It’s depressing to suppose that fortune favours the people who can keep going longest. But it does. That is one of the clear lessons from the first volume of Charles Moore’s exhaustive and exhausting authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, which takes the story up to the Falklands War in 1982. The person on display here is not more intelligent than her rivals, or more principled. She chops and changes as much as they do. But she is a lot more relentless: if anything, she keeps chopping and changing long after they have gone home. She didn’t outsmart or outperform her enemies. She outstayed them.
A lot has been made of her ability to function on four hours’ sleep a night. Moore indicates that this is something of a myth. No, she didn’t sleep much, but often this made her tetchy and erratic. The people who worked for her knew when she was tired, and they also knew when to use ‘tiredness’ as a euphemism for her having had one whisky too many. Moore is quite coy on this subject, never telling us exactly how much she drank. She consumed plentiful quantities of whisky and ginger ale, ‘but she was never drunk,’ and she did not get through as much as Denis, who could more or less subsist on gin. She didn’t have hangovers and she didn’t get ill (she sometimes had toothache). Her skin continued to glow and her eye remained fierce. More striking than the amount of sleep she needed was her ability to sleep at all, given what she put herself and others through on a daily basis. She had no hobbies and no real interests outside politics, though she did occasionally indulge in bouts of housework as a way to pass the time. What she really liked to do was worry away at political problems. She was a stickler for detail and a devoted consumer of her red boxes. When things went wrong for her, she invariably concluded it was because she had been insufficiently prepared, and resolved to get back to her papers. Time and again Moore records the surprise of those she met – from heads of state to humble journalists – at how well she was briefed.
It was partly a result of her upbringing (‘We were Methodist,’ she liked to say of her Grantham childhood, ‘and Methodist means method’) and partly down to her training as a chemist at Oxford – she was much more proud of being the first prime minister with a science degree than she was to be the first woman prime minister – and then as a barrister. But it was also a matter of temperament. She liked to badger people, picking away at the same few threads until something started to give. Moore writes of her governing style: ‘She used every remark, every memo, every meeting as an opportunity to challenge existing habits, criticise any sign of ignorance, confusion or waste and preach incessantly the main aims of her administration.’ Unsurprisingly, this made her tiring to be around. Five days after she became prime minister in 1979 she got her private secretary to let the Foreign Office know that she was disappointed with the briefing documents they had so far produced for her. ‘She hopes that in future Departments will avoid wordy generalisations and the re-statement of facts or conclusions which are, or should be, well known to all those for whom the briefs are designed. The prime minister, who is a quick reader, is fully prepared to tackle long briefs when necessary: but she would like their content to be pithy and concisely expressed.’ Longer but pithier: it’s a good summary of her draining, rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat approach to politics. A few intimates came to adore her for being so impossible to work with; the longer they survived the ordeal, the more closely they bonded with each other. But most people were worn out.
A recurring theme in the tributes that followed her death was the difference between her brutal handling of her colleagues and her solicitous treatment of juniors and underlings. But really these were the two sides of a single personality trait: the relentlessness of her acts of kindness could be hard to distinguish from the relentlessness of her acts of aggression. ‘It was a great mistake to tell the prime minister that one of your children had got measles or something, because she’d go on talking about it for some days afterwards,’ one member of her Downing Street staff complained. ‘She could carry this to really quite absurd lengths for a prime minister.’ Moore writes: ‘Despite the fact that Mrs Thatcher was an egotist, she was also almost always extremely considerate towards staff and their families.’ That ‘despite’ should be a ‘because’. The woman who was constantly trying to help people out of their personal difficulties – offering to cook them meals, sending them flowers, showering them with concern – was recognisably the same person of whom Jim Prior complained to Hugo Young in 1981: ‘She hasn’t really got a friend left in the whole cabinet. One reason she has no friend is that she subjects everyone to the most emotionally exhausting arguments; the other is that she still interrupts everyone all the time. It makes us all absolutely furious.’ Her modus operandi, in private life as in public, was to go on and on and on.
