The final volume of Margaret Thatcher’s official biography is a brilliant Westminster drama but misses the European dimensionby Anthony Teasdale / November 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
I received a warning, in early 1988, on what was virtually day one of my new job. I had become special adviser to the man who was then Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary, would soon be her deputy, and was ultimately her political nemesis: Geoffrey Howe. “There’s one thing you need to know about this government,” my opposite number in another major Whitehall department said: “The prime minster is going mad. Half the people you will meet don’t realise it, and the other half won’t talk about it.”
The late 1980s were interesting times. Herself Alone—the third and final volume of Charles Moore’s official biography—covers the tumultuous years from Thatcher’s third general election victory in June 1987, when she dominated the political scene, to her painful loss of power in November 1990. The book then takes the story through the long, sad years to her death in March 2013.
Moore launched his new volume in the magisterial setting of the Banqueting House, the only surviving component of Whitehall Palace and scene of the execution of Charles I. The event brought together, perhaps for the last time, many of the anciens combattants of the Thatcher revolution. The guest of honour was Boris Johnson, leading a government whose central mission, Brexit, can only be understood in the context of the political battles of 1987-90.
Whether or not one agrees with Johnson’s description of Moore’s book as “the greatest work of modern British history”—written, he joked, with “the almost obsessive lust for accuracy and detail that is the hallmark of all great Daily Telegraph journalists”—it is a remarkable achievement, impressive in ambition, scope and depth.
Moore’s book breaks a lot of new ground, drawing on hundreds of interviews and newly released official and private papers, to complete a trilogy of titanic proportions—a cumulative text of nearly 3,000 pages, the writing of which has consumed more than 20 years of the author’s life.
Even though the tale of Thatcher’s third term has been told before—Thatcher herself, Howe, Nigel Lawson, Michael Heseltine, John Major and Douglas Hurd have all published memoirs—this epic story of triumph and tragedy just keeps on giving. One doubts if even Moore’s spectacular account will be the last word on Thatcher or her “ism.” Political biography, by its nature, is never “definitive.”
The hallmark of Thatcher’s third term was a growing contradiction in her policies and, arguably, her philosophy. As the book opens, market freedom is ushering in the globalised era—undermining her deep belief in the nation state—while the economic empowerment of the individual is eroding many of her puritanical values. She struggles with some very “un-conservative” implications of the free economy and free society she has unleashed, liberalising lifestyles and prioritising materialism over morals.
She is also confronted by an extreme form of globalisation in miniature, namely the process of European integration—as Jacques Delors’s plans for a single market, which she initially strongly supports, spill over into a single currency, social Europe and supranational regulation.
Unlike many continental leaders, Thatcher’s concept of post-war European unity was not so much a “peace project,” designed to make Franco-German war impossible through economic interdependence, as it was a “Cold War project” to hold western Europe together in the face of the Soviet threat. She thus found the sudden collapse of Communism in 1989-90, which should have been a moment of vindication, strangely disorienting.
Thatcher simply could not grasp the idea of a more integrated EU as a framework to contain the renewed power of a reunited Germany. François Mitterrand, the French president, shared many of her reservations about German unification, but told her that “there was no force in Europe that could stop it happening” and then used his leverage with German chancellor Helmut Kohl to extract much of what France wanted on economic and political union.
Moore’s book tends to avoid such big-picture or geo-political analysis, preferring to piece together events as Thatcher experienced them on a daily basis in No 10. We sense her growing boredom with fellow ministers, her increasing reliance on a narrowing circle of personal loyalists, her less pragmatic and more wilful decision-making, and her tiredness after a decade at the top.
Moore’s tale reveals growing misjudgments and increasingly bungled relationships at home and abroad—except, notably, with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose company she seems to enjoy more and more. We learn, for example, that the cabinet secretary, Robin Butler, was threatening to resign at almost exactly the same time in June 1989 as Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson were issuing their parallel joint threat to quit as chancellor and foreign secretary over the Exchange Rate Mechanism and her handling of monetary union. Thatcher was confronted with three of the most senior figures in her government on the verge of walking out, and still managed to face them all down.
The origin of Butler’s threat lay in Thatcher’s determination to keep Charles Powell, her private secretary for foreign affairs, at No 10, even though she had previously agreed to him becoming ambassador to Spain. Moore confirms suspicions that the PM had become operationally, and indeed psychologically, dependent on Powell, who was steadily emerging as a one-man foreign ministry and all-purpose political adviser.
We also discover that, in November 1990, while Thatcher spent almost four days with Gorbachev, George HW Bush, Mitterrand and Kohl in Paris, there was, in effect, no meaningful Thatcher leadership campaign at Westminster. Nobody wanted to take on the practical organisation of the campaign and, as one loyalist backbencher put it, “no one was directly asking MPs to vote for Mrs Thatcher.”
Despite being drunk part of the time (or perhaps because of it), her parliamentary private secretary, Peter Morrison, was confident: Thatcher would get 236 votes and Heseltine at most 124. In the event, she received 204 votes to Heseltine’s 152, with 16 abstentions (one of which is revealed to be her own chief whip, Tim Renton). That left her four votes short of the 15 per cent lead (56 votes) required to avoid a second ballot. It fell to Morrison to transmit the numbers. They were “not quite as good as we had hoped for and not quite good enough,” he said. At that moment, Thatcher’s government effectively died.
