Charles Moore’s masterful biography shows how Thatcher rejected “isms” before eventually giving rise to oneby David Frum / May 22, 2013 / Leave a comment
Thatcher queuing for an autograph from the actress Patricia Dainton at Dartford Fete, 1951 (© Tophams/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images)
Margaret Thatcher; The Authorised Biography, Volume 1 By Charles Moore (Allen Lane, £30)
Charles Moore is a master of deadpan. His admiration for Margaret Thatcher does not inhibit his awareness of the comic side of her personality. As an authorised biographer, Moore obtained not only access to Thatcher’s papers, but also many hours of interview time. This latter opportunity, Moore remarks, was rendered less of an advantage than it might seem by Thatcher’s characteristic lack of interest in her personal history.
“On one occasion, I asked her a question about her mother’s occupations. She replied that her mother had been a good seamstress and ‘she did wonderful voluntary work. And that’s the thing about the women of Britain—they do wonderful voluntary work—not like French women,’ and before I could stop her, she had made her escape from the uncongenial private subject to the area of political generalisation which she preferred.”
The humour decorates what will be for generations the definitive study of Thatcher’s life and career. As a friend of Charles Moore’s, I’ve witnessed this book’s long gestation. What a splendid thing to see it delivered into full and enduring life.
This first volume tells the story from birth to apogee, victory in the Falklands and re-election as prime minister in 1983. It is a work of gripping narrative intensity that also takes time to correct minute mistakes of previous studies, such as the absurd claim by a prior biography that Thatcher’s first private member’s bill—a law to prevent town councils from banning the press from their meetings—represented an act of Freudian revenge against her town councillor father.
Bloggers have already highlighted Moore’s most surprising discovery: that Thatcher owed a crucial political victory—her selection as the Conservative candidate for Finchley in 1958—to a small act of political chicanery: a deliberate flip of two votes in her favour by the chairman of the constituency association. That chairman, Bertie Blatch, achieved a measure of restorative justice. Moore identifies three members of the association who expressed a refusal to support Thatcher on the ancient principle, “If there’s a lady [running], I shan’t be voting for that lady.”
Moore situates Thatcher as both a beneficiary and a leader of the revolution in the role of women in postwar Britain. Thatcher was the original “difference” feminist, a woman who delighted in attractive clothes and attractive men—who invoked women’s distinctive role in the house and family to gain support for her policies—but who also pressed, pressed, pressed her conviction that anything men could do, women could do at least as well. She was no less a pioneer for her refusal to be cast as a pioneer. Asked to give a major speech at the 1968 party conference, Moore writes that Thatcher “boldly told the Daily Mirror at the time that she had refused the subject of women—’They’ve been around since Eve, you know.’ She chose instead the self-embracing title, ‘What’s wrong with politics?’”
The great theme of Thatcher’s career was not ideology: not “freedom” or “capitalism” or any other “ism.” As Moore stresses, Thatcher accepted large elements of the postwar British consensus. She recognised the principles of the 1942 Beveridge report which helped establish the modern welfare state. She never questioned the necessity of a National Health Service. Nor was she an out-and-out social conservative. She supported abortion rights, and was never much interested one way or the other by immigration.
The issues that moved her were those that, in her view, pushed Britain down the path of decline: excessive spending that accelerated inflation and weakened the pound; trade union excesses that hobbled British competitiveness; nationalisations that poured the country’s wealth into doomed enterprises at the expense of rising businesses; and—above all—the subsuming of British sovereignty and independence into a European super-state.