This tenacity was visible from the outset of her career and it was the thing that set her apart. The story Moore tells of her political ascent is astonishing – a grocer’s daughter from the middle of England (which in High Tory terms might as well have been the middle of nowhere), blessed with moderate gifts, plump, prettyish, quite bright, no real connections, full of pluck but lacking in guile, who winds up as prime minister and the dominant political figure of the age – but it rarely seems astonishing as it unfolds. Her progress, for all its ostensible improbability, is remarkably smooth. There are few sudden shifts in her fortunes. Instead, she knocks on each successive door, and though it doesn’t always open straightaway, she keeps knocking, and eventually it does open. Already, in her early twenties, she was being spoken of as a future prime minister. She was selected as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Dartford at the age of 23, standing in both the 1950 and 1951 general elections. She stood out from other prospective candidates by being well prepared, forthright and energetic. That was all it took. She was not an electrifying public speaker, but she was highly competent and committed. She answered questions and she was never afraid of answering back. She was admired for what was called her ‘platform knowledge’. Bill Deedes, who also first stood for parliament at the 1950 election, remarked on the impact she made at meetings of prospective Tory candidates. ‘Once she opened her mouth, the rest of us began to look rather second-rate,’ he said, then added: ‘Her knowledge and eloquence were a source of some irritation to her fellow candidates.’ You feel this says as much about them as it does about her. She certainly chose the right party. As Moore remarks, she was neither witty nor an original thinker, but ‘she was a worker and a fighter in a party which was slightly short of both.’ Above all, she took herself and her ambitions seriously. That seems to have been enough to persuade others to let her pursue them.
Moore does what he can to inject this faintly robotic tale with its share of drama. First, he tries to humanise it. His great find is a previously unseen cache of letters from the young Margaret Roberts to her older sister, Muriel, written variously from Grantham, Oxford and Dartford. There, she talks about boyfriends, fashion, shopping and the various inconveniences of life in wartime and then austerity Britain. They are, I suppose, human. But boy are they dull. The tone is hectoring, jolly and banal. Their most notable feature is the complete absence of any discussion of politics. Indeed, though the war and its aftermath made life bothersome in various ways, you would be hard-pressed to guess from these letters that the young Margaret gave any thought to what it meant outside her domestic circle. She likes to dish out little Methodist homilies which seem incongruous rather than apposite given what was happening in the wider world. On the day Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, she wrote à propos her own life experiences: ‘A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in little things is a great thing.’ In April 1945, she told Muriel about life at Oxford. ‘The dons have dinner in their private dining-room during the vac, so there was no question of their company thank goodness. I had a marvellous dinner. First there was some lovely creamy soup and then some very tender lean beef … Finally there was some lemon jelly with lemon flavoured meringue on top.’ There is no mention of the war. Perhaps she thought Muriel wouldn’t be interested in her thoughts on politics. Perhaps her frame of reference is not so surprising in a young woman from the provinces. But given the person that young woman was to become, it is hard not to conclude that she had nothing to say because she had nothing to add. The war would continue on its course regardless of how thoroughly she boned up on it. Her suggestions for improvement, no matter how well informed, would not be heeded. So it didn’t really exist for her. Her horizons expanded with her power to influence, not with her capacity to understand.
The other thing Moore tries to give her story is an early indication of heroic resolve. He quotes extensively from her youthful speeches and articles, suggesting that they laid out a basic philosophy of anti-collectivism and individual responsibility from which she never really deviated. This is not convincing. Mostly they read like boilerplate examples of sub-Churchillian rhetoric, scattered with snippets of romantic imperialism and paeans to the native resources of an island people. She believed in sound finance. So did almost everyone else, including many members of the Labour Party. They just didn’t know how to achieve it in a country that was more or less bankrupt. Nor did she. Before the 1950 election she told the voters of Dartford that the British spirit had to be rediscovered. ‘Do you want it to perish for a soul-less Socialist system, or to live to re-create a glorious Britain? YOU WILL DECIDE.’ Was any Tory candidate saying anything else? In so far as there was substance to her early views, it was something from which she later diverged. During the 1950s she did not question the founding principles of Beveridge’s welfare state. Her criticisms always focused on abuses of the system and how to prevent them, never on the need to reform the system itself. She accepted that even a proud island people required looking after by the state. It was not until much later that she began to think there might be an alternative.
