biggest area of weakness was among cabinet ministers.” She had, we should remember, chosen them. Moore writes at one point, “She might have persuaded colleagues to readier collaboration if she had given them a bit more flattery and credit.”

Relations were fractious not just with Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine but with her presumed soulmates Nigel Lawson and Norman Tebbit. She behaved recklessly towards all these colleagues, insulting and belittling them, as though conviction and determination obliged a leader to be ungenerous and even offensive. Howe was a particular target for her rude rages. Described
by her closest Foreign Office adviser, Charles Powell, in a minute to his boss as “the plump chap with glasses who used to work across the road and whom we haven’t seen for a long while”, Howe was obliged again and again to eat the toads of humiliation.

The seeds of Thatcher’s downfall were planted and watered by these events – on the Exchange Rate Mechanism, on South Africa, over Northern Ireland and Europe, on industrial policy, on Westland. That particular catastrophe and the subsequent election campaign in 1987 (with Thatcher using David Young and Tim Bell to undermine the then chairman of the party, Norman Tebbit, whom she no longer trusted) show a hysterically dysfunctional party and government. Even the prime minister’s integrity, not simply her leadership competence, came to be doubted. It is hardly surprising that the disastrous poll tax emerged from this chaos.

We still live in Margaret Thatcher’s shadow. She helped to turn the tide of Britain’s accelerating decline; she redrew the lines between the state and the individual; she gave a boost to blue-collar ownership; she gave Britain a new standing and status in central and eastern Europe and elsewhere; she made Britain safe for social democracy – and then the Labour Party threw away the chance to build on this with Tony Blair’s grim adventure in Iraq and his party’s subsequent disavowal of him and all his works.

Thatcher’s Eurosceptic followers, motivated by what they thought she had done, rather than what she had actually put her name to, and increasingly egged on by her, made John Major the scapegoat for her defenestration and poisoned the Conservative Party with divisive debates that get worse by the year. Perhaps she saved Britain. The Conservative Party was not so lucky. That story awaits Moore’s final volume – fire, water, ravens, fate, doom, trumpets, drums and cymbals, Götterdämmerung. Quite something for the scholarship girl from Grantham with strong views, a whole heap of attitude and the never-ending hurt of being sneered at and patronised.

Chris Patten served in Thatcher’s cabinet as minister for overseas development and secretary of state for the environment, and was the last governor of Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants (Authorised Biog Vol 2) by Charles Moore is published by Allen Lane (£30, 880pp)

Thatcher’s Trial: Six Months That Defined a Leader by Kwasi Kwarteng is published by Bloomsbury, (£20, 272pp)


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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?