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The Iron Lady Rises

by Charles Crawford

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands, by Charles Moore (Knopf, 896 pp., $35)

It’s March 31, 1982. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a few top advisers are grappling with the grim news that Argentina has invaded the Falkland Islands. First Sea Lord Sir Henry Leach, in naval uniform, joins the meeting and asks for permission to assemble a naval task force. Charles Moore records the exchange:

“Can we do it?” asked Mrs. Thatcher with piercing urgency.

“We can, Prime Minister,” said Leach, “and, though it is not my place to say this, we must. . . . Because if we don’t do it, if we pussyfoot . . . we’ll be living in a totally different country whose word will count for little.”

At this, Leach remembered, Mrs. Thatcher gave a sort of half-smile, as if this was what she had wanted to hear.

Different people will take different things from this weighty, meticulous, and powerful biography of Margaret Thatcher. For me, the most striking aspect of the book is the way it describes the ebb and flow of rival political positions amidst competing uncertainties, and above all how difficult it is in the heat of events to attach even the strongest political convictions to specific policy choices. Many episodes in this book show that when faced with a complex decision Mrs. Thatcher often wavered, unsure how to proceed: a limpet in a stormy sea of events searching for some rock to which she could stick fast, once and for all.

Margaret Thatcher came to symbolize an almost unique style of leadership based on unwavering convictions and basic moral beliefs (work hard, live within your means, tell the truth). John Hoskyns, one of her closest advisers, called her “quite limited intellectually . . . and philosophically.” But as future chancellor Nigel Lawson said soon after the 1979 election that brought her into Downing Street, “a key to understanding Mrs. Thatcher was that she actually said what she believed.” Her supporters saw this as her huge advantage — an ability to be clear, firm, and practical. Her detractors found her simplicity banal, uncaring, dangerous.

How did a clever but unimaginative English girl, described by an Oxford University contemporary as a “rather humourless mouse,” and born above her father’s provincial grocery shop (a house with no hot water or inside toilet), become one of the most influential leaders in world history?

Charles Moore’s biography tells this story. It draws on his access to Baroness Thatcher’s private papers and unpublished family letters, many featuring the young Margaret’s excitement at scraping together money for new clothes. Without much exploring the sexism issue, it recalls problems she had as a woman rising through the political ranks (on BBC’s Any Questions program, she was asked a question about judging a woman’s intelligence by her legs) and how she enjoyed being one of very few women among powerful men.

It’s hard now to recall the awful way the United Kingdom was run after World War II. The dominating idea was fussy collectivism. Wartime controls had taken on a life of their own. The state owned huge areas of industry, and tightly rationed the money you took overseas on holiday. The state imposed wage and price controls and, as things declined, resorted to exotically stupid maneuvers, such as the Selective Employment Tax, to force investment in supposedly more productive sectors. Trade unions exerted a ghastly grip over much of the economy: We sat in candlelight when strikes turned off the nation’s power.

All this created inexorable intellectual pessimism. The book quotes John Kenneth Galbraith telling the Observer in 1975 that the wage and price controls “will be a permanent feature, both in Britain and in every other industrial nation.” As a student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1977, I was assigned academic articles insisting that the Western capitalist and Soviet Communist economic models were converging. Many people within the British Conservative party and across the wider Western establishment had internalized this way of looking at things. In confronting such orthodoxy, Margaret Thatcher came across as annoying, naïve, and immoderate. It was not only that her ideas were trivially extreme and doomed to fail; she was downright vulgar in asserting them so enthusiastically.

The book describes how she searched on both sides of the Atlantic for the heavy policy ammunition to support her free-market instincts. Visiting  Washington as Conservative leader, she startled Alan Greenspan over dinner by opening on technical monetarism: “Why is it that in Britain we don’t have M3?” Henry Kissinger liked her style but thought that she would never get elected if she stuck to her belief in articulating her position boldly and trying to get the political center to move in her direction.

The book reminds us just how long it took for “Thatcherism” to work out what it wanted to do. Even Sir Keith Joseph, her favorite Conservative thinker, had written in 1975 that “presumably we do not think that denationalization is practicable.” (The more positive word “privatization,” which would change the planet, was still to be born.)