More persuasive evidence of a consistent personal philosophy emerges only when she eventually entered Parliament. She lost both times in Dartford – it was not a winnable seat for the Tories until the 1970s – but she performed well and impressed everyone with her diligence. She then married Denis, trained for the Bar (supported by his substantial wealth), had her twins, and, after a few painful rebuffs, found a safe seat for the 1959 election in Finchley. This produced one significant change of heart. The mild, unthinking anti-semitism of her early letters – she complained to Muriel of the ‘“tatty” tourists: Jews and novo [sic] riche’ she encountered in Madeira on her honeymoon – gave way to a strong admiration for her Jewish constituents, among whom she found many of the values she herself cherished. ‘My, they were good citizens,’ she later remarked, seeing Jews as ‘natural traders’ who managed ‘positively to get on by their own efforts’. When she got to Westminster she benefited from another happy accident. She came near the top of the lottery that gives individual backbenchers the chance to propose new pieces of legislation. This meant she could select a cause to promote and use her maiden speech to defend it. After some dithering she chose to introduce a bill that would require local government to open itself up to more regular reporting by the press; she wanted to prevent local officials from hiding their activities behind a veil of secrecy.
There has been some speculation about the psychological motives for this choice. Her father, Alfred Roberts, had been an alderman in Grantham and a leading figure in the town’s affairs until he was unceremoniously turfed out of office in 1952. Margaret admired him but also found him closed off and unresponsive. Was this legislation a complex act of revenge against his secretiveness (Roberts seems to have been, among other things, a closet womaniser)? Or was it an act of penance, designed to unmask the dirty tricks that had seen her father deprived of his position? More likely it had nothing to do with him. Thatcher believed that openness would benefit the Tory cause, because when people saw how their money was being spent they would become much more careful about whom they entrusted it to. This was the thread that connected her first legislative act with what became effectively her last: the poll tax. She wanted everyone to pay the same for local government so that everyone would be forced to think hard about whether they were getting value for money. Of course, by that point her years in power had corroded her judgment, allowing her to embark on a battle she lacked the resources to win. Time ran out for her long before the poll tax could work its intended magic on profligate Labour councils. But her hope remained the same from first to last: Tories could win the argument so long as the requisite information was available for them to use and so long as they had the determination and energy to use it.
This made her an unusual Conservative. It also caused some of her opponents to misjudge her. Barbara Castle, who consistently both admired Thatcher and underestimated her, supported her Private Members’ Bill in 1960 on the grounds that it could only aid the Labour Party in the long run. ‘It is always the progressive movements which are supporters of publicity,’ Castle said. ‘It is conservatism which always needs secrecy to survive, and not socialism.’ Thatcher thought the opposite. For someone like Castle this made her unfathomable: here was a Conservative who wanted to keep the argument going rather than close it down. To that end Thatcher was insatiable in her search for new ideas she could bring to the fight. She read heavyweight books – Adam Smith, Burke, Popper, Hayek – and carefully noted their contents. She enjoyed talking about these writers when she got the chance. But did she really understand them? One of the questions that has always dogged Thatcher is whether she was intellectually serious. Moore marshals the contradictory evidence. Some people found her remarkably open to big ideas, always willing to debate questions of principle. Others found her blinkered and pedestrian, with an actuarial or lawyerly approach to political philosophy, ticking off useful concepts and ignoring the rest. Paul Johnson (perhaps not the most reliable witness) described her as ‘the most ignorant politician of her level that I’d come across until I met Tony Blair’, but he thought she was at least touchingly aware of her ignorance, ‘the eternal scholarship girl’. He summed it up by saying: ‘I always liked her, but she always bored me a bit.’ Being boring is a sin for an intellectual. But it is not always a sin in politics. The truth is that ideas were weapons for Thatcher, and she liked to use them in hand-to-hand combat. She was not, contrary to her reputation, a big-picture politician. She took the big pictures of others and fashioned them into sticks she could beat people with. The famous story of her banging a table with a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty – ‘This, gentlemen, is what we believe!’ – is revealing more for what she was doing than for what she was reading. Books were for making a point, forcefully enough for the point to carry.