Moore’s almost hour-by-hour account of the “final days”—especially of the manoeuvring and growing fatalism within Thatcher’s inner circle—is elegantly constructed and compelling. But there is little reflection on how and why she had managed to mislay the support of 45 per cent of her own parliamentary party.
After the first ballot, support among MPs began to collapse even more quickly, something Thatcher struggled with. Moore avoids the trap of endorsing her own view that it was a disloyal cabinet who killed her (“it’s a coup,” she declared). The message that cabinet ministers sent her—namely, that if she fought the second ballot, she would lose it decisively—was not, as she claims in her memoirs, “weasel words whereby they… transmuted their betrayal into frank advice and concern for my fate,” but a reflection of objective reality. As her education secretary of the time, Kenneth Clarke, has since put it succinctly, if brutally: “She said I was being defeatist. I said she’d been defeated.”
The only explicit disloyalty Moore can point to implicates her successor Major, whom he accuses of launching a veiled leadership campaign even before the first ballot. Moore reveals how Major, after that round, effectively went back on his initial agreement to nominate her for the second, by insisting that he would sign the papers only if she was not, in fact, running. A secret covering letter to Morrison (“for your eyes only”) spelled this out: Major clearly did not want to be left stranded, locked into supporting a losing candidate (Thatcher), when new faces might suddenly enter the race and gain momentum.
Despite its length, Moore’s book treats some major events surprisingly briefly, if at all. On the domestic front, I could find no references in the main body of the text to the Hillsborough stadium disaster or the King’s Cross fire, for example. The poll tax is dealt with succinctly, but its corrosive effect does not fully come through. Where events relate to Europe, the default setting is often to simplify the issue, define it in pro- or anti-federalist terms, and err on the side of defending Thatcher—usually at the expense of the Foreign Office, whose “strong pro-European views” and “long-standing commitment to the European ideal” are invoked as if that settled the matter in her favour.
She found the sudden collapse of Communism strangely disorienting
The run into the leadership contest is very largely Westminster-focused, whereas the events of autumn 1990 can only really be understood in the context of the quickening pace of economic and monetary union in Europe. Moore misses the texture of the build-up (over several weeks) to the European Council in Rome, where Thatcher was isolated on the single currency and whose outcome led Howe to resign. The impression left is that the dynamics of all this were something of a mystery and basically a failure on the part of Whitehall officials.
Despite interviewing so many people, Moore fails to identify, let alone talk to, the real éminence grise behind that fateful summit—Umberto Vattani, the veteran Italian diplomat and adviser to Giulio Andreotti, who meticulously prepared the ground, orchestrated the meeting, and scored a spectacular diplomatic success in accelerating the -timetable for the single currency, overcoming reluctance in several European capitals.
It is characteristic of SW1 myopia—not unique to Moore—that while Vattani is missing, the names of many, largely forgotten, civil servants litter the text. Percy Cradock, for example, receives more references than Jacques Delors; Brian Griffiths more than Saddam Hussein.
Citing Powell, Moore implies that Howe’s resignation after the Rome debacle was hardly a surprise because—in addition to his smarting over being sidelined by Thatcher—the deputy prime minister had long favoured the single currency she so opposed. But this is
Only after leaving office, did Howe advocate Britain adopting the single currency. At the time, he shared the government’s policy—namely, that it “did not oppose the principle of a single currency,” as he put it while Thatcher was in Rome. (Of course, it did not favour it either). Nor was Howe’s televised statement to Brian Walden a “provocation, intended as such,” but rather an attempt to guard against her unilaterally rewriting that policy.
Acceptance of the possibility of a single currency lay behind Major’s proposal for the so-called “hard ECU,” a new, additional currency which he acknowledged “could develop into a single currency” over time. Hence the damage done by the PM saying first in Rome that she would veto any EMU treaty, and then in the Commons—during her “No, No, No” performance two days later—that Major’s hard ECU “would not become widely used” if it came about.
Moore does not delve as deeply as he might into this important difference of policy at the heart of government, just as he says little about how or why Howe’s famous resignation speech was written in the way that it was. The central purpose of the speech, which I played a part in drafting, was to explain that there was a real choice to be made—at a time when the No 10 line was that only style, rather than substance, separated Thatcher and Howe—and that this choice could affect Britain and its place in Europe for decades to come.
Hence the effectiveness of Howe’s joke, early in his speech, that “if some of my former colleagues are to be believed, I must be the first minister in history who has resigned because he was in full agreement with government policy.” He was indeed in agreement with that policy: it was Thatcher who was departing from it.
In this landmark book, Moore takes us into the heart of Thatcher’s world—from the zenith of her power to her unhappy departure from Downing Street. It was a world that I was privileged to witness at close quarters. From the first to the last day, the experience was fascinating, and this book is superbly evocative of those stirring times.
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume Three: Herself Alone by Charles Moore (Allen Lane, £35)