Magazine | March 14, 2016, Issue

Maggie in Charge

Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith: In London, Washington, and Moscow, by Charles Moore (Knopf, 880 pp., $35)

Charles Moore ended the first volume of his authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher with his heroine — and it would be foolish to think of her in any other way — at a moment of triumph after three turbulent years of political, economic, and military struggle as prime minister. She had just pronounced the traditional dinner-party request “Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies” to the otherwise all-male guests at the Falklands victory dinner for the war cabinet and senior military officers. It was, wrote Moore, perhaps the happiest moment of her life.

It also marked the beginning of what was recognizably a second phase in her career as prime minister and Tory leader. After her victorious leadership in the Falklands, she was dominant politically both in her party and in the nation. The U.K. economy — the main focus of Thatcherite reform, and of joint Tory Wet–Labour resistance — had already turned the corner late in 1981, even if this would not become clear for some time. Her reshuffling of her cabinet, also in 1981, had given her an economic team agreed on maintaining the essentials of policy. But this was reversible; the Wets retained a strong position in the full cabinet. Her firm anti-Soviet alliance with Ronald Reagan was looking prophetic as the Soviet Union ramped up its campaign to prevent the installation of U.S. missiles in Western Europe to offset its own SS-20s across the Iron Curtain. But the Labour party was swinging left, toward a nuclear unilateralism and a “peace movement” that seemed to be sweeping Europe.

What the Falklands victory did was to settle these broad questions of economic and foreign policy in Mrs. Thatcher’s favor for most of the following decade. She had almost a free hand to determine policy if she was clear-sighted about what was at stake and determined to prevail. A first fruit of this dominance was her landslide in the 1983 election, over a Labour party so left-wing that one of its leading front-benchers called its manifesto “the longest suicide note in history.” Her majority of 144 in a 650-member House of Commons entrenched that dominance. It lasted until a year or two beyond her third election victory in 1987, which is where the second volume ends. And it is crisply expressed in the subtitle of the book’s U.K. edition: “Everything She Wants.”

That subtitle is not entirely accurate: Mrs. Thatcher meets occasional reverses, as we learn, and the reasons for them are illuminating. But the overwhelming impression left by Moore’s second volume is that the second Thatcher administration was one of the most creative legislatively, successful economically, and influential internationally in British history. Merely to list its major achievements is to demonstrate a deep transformation — or perhaps, more accurately, a deep restoration — of Britain, its economic standing, and its worldwide influence. They include the government’s unambiguous defeat of the miners’ strike, a defeat that restored the constitutional stability of British democracy against what had been the realistic fear (and memory) of anti-democratic union power; the acceptance and use of labor reforms that brought unions within the law and dramatically reduced the number of days lost in strike action; the privatization revolution that turned loss-incurring state-owned industries into taxpaying private ones and laid the basis for wider share ownership and popular capitalism and created a new industry in U.K. financial companies that exported their knowledge and skills in privatizing to governments around the world; the transfer of Hong Kong to China by Britain (which was inevitable, given the local realities of power in Asia) on terms that, however fragile, have preserved elements of liberal democracy in the former colony; Mrs. Thatcher’s personal diplomacy toward the Soviet Union, an initiative that — once the Soviet threat receded with the installation of U.S. missiles in Western Europe — sought out a Soviet leader with whom the West could do business, discovered and cultivated Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced him to Ronald Reagan, and worked with both to wind down the Cold War; and, above all, the gradual but strong recovery of the U.K. economy from its “winter of discontent” in 1979 to become the fifth-largest economy in the world.

Moore quotes a memory from Bernard Ingham, the prime minister’s loyal and highly competent spinmeister, of sitting one afternoon in Downing Street shortly before the 1987 election, when the various economic indices had for several successive months been pointing in the same favorable direction: “She seemed to experience a moment of pure joy. She believed that, at last, her policies really were working.”

They were. Moore rightly warns himself against retailing the Thatcherite myth encapsulated in the two previous paragraphs. But that myth is not false, merely partial and inadequate. It doesn’t cover a lot of other things, including some failures of policy, and it doesn’t really offer an explanation of how things started to go wrong. Moore provides explanations of both in a narrative that, though it sounds complex, gives the reader a consistently clear understanding of what his subject was feeling, saying, fearing, expecting, hoping for, deciding, and occasionally failing to decide in the maelstrom of events competing for her attention.

We start reading in 1982 and we end in 1987; chapters follow each other in broad chronological order. Each chapter between those dates is built around a major topic, such as the Anglo–Irish Agreement or Grenada (“Reagan Plays Her False”). Moore draws on the fullest possible range of information: Mrs. Thatcher’s own observations (at the time and in her memoirs), the evidence of the archives (both those in the Cabinet Office and those meticulously maintained by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation), other official documents, interviews of others involved (from senior U.S. officials to the prime minister’s detectives), media reporting at the time, and much more. He unearths new information, corrects errors, and reconciles contradictions (or points out that they are irreconcilable). We get a complete education on these topics and on the entire period.