It’s striking that the greatest victories won by this champion of individualism were victories over those who challenged the authority of the British state: Argentine generals who attacked British territory, trade unionists who went on strike in violation of law. Even her great alliance and friendship with the United States met its limits when the US encroached on British sovereignty. Moore carefully investigates her quarrel with the Reagan administration over a proposed gas pipeline from Russia into Europe. Thatcher, Moore notes, did not much like the pipeline, for the same strategic reasons that guided the Americans. Yet when the Americans tried to enforce their view through sanctions, Thatcher rebelled. “[T]here could be no American jurisdiction over British companies.” Thatcher passed a law forbidding British firms to submit to the American order. In the end, the Americans yielded—and the official who had insisted on the sanctions, Secretary of State Alexander Haig, lost his job.
It’s consistent with the arc of Moore’s Thatcher story that the issue that precipitated her fall—to jump ahead of the narrative for a moment—was her refusal to set a timetable for British entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. On that subject, Thatcher was proven all too correct. Yet rewatching her speeches on that subject almost a quarter-century later, it is striking how little they deal with the technical economic objections to monetary union in the absence of fiscal union—and how much they talk about democracy, sovereignty and nationhood. Moore’s discussion of the election of 1979 astutely captures this “national” aspect of the Thatcher programme:
“She placed herself as the voice of the future—the leader who could achieve greatness for the country—but she saw this achievement as a restoration of the past. Some said that a once great nation could not recover: ‘I don’t accept that. I believe not only we can, but we must.’ Her party’s manifesto was based ‘above all on liberty of the people under the law.’ She appealed to an almost wartime feeling of ‘we’re all in this together.’”
Note especially the use of the phrase, “liberty under the law.” Moore observes that this became embedded in Thatcher’s speech: “In conversation at her zenith and in her retirement, the phrases ‘the rule of law’ and ‘not just liberty, but law-based liberty’ probably came up more often than any other. She saw the law, even more than democracy, as the shibboleth that distinguished free from unfree societies.”
There is a view, popular with some libertarians today, which conceives of freedom as simply allowing citizens to do whatever they feel like doing. It is this notion which Milan Kundera mocks in his novel Immortality:
“[B]ecause people in the west are not threatened by concentration camps and are free to say and write what they want,“ he writes, “the more the fight for human rights gains in popularity, the more it loses any concrete content, becoming a kind of universal stance of everyone toward everything, a kind of energy that turns all human desires into rights. The world has become man’s right and everything in it has become a right: the desire for love the right to love, the desire for rest the right to rest, the desire for friendship the right to friendship…”
This was emphatically not Margaret Thatcher’s view of freedom. Hers was a freedom that led human beings to responsibility and obligation. Moore quotes a speech Thatcher gave in Switzerland in 1977: “It is noteworthy that the Victorian era—the heyday of free enterprise in Britain—was also the era of the rise of selflessness and benefaction.”
It was the yearning for a better society that inspired her economic individualism. Citing her 1977 Macleod lecture, Moore delves deep into this aspect of Thatcher’s thought:
“Mrs Thatcher sought the roots of Conservatism not in opposition to socialism, but in an earlier age. It is ‘part of the living flesh of British life,’ she said, and it depended on the idea that man is individual and social and spiritual, all at once. Far from being the antithesis of care for others, self-interest worked with it because ‘man is a social creature, born into family, clan, community, nation, brought up in mutual dependence.’ This is what she always believed, and it is what she meant when she uttered a phrase constantly held against her: ‘There is no such thing as society.’”
There’s a reason why those who would build an ideology upon Thatcher’s career must use her own name as their “ism”: like all successful politicians, she groped her way by her own lights, not by those of some pre-established guide. As she said in 1967: “Freedom has been gained in this country not by great abstract campaigns, but through the objections of ordinary men and women to having their money taken from them by the state.” Thatcher’s own work was equally unabstract, equally practical: step by step to return more of that money and widen the scope of initiative and opportunity.
Long after names like Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson have been reduced to essay topics for A-level history students, Thatcher will continue to inspire the passionate debate that still surrounds the most famous names in British history, from Wat Tyler to Winston Churchill. Charles Moore’s authorised biography is the source to which debaters on all sides will apply again and again for facts, insights, and interpretation.