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An American Prime Minister

Thatcher biographer Charles Moore is a rare artist indeed.

By From the September 2013 issue

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Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands
By Charles Moore
(Knopf, 857 pages, $35)

IN A MAY 1988 diary column for the London Spectator, Charles Moore came clean: “I cannot wholly admire a woman who gave a job, however minor, to Mr Jeffrey Archer. I agree that this Government does not understand why universities matter. There are too many economists, sophists and calculators around, and not enough proper Tories.” The “woman” here is of course Margaret Thatcher, whose authorized biographer Moore was to become some eight years later. I quote them here because they remind us that, as Edward Heath, Arthur Scargill, and even Ronald Reagan were to learn, with Mrs. Thatcher all bets are off. Even the man who would one day be chosen to chronicle her life once had his doubts about her.

For American observers, to whom the Tory mind has been an object of bemusement, antipathy, or both for two centuries now, it is difficult to understand Moore’s objections—to say nothing of those voiced by such disaffected stand-pats as Auberon Waugh, Michael Wharton (who actually sided with Scargill during the miners’ strike), and A.N. Wilson. Our nostrils do not flare at the whiff of Whiggery or the effluvium of Philistia; we are reassurred rather than repulsed by the idea that Mrs. Thatcher’s was, to repurpose Yeats’ phrase, a “levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind” neither animated by Tory prejudice nor graced by Tory flexibility. Reagan’s children, would-be builders of Shining Cities on Hills, equate conservative governance with dynamism rather than quiescence, action rather than obstruction, and reform rather than reaction or, much less, restoration. What, we wonder, could possibly have been wrong with a woman who went about thumping desks with Hayek paperbacks?

The first volume of Moore’s authorized biography of Lady Thatcher, published less than a month after her death, might have been the occasion for speculation of this kind on the part of reviewers. After all, the story of Thatcher’s rise from grocer’s daughter to head of Her Majesty’s Government was already, in its barest outline anyway, well known. Alas, most American reviewers of this book have simply rehashed this familiar narrative. This is a pity, not least because Moore’s book—astonishingly his first—is a masterpiece of the biographer’s art. A.N. Wilson, who urged readers of the Spectator to hold their noses and vote Labour in 1988 but has since changed his mind, insisting that Thatcher was “the best Prime Minister of our lifetime,” has called it the greatest English political biography since Morley’s Life of Gladstone, an accolade the justness of which I, who have admittedly only dipped into Lord Morley’s out-of-print trio of doorstoppers, unfortunately cannot weigh.

This initial volume is a biography in the strictest sense: a reasonably sympathetic account of a life, rather than a personal or political polemic arguing the Thatcher case, pro or anti. Thus, while I for one remain skeptical of many of Thatcher’s achievements in office (especially the steps she took towards privatization of the railways and her de facto replacement of subsidized coal mining with subsidized methadone consumption in South Wales, both of which came after the events covered here), in the course of reading this book I found myself falling into sympathy with her personally. What sort of woman have I fallen for? A poor speller, for one thing (Moore sprinkles sic into the early letters as if peppering a bland stew); a student whose dogged study habits allowed her to succeed at all sorts of subjects, music included, without really being interested in any of them; a fast reader; a self-consciously smart dresser in the way that only clever girls from small towns can be; a devoted, though unambitious, home cook; an eminently practical person who was also a good judge of intellectuals and their relative merits; an able political operator whose upbringing had taught her “that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all,” but who was also savvy enough to recognize that time and chance are often what we make of them: a walking monument to sang-froid who nevertheless smiled beautifully.