At the same time, each chapter has to touch on many other topics — as various as her resistance to sanctions on South Africa and the poll-tax riots — alongside the central one. Moore reminds us from time to time of the demands this helter-skelter of events made on his central character: While Mrs. Thatcher was waiting to hear how U.S. planes flying from British bases to bomb Libya had fared, for instance, she also had to calculate how to handle the defeat of a bill to approve Sunday trading.

It takes a very special temperament and mind to live with such conflicting pressures, let alone thrive on them as she did. Mrs. Thatcher was treated with contempt by the progressive intellectuals of her day, such as playwright Alan Bennett and director/physician Jonathan Miller, who felt that she was narrow, suburban, vulgar, intellectually limited, and snobbish. It is hard to imagine that such a cramped person could function at the top of a major government, let alone dominate it. In reality, Margaret Thatcher was not a carrier of snobbery but its victim, “the point at which all snobberies [i.e., feminist, socialist, academic, and cultural] met,” as Thatcher defender Professor John Vincent, quoted by Moore, puts it. Some of her critics long ago retracted their remarks. If they had not done so, their condescension could hardly survive the picture of Thatcher that emerges from Moore’s book. She was plainly a woman of great energy and ability, clear-minded, constantly inquisitive and learning, highly flexible in adapting to the changing press of business, who mastered and digested her briefs across the full range of government policy but was not overly reliant on them. I can recall one occasion on which, facing a senior defense minister accompanied by top military brass, she picked up on a fatal flaw in their highly technical paper that none of her advisers, who enjoyed much greater time and leisure, had noticed. The military beat a prudent retreat.

The nature of her mind was nonetheless often a mystery to those who worked with her. She sometimes made or rejected an argument, it seemed to them, against its apparent logic. Usually that was because she intuited an error that she couldn’t yet articulate. So she worried away at the problem until she had solved the mystery. Until she had done so, she was hesitant and cautious; when she had done so, she was firm and even aggressive in making her case.

In the course of thinking things through, she would make occasional little leaps of logic that confounded or amused others. Moore has a footnote describing how she asked an officer in the intelligence services whether they employed forgers. Sometimes we do, he admitted.

“How do you check their references?” she responded.

I recall a similar moment at parliamentary Question Time. A Labour backbencher asked if she was aware that Len Murray of the Trades Union Congress had said that meeting her was like “a dialogue of the deaf.”

“Really, I had no idea that Mr. Murray was deaf,” she replied.

Mrs. Thatcher was famous for having a very small sense of humor, but she had a quick wit, and a quick mind, and a temperamental caution that kept both under control.

Caution is almost always a political virtue, and it helps to explain many of her most significant achievements, such as the defeat of the miners’ strike. She yielded to the demands of the mineworkers’ union — until there was enough coal mined, stored, and distributed to enable the government to withstand a long strike.

But when caution became indecisiveness, as it did on a few occasions when she hadn’t made up her mind on an important question, or wanted to resist pressure for a policy she disliked without an open row, or hoped that it would simply run into the sands of bureaucracy, it caused her serious difficulties.

One curious example, given that it is usually cited as one of her successes, is the Anglo–Irish Agreement. She was never keen to pursue this, and in doing so she was yielding to strong pressures from her civil servants in the Cabinet Office and Foreign Office. Their conscious justification was that an inter-governmental agreement between Dublin and London would undermine support for the IRA and other terrorist groups. But there is no doubt that the advisers concerned were sympathetic to Irish nationalism in a way their boss wasn’t and that, in effect, they conspired with senior Irish civil servants to drag her, protesting, toward a policy that made her uneasy.

Once she had agreed to start the diplomatic process, however, she had to move toward something. And because she had no destination of her own in mind, even the Iron Lady found it hard to avoid endorsing the Whitehall–Dublin consensus that involved installing Irish-government advisers within the Northern Ireland administration. Not only did she feel uneasy about this, but she also felt guilty because the Northern Ireland Unionists had been kept in the dark about the talks while the constitutional Irish nationalists were fully informed by the Irish side. As a result, the agreement was denounced in harsh terms by Unionists and seemed stillborn for some time.

It is now seen as a success because it led eventually to the Good Friday Agreement. Instead of undermining terrorists, however, the GFA made them respectable. Sinn Fein/IRA is now a permanent part of the Northern Ireland government and, as the latest polls show, the third or second party in the forthcoming elections in the Republic. Neither Thatcher nor her advisers would have hoped for that result. Why did she agree to a solution she distrusted? Why did she not resist more firmly, or propose a different policy? As Moore (who is critical of her on this policy) points out, she didn’t know enough to do so and, with all her other responsibilities, she wasn’t ready to devote enough time to finding out. But if you set out on a journey without either a destination or a map, you might end up in places you would never want to go.