Her first government had to find a way to get the U.K. moving again after the ignominy of the International Monetary Fund’s demand for harsh reforms. A first powerful move in 1979 was the abrupt abolition of exchange controls: People once again were free to move money into and out of the U.K. Sir Geoffrey Howe (Thatcher’s first chancellor of the exchequer) later told me how he had been sleepless with anxiety at the audacity of this reform: It seemed to take the country into totally uncharted waters. Thatcher showed no doubts. She told a financial audience that “the prison doors have been thrown open.”

Other reforms were painful. By the end of 1979, British interest rates had been raised to a giddy 17 percent, the highest nominal level in British history. Liberal U.S. chatterati warned Ronald Reagan not to follow her monetarist path. Her 1981 budget prompted mutterings of discontent at senior levels within her party. The Times of London published a letter signed by 364 economists arguing that Thatcher’s policies would “deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy, and threaten social and political stability.” But Thatcher’s tough-love reforms and monetarist discipline succeeded. The next eight years saw inflation tumble and real GDP growth average 3.2 percent, a stunning turnaround.

For Charles Moore’s inside story of how Thatcher and Reagan worked together to end Communism, we’ll have to wait for Volume Two. For now American readers can enjoy the many frank descriptions of Thatcher’s various early meetings with Presidents Carter and Reagan, and of the fierce row over U.S. laws designed to stop Western companies from supporting the USSR’s new energy pipeline to Western Europe. On the latter, two convictions collided: Reagan wanted to squeeze the USSR economically, when it suited the U.S. to do so (he had lifted the U.S. grain embargo to help Midwestern farmers); Thatcher saw U.K. jobs being lost and would not accept the extraterritorial reach of the U.S. measures. In high-end patronizing British style, British official Clive Whitmore drew on his extensive familiarity with Winnie the Pooh to record their difficult exchanges: “She began to take the view that maybe [Reagan] wasn’t quite as intelligent as she had always held him out to be. . . . He was a bear of very little brain.”

The highlight of the book for connoisseurs of Western politics is the extended account of the Falklands conflict, and how London saw the frantic moves by U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig to find a diplomatic solution. One of the best accounts of a fast-moving complex international negotiation ever written, it brings out the human angle and the role of raw emotion in top-level politics. Given what in fact happened as British troops forced total Argentine surrender, it is remarkable to read now just how far Thatcher went — under pressure from her own advisers and from Washington — to offer Buenos Aires substantive concessions. Was General Galtieri too drunk to grasp what was available?

The book shows Thatcher’s confidence and ruthlessness growing as the conflict unfolded. In the margin of a Foreign Office memo recording that “the Argentine claim is not just a matter of law but of national honour and machismo,” she wrote: “According to the Foreign Office our national honour does not seem to matter!?” Ronald Reagan’s team found her success impressive but also irritating. When she visited Washington in June 1982, they briefed Reagan to urge her to be magnanimous in victory. Reagan’s draft speaking notes have a U.S. official noting that she had already “blasted this position to smithereens” on two U.S. networks before the two leaders met to talk about it. Here, as on many other occasions, Thatcher used her friendship with Reagan flatly to disagree with him.

The book is also worth buying for its many superb quotes. Thatcher heatedly exclaims that “we must defend Christian values with the ATOM BOMB!” And the Queen deftly tells the archbishop of Canterbury what was wrong with the controversial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Falklands were recaptured: “I don’t think that you should ever leave a Christian service feeling sad.”

I met Lady Thatcher several times after she left office. In 2009 John and Melissa O’Sullivan kindly included my wife and me in a small, private dinner with her in London. She was frail but in lively form, frequently going back to her oldest Methodist pieties. There was a cheering consensus that Jesus had been “sound” in his conservative principles. She wistfully said that she was so grateful to have friends who appreciated her work: “No one ever says thank you to politicians.”

Well, some of us do. Thank you, Lady Thatcher, for your grasp of moral and political principle. Thank you for being one of very few leaders in our lifetime who truly stood athwart history, yelling Stop!

– Mr. Crawford served with the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office throughout Mrs. Thatcher’s period as prime minister and was subsequently British ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Warsaw. He is on Twitter (@CharlesCrawford) and his website is www.charlescrawford.biz.

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