Like all good biographies, Moore’s book both tells us a great many previously unknown things about its subject and, perhaps more importantly, makes it clear that many of the things we already thought we knew about its subject are false. We learn all about her pre-Dennis love life (including the distinctly creepy story of her pawning off a Scotch farmer who had asked for her own hand in marriage on her sister Muriel), her fussiness about her weight (at one time over 160 pounds), and her drinking habit, which was more serious than one might have guessed. Moore is also admirably forthcoming about Thatcher’s considerable intellectual debt to Enoch Powell, whom she once called “the greatest parliamentarian of the twentieth century.” The admiration was not mutual: Powell was at best a Thatcher skeptic, and he sparred with her over everything from tactical nuclear weapons (“an unmitigated absurdity,” he said in 1970) to the “values” undergirding Western Civ. (“No, we do not fight for values. I would fight for this country even if it had a communist government.”) In 1975 Powell attributed her victory in the Conservative leadership contest to “luck” and her “supremely unattractive opponents.” Later at the height of the Falklands crisis he teased on the floor of the House of Commons that the nation would soon learn “of what metal she is made.”

Mrs. Thatcher’s legendary inflexibility turns out to be at least partly legendary. Contrary to popular belief, she did not not negotiate with IRA terrorists, though her talks with them were always conducted in total secrecy. Whatever she thought of Keynes as an economist, she certainly agreed with him in re that old gag of his about what to do with one’s mind when the facts change. Oddly enough, the idea that she was the sort of person who, like Milton’s Satan, was defined by her “courage never to submit or yield,” even when it was in her best interests, seems to have been put about by her admirers, who have some very strange ideas about what human characteristics are endearing in politicians, much less in people in general. This seems especially strange to me given that her obstinacy over the poll tax was more or less her undoing.

Here are a few other misconceptions that Moore clears up: Mrs. Thatcher took elocution lessons not, as is commonly asserted, in order to shake off her Lincolnshire accent, but rather because she lisped. The cut-glass Received Pronunciation we are so used to hearing on her lips was a byproduct, rather than itself the intended result, of this instruction. The famous shrillness, however, was not; this came later, as Kingsley Amis attests in his memoirs and as her appearance, in 1978, on Desert Island Discs makes clear. This appearance, a plume in the late Roy Plumley’s many-feathered cap, might have been worth a sentence or two—but then again, at 857 pages excluding notes, perhaps not. There are good reasons that Moore was chosen, not least because his instincts about what to   mention and what to let pass are very strong.

Moore’s attention to detail is also evident throughout, such as when he catches Henry Kissinger in a lie—or, in Moore’s own more charitable interpretation, a misremembrance—about Thatcher’s first visit to the United States as leader of the opposition: Kissinger claimed that he gave six dinners for the virtually unknown leader of a foreign political party; actually he gave her one, which is still one more than Jimmy Carter stood her. Moore’s account of how during the same early visit Carter sat with the stolidness of a jar of peanut butter listening to Thatcher’s defense of Ian Smith is brief but delicious.

MAYA ANGELOU FAMOUSLY declared Bill Clinton America’s “first black president,” thereby suggesting that most African Americans have loose morals, poor eating habits, and a certain amount of musical talent. I would like to suggest, only half-facetiously, that, if thrift, tough-mindedness, and, above all, honest, manful effort are still those things that characterize the silent majority of Americans, then Margaret Thatcher, who, whatever her shortcomings, apotheosized all of these, may have been Britain’s first American prime minster—hence our astonishment at how dim a view “proper Tories” took of her at the time. Whether there is space for an American premier in the High Tory pantheon is a question that, along with other important ones concerning Thatcher’s legacy, may well be answered in Moore’s forthcoming second volume. It cannot arrive soon enough.

Two minor—very minor—complaints: Moore’s notes are difficult to read due to the lack of space between them, and short capsule biographies of at least some of the hundreds of actors appearing in these pages would have been welcome. 

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About the Author

Matthew Walther is assistant editor of The American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator (London), National Review, the American Conservative, the Weekly Standard, the Daily Beast, the Salisbury Review (where he writes the quarterly "Letter From America" column), First ThingsTouchstoneProspect, Quadrant, the Millions, the Washington Times, and other publications. He lives with his wife, Lydia, in Alexandria, Virginia.