Just before entering 10 Downing Street as prime minister for the first time, Margaret Thatcher quoted St Francis of Assisi on the need for harmony, truth, faith and hope. The prayer had been passed to her at the last minute by an adviser; it turned out to be not by Francis but a 19th-century admirer, and was received with embarrassment by her friends and cynicism by her foes. Nevertheless, the Methodist lay preacher’s daughter signalled that she was true to a faith which laid a very English emphasis on duty to God and ethical behaviour, though without alluding to spirituality or sacraments.
With all boxed up and neatly labelled, she set out to revive the economy and free the country from the unions’ grip. She then failed to prevent the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, and astonished the international community by winning them back. A Soviet slur about the “Iron Lady” turned into the awed opinion of the world.
The second volume of Charles Moore’s magnificent biography, which I have just been reading, opens with Margaret Thatcher being forced to accept that, having saved one part of the Empire, she was unable to save another. Reluctantly conceding that, for security reasons, Britain could not refuse to hand back Hong Kong to communist China, she nevertheless obtained an agreement that its economic miracle would continue after Britain’s withdrawal in 1997. She was humiliated by the US invasion of the communist-run island of Grenada without warning or legal justification. But a few words with a chastened President Reagan left their close relationship intact so that she could dissuade him from bargaining away Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, while both continued to work on President Gorbachev.
In other hands this deeply researched book, drawing on interviews, diaries, transcripts of phone calls to Reagan and comments scribbled on the briefs submitted to her, could have become a tombstone work focused on politics and diplomacy. But Moore has produced a powerful essay of great freshness which is also a touching personal story. He shows the price she paid for her career: her unease about giving her children too little of her time, and her acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the knowledge that it could let down the Protestant cause and weaken the union.
Hated by the trade unions, she was an object of exasperation both to her fellow European leaders and most Foreign Office mandarins who, whatever their doubts, remained committed to the swelling federal project. She eventually realised it was a terrible mistake, telling friends after she had lost power that Britain should leave the EU.
While capable of enormous concentration, her dominating personality often made her unaware of consequences, such as the weakening of legislative support for marriage and the fundamental political aims in the Single Market Act.
Some of her measures touched the electorate’s deepest instincts, such as the Sunday shopping laws, which the present Government has failed to introduce again, and the poll tax, which six centuries before had led an archbishop and chancellor of the exchequer to be torn apart by an enraged mob. Similarly, she could not recognise that people have a religious sensibility which is different from political and economic concerns. When handed a candle at the Zagorsk monastery in Moscow, she had to be told to light it and place it on a stand, with a prayer.
Moore shows that, for all her reputation as a hard woman, she had a soft heart. She wept when British soldiers were killed and wrote handwritten letters to their widows. After escaping the Brighton bomb she prayed with her dresser.
At first her luck held. Then gradually it curdled after the row over Westland helicopters led to the resignation of her pro-European minister Michael Heseltine. The Commonwealth prime ministers ganged up on her for not agreeing to sanctions against apartheid South Africa, with moral support coming only from the lone white South African MP, Helen Suzman.
As her third general election approached in 1987 the strain told. Moore, whom she chose to be her biographer, is a strong admirer. But he does not hide her faults and petty dishonesties or the incoherent bullying of her confused ministers and advisers when she believed that she was going to lose, instead of winning by 102 seats. By then those close to her sympathised with the public exasperation summed up by the letters “TBW” (That Bloody Woman), and most recognised that her frazzled state meant she would never fight another campaign.
The concluding volume of this work is destined to be a melancholy account of her ejection from office by her own MPs and her slide into Alzheimer’s disease. By the time it is published we may know whether her influence from beyond the grave can help to reverse our slide into a European destiny.
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume Two by Charles Moore (Penguin, £30)
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