Her two other major indecisions had a more powerful impact on the future of her government. In a prefiguring of the conflicts that brought her down five years later, the prime minister had clashes with senior ministers on two successive days in late 1985. One of them threatened her immediate political survival; the other undermined the long-term health of her government.

The Westland Affair, ostensibly a dispute about how a failing helicopter company should best be rescued, began as an attempt by the defense minister, Michael Heseltine, to craft his own “European” industrial policy against that of the industry minister. He ran roughshod over cabinet rules. Mrs. Thatcher recognized this as a power grab that ultimately threatened her. Wanting to avoid an open conflict, however, she took no decisive action until the crisis metastasized into a public row between ministers, when she allowed her staff to “leak” confidential legal advice to weaken Heseltine in a subterranean way. It had the opposite effect, making her look uncharacteristically devious. Heseltine resigned from the cabinet, apparently impulsively, but she had to face a parliamentary censure motion that might have brought her down. She made a clever forensic case for the defense and survived, but it had been an intimation of political mortality.

On the day before the Westland crisis came to a boil, Mrs. Thatcher had resisted efforts by Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, supported by other ministers, to join the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism. Thatcher’s alliance with Lawson, initially rooted in their joint support for the monetarist strategy he had devised, had been the linchpin of the second Thatcher administration. It meant that there was no substantial opposition to economic policy within the government. Lawson had come to believe, however, that the fight against inflation needed additional discipline to make monetary policy more credible and the task of reducing inflationary expectations easier. He proposed joining the ERM, to effectively link monetary policy to German firmness via the exchange rate. Joining the ERM “when the time is ripe” had long been official policy, but he proposed to do so now and recruited senior ministers in support.

Though Mrs. Thatcher instinctively disliked the ERM, she had never opposed it in principle. She was suspicious of it on both economic and “European” grounds, but was still at the stage of worrying the question to death, while taking refuge in the argument that the time was not yet ripe. And because she did not expect the meeting to be a crucial one, she stuck to this formula and, against the trend of the discussion, won an indefinite postponement. The meeting was an acrimonious failure. She felt ambushed; Lawson felt humiliated; his ministerial supporters felt that she was acting unreasonably; a decision on ERM membership was still on the table, with the potential for later disputes (which indeed occurred in the third term); and the close confidence between Thatcher and Lawson had been severely damaged.

It would have been better if she had called for papers and a meeting on the principle of joining the ERM and fought this issue out openly. Sticking to the “when the time is ripe” formula was a recipe for dithering that created more friction between ministers without resolving it. Moore’s concluding thoughts on this offer an unhappy balance of different judgments:

History later showed that, as Terry Burns [a senior government adviser who was a Lawson supporter] put it, “she was fundamentally correct about this issue all the way through,” but being right is not necessarily the same as governing well. The Thatcher–Lawson clash made it increasingly difficult to run the British economy, and the British government, properly.

Misjudgment and failure are, alas, inevitable in government. And these two hesitant misjudgments are exceptions to Mrs. Thatcher’s overall record of calculated bravery leading to success, which, in Moore’s telling, includes some surprises, such as her sustained pressure on South Africa’s apartheid government to release Nelson Mandela and move toward a peaceful transfer of power. It is interesting, moreover, that the misjudgments occur in the area of man management, where, as in her fatally dismissive treatment of Geoffrey Howe, she lacked a sure touch (though it must be said that the British political world, in which one’s closest colleagues are also one’s bitterest rivals, is not conducive to confident psychological judgments). And whatever the long-term damage to her political prospects, neither Westland nor the ERM dispute prevented Thatcher from winning her third election victory two years later and securing her reputation in history.

The first volume of Moore’s work has already established its reputation as a classic, one of the finest political biographies ever written. This second volume will entrench that judgment. So complete is its coverage of both the life and the work of its subject, so thorough the research supporting its narrative, so fair-minded its adjudication of her disputes with colleagues and opponents, and so lucidly readable its prose that it is all but impossible to imagine its portrait of Margaret Thatcher being substantially revised by future historians or because of new archival discoveries. That portrait, with all the faults, misjudgments, pettiness, and other warts she sometimes displayed, is of a truly great woman who achieved great things for her country and the world, against great odds.

We leave her at the end of this volume on the morrow of a third election victory with most of her achievements already accomplished. Ahead lie more disappointments than successes. Among the former is the bittersweet climax of her prime-ministerial life, when she learns she faces political defeat and loss of office while attending the Paris conference that marked the peaceful end of the Cold War, an end she did so much to bring about. And beyond that: depression, rallying herself, a Lady in the Lords, the writing of memoirs, her haunting of the Tory party, a political resurrection internationally, prophetic utterances on Europe, the lioness in winter, and the third volume of this biography.

In Mr. Moore’s skilled telling, it could be the most gripping tale of all.

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