New Thatcher biog: A vivid account of a complex character

Tom Welsh
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SO MUCH has already been said about Margaret Thatcher that yet another book on the subject may seem futile. She wrote extensively, and was arguably the first Prime Minister to also enjoy a fully-recorded life beyond print. Her speeches are on YouTube; her political battles and relationships depicted in countless dramas (The Long Walk to Finchley being the best); her ideological development detailed in the excellent Tory, Tory, Tory.

Yet the first volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography is more than just another Thatcher chronicle. It’s a monumental work of scholarship, drawing on thousands of documents, on interviews with those who knew her (including her sister Muriel Cullen and US President George H W Bush), and on the previously-unseen diaries of her (apparently reticent) early supporter Airey Neave. Although Moore was asked to write the book by Thatcher, she was not allowed to read it and “regarded it with the same lack of interest which she usually showed in her own past.” As a result, it manages to be a cool-headed analysis, while possessed of the full set of facts.

The book fills 800 pages, and only reaches 1982. But length is inevitable. We now know of Thatcher as either national saviour or vandal. But in politics, one thing merely follows another, so Moore avoids the temptation to just draw from her life evidence of the icon she would eventually become. Her convictions were certainly firm throughout, but she twisted and adapted. She once supported tariffs (not free trade), was initially reticent to attack union militancy pre-1979, and was hesitant about the famous 1981 Budget (which was attacked by 364 economists in The Times).

Others have jumped on a naive note from 1949 – that she “SAW PRINCESS ELIZABETH, AND SHE SAW ME!” (referring to our now Queen) – as evidence that Thatcher became a leader, rather than was born one. But Moore never allows her final triumphs to seem inevitable. When adopted as candidate for Finchley, she “probably (unknowingly) won her way to Parliament through fraud”, after the counter decided to “lose” two votes for a rival. When Jim Callaghan narrowly lost a confidence vote in 1979 (after Irish nationalists stayed away), arguably “IRA supporters were the occasion of Thatcher’s victory”.

Yet even for those without an interest in the struggles of the period, the book should be of interest. Moore captures the electricity of one woman – “the most missionary of all modern Prime Ministers” who “never sat down to define her mission or to plan its implementation”. A workaholic who would “work, or talk about work” until two in the morning but who, when in Washington, longed to dance and see the floodlit monuments. A liberator of the working classes who admired the aristocratic former Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, and had no original “desire to turn everything upside down”. A serious leader, terrified of unwittingly making a double entendre, but capable of great wit.

Moore’s book is a reminder that her life and struggles were more complex than we often allow. It’s a remarkable tapestry of a remarkable woman.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M. Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume One, by Charles Moore (Allen Lane £30) is out now.

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