As the sun rose on Friday, June 12, 1987, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister and set to be the longest-serving premier of the 20th century, ascended to the peak of her political career. To the peak of her life, actually. She had won a third election victory, a landslide.
It was an extraordinary height to have reached, but after this all was downhill. Gently at first, but then gathering pace. And Charles Moore with this third and final volume — from 1987 to his subject’s death, in 2013 — of his authorised biography has therefore told a story of triumph and of tragedy.
Beginning of the End
In 1987 Thatcher still had a quarter of her time in office left, more time than Theresa May spent in 10 Downing Street altogether. She felt herself only part of the way through her agenda. She also thought herself only part of the way through a tenure that, in her mind, stretched out indefinitely. In 1989, noticing she was “getting terribly, terribly tired”, her husband, Denis, talked to her about identifying a departure date.
Moore says she “was disposed to listen”, but then consulted Willie Whitelaw. Her former deputy was worried her resignation would split the party, so she followed her natural inclination to stay on. “Then of course we had rows over the whole damn thing, and that really upset her. And that’s the first time her nerve began to go a bit,” Denis said. “Well, maybe we’ll scrape by,” he concluded, unconvinced.
On election night Thatcher had told staff at Conservative Central Office that the next task was to tackle “those inner cities”. Yet she was much more uncertain in the area of social policy than she had been on economic policy earlier in the decade. The heart of Thatcherism was to empower strong individuals and families, removing from them the constraints imposed by a pessimistic and weak establishment through the state. It was much more, to use the word Moore employs, a “disposition” than an ideology. And that made it hard sometimes to decide what it meant.
Thatcher was much more uncertain in the area of social policy than she had been on economic policy.
That uncertainty was, in earlier years, obvious when dealing with interest rate policy. Nigel Lawson, her chancellor, said she was “completely schizoid” on this. Thatcherism meant keeping rates down so that homeowners could look after their households. But it also meant keeping rates up so that prices were stable, a basic condition for the successful businessperson to thrive. After 1987 it also meant being uncertain how to strike the balance on private pensions. Too little freedom penalised enterprise, too much undermined thrift.
Thatcher, as Moore portrays her, was often unsure how to proceed — clear what she thought, but not always sure how to best decide when her instincts clashed with each other. She also always had strong political instincts, particularly where the interests of “her” people — the Tory-minded aspiring middle class — were engaged. And this also complicated decisions.
One civil servant described how she “sniffed the air”. She delayed abolishing the dock labour scheme when everyone else was ready to act because, she told them, “the weather is cold and a bit depressing”. She decided to defer “until the daffodils are out”.
Yet once she had decided, she would be resolute. Even stubborn. And so it proved with her signature policy for the inner cities — the community charge, or as it became known, the poll tax. The idea was to liberate the initiative and sense of responsibility of city dwellers from the dead hand of left-wing councils. The simplicity of the charge would make a direct link in the minds of voters between their profligate local councillors and high tax bills. They would get rid of the former, be freed from the latter and thrive.
It didn’t work out like that. Early on it became obvious that complicated transitional arrangements would be needed to ensure taxpayers didn’t face huge new bills, and these arrangements would completely undermine the purpose of the tax. In the end the very voters Thatcher was keenest to encourage faced vast increases anyway and, predictably, they were furious.
It is astonishing that Thatcher didn’t seem to understand this and back away from what was clearly a political disaster. Two things stopped her. The first was that her political instincts were, at last, beginning to fail her. Resolve had been so successful for her — and continued to be in, for instance, advancing durable education reforms — that she couldn’t see when it was the wrong position. The lady wasn’t for turning when she should have been.
The second problem was that she needed the chancellor to help to bail out a failing policy, and her relationship with Lawson was breaking down. Having failed in 1985 to persuade her to join the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, Lawson had started shadowing the deutschmark without telling her. When she realised — having been shown a chart by journalists — battle was joined and everybody lost. Lawson ended up resigning, then Geoffrey Howe, and finally Thatcher lost office. A war began on the right over Europe that, 30 years later, hasn’t abated.
She delayed abolishing the dock labour scheme because “the weather is cold and a bit depressing,” deferring “until the daffodils are out.”
Moore’s handling of the political differences, personal slights and misunderstandings is never less than excellent. As is his description of the great triumph of the end of communism, in which his subject had played such a vital role and for which she remains justly celebrated in many liberated countries.
And so the tale of her political career hurtles to its dramatic conclusion: her removal from office by Conservative MPs at the end of 1990. The account is riveting in its detail, with Moore finding new sources — diaries, contemporary notes — to bring fresh life and facts to the story. It astonishes, for instance, that her chief whip, Tim Renton, did not vote for her.
Here is the one place where I did depart from Moore’s judgment. He accepts the view, which she held tenaciously, that there was a “conspiracy” against her and that John Major was at the heart of it. The facts, as set out by the author, do not support this case. It isn’t at all clear how Major is supposed to have taken part in this. Did he ring round? Send letters? By ESP, perhaps?
Thatcher’s cabinet did not support her because she had reached the end of the road. When she left No 10 she had been there longer than anywhere in her adult life. She couldn’t work the remote control on the television, had never left a message on an answerphone, didn’t have any money in her bank account. She had become intolerably rude to colleagues and started to become tired and irritable. It was time to go.
Her disorientation in the days after her departure from No 10 provides more than a hint that she had reached the end. It is true that it would have been much better for the Conservative Party if she had realised this herself. But she didn’t and she never would have. The coup against her was much more a natural eruption than a careful conspiracy.
Nevertheless, it is sad to read the account of her last years. Not so much the ill health of her final years, but the earlier period after leaving office when she found it hard to keep busy. She had no real hobbies, she didn’t play any sports and her children hardly visited her. Her hosts often felt it was like having a member of the royal family to stay because you didn’t know what to do with her and constantly had to find activities. Late in life, at the country estate of one admirer, she used to sit for hours in front of a Victorian painting, The Leamington Hunt (Mr Harry Bradley’s Hounds). She found it therapeutic to count the dogs.
She couldn’t work a remote control, didn’t have any money in her bank account.
At home she found it hard to deal with practical things. She rang her former Downing Street principal private secretary Charles Powell one Saturday morning complaining that her hot water didn’t work. Powell suggested getting a plumber, but she didn’t know how. He proposed looking in the Yellow Pages, but she didn’t know how to do that either. In the end Powell had to go round and fix the hot water. This was an obvious job for her children, but they weren’t to be seen. Mark did come occasionally, but her carers felt that a rare visit from Mark was too many visits. More uplifting was that it became obvious in retirement that her status as a world stateswoman was likely to last, something that understandably gave her great satisfaction.
Moore’s Margaret Thatcher is one of the truly great biographies. Throughout the three volumes it has been comprehensive and subtle, breaking new ground while being surefooted on familiar terrain. He provides a portrait of Thatcher — her anxiousness and her certainty, her strength and her frailty — that is surprising and fresh while still convincing. This volume completes a historical masterpiece.