When, in 1975, Thatcher stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party, she didn’t present herself as an ideologue. Her pitch was that she was a politician. She had survived a near death experience as education secretary in the Heath government, when her decision to scrap free milk in primary schools for children aged seven and over made her for a while the most unpopular politician in the country (‘Milksnatcher’). It had been a grisly time and had tested even her energy and resolve; people around her noticed how tired she became. The decision had been pressed on her by civil servants, and though she understood the cost-cutting benefits she had not sufficiently thought through the political consequences. Typically, she resolved to be better briefed in future and to work harder; she also decided to spend more public money to reverse her reputation as a penny-pincher. She promised to expand nursery education, build more polytechnics and raise the school leaving age. It worked. Her reputation as a political pragmatist went up while that of the government she served went down, mired in its inability to control the unions. Heath as prime minister suffered from the double failing of being prickly but pusillanimous (it subsequently emerged that these facets of his personality may have been exacerbated by an undisclosed thyroid condition that also had the unfortunate side-effect of making him fat; as he got plumper, Thatcher got thinner). Heath wanted to micro-manage the economy but lacked the ability to exert his will. The new intake of Tory MPs who arrived following the twin elections of 1974, both of which Heath lost, had tired of what they saw as his arrogant assumption of expertise. One reported that the ‘new MPs liked Margaret Thatcher and thought the rest of the front bench technocrats.’ It didn’t matter what she believed so much as that she wasn’t put off by people refusing to accommodate their beliefs to hers. She was up for the fight. She didn’t want to reach a lasting understanding with the unions. She wanted to avoid one.
She was hardly alone in this. By now parts of the Tory Party were festering with combative new thinking from people who had had enough of what they saw as Britain’s managed decline. Thatcher was not the only standard-bearer for the anti-Heath factions. There was Edward Du Cann, who represented swashbuckling capitalism; Keith Joseph, who represented high-minded anti-statism; Geoffrey Howe, who represented disciplined proto-monetarism. But she saw them all off easily. In this she was greatly helped by their obvious lack of leadership qualities. Du Cann was cavalier and untrustworthy; Joseph was flaky and depressive; Howe was deadly dull. She was also aided by the fact that she was a woman, married to a man like Denis. The other three were undone in part by their wives. Mrs Du Cann and Mrs Joseph rightly suspected that their husbands were hopelessly unsuited to the demands of prime ministerial office and did what they could to dissuade them from standing. In the case of Elspeth Howe there were muttered suspicions that she would be the one wearing the trousers. The Conservative Parliamentary Party in its default gentleman’s club mode likes nothing more than chuntering on about the perils of a Lady Macbeth. (Elspeth Howe waited 15 years to extract her revenge, helping her husband write the resignation speech that triggered Thatcher’s demise.) The great advantage when Lady Macbeth takes the reins herself is that no one can suspect her of harbouring a Lady Macbeth in the background. After Thatcher told Denis that she planned to stand against Heath for the leadership, he did, in his own words, ‘suck my teeth a bit. “Heath will murder you,” I told her.’ But once he realised she was determined, he gave her his unstinting support and was thrilled when she won.
Moore makes clear that the Thatcher marriage was not always plain sailing. As he was approaching fifty, five years after his wife had entered Parliament, Denis suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on by overwork (and no doubt overdrink) and went to South Africa for more than two months to recover. Neither party to the marriage could be entirely confident when he left that he would ever come back. But return he did and when his wife was elected leader he retired from business to become a permanent consort and helpmeet. He almost certainly influenced her political views, on South Africa among other things, far more than Elspeth Howe ever did her husband’s. Thatcher was never much good at reading a balance sheet and she relied on Denis for advice. It was he who cast his eye over the books of British Leyland when she became prime minister and told her, against the advice of her civil servants, that the company was a basket case. But his main role was to prevent her from overdoing it, which was a permanent hazard. He doesn’t appear much in this biography, but when he does it is often to curtail some late night session of booze-fuelled browbeating of her officials with the command: ‘Bed, woman!’
The Tory leadership contest of 1975 looked like a fight between political pygmies compared to the Labour leadership contest that took place the following year. When Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister the candidates lined up to replace him included Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Anthony Crosland, Michael Foot and Denis Healey. It was, by any historical standards, an impressive cast list. The Parliamentary Labour Party made the right choice in plumping for Callaghan over the initial favourite, Healey, and the surprise early front-runner, Foot. Of all the political opponents Thatcher faced in her career Callaghan was by far the most formidable. He knew exactly how to deal with her. Because her preferred mode of attack was to hammer away, he gave her nothing to hammer at. He smothered her with what she called his ‘avuncular flannel’. He patronised her. He teased her. Her Commons performances became increasingly frenetic and unconvincing as she ploughed on with her lists of complaints and he effortlessly batted them away. He also made sure that he was planted squarely on the centre ground of British politics, from which she struggled to dislodge him. Thanks in part to the conditions imposed by the IMF after its bailout of the British economy in 1976, Callaghan’s government had embarked on a process of moderate reform, curtailing public spending and reaching relatively tough pay settlements with the unions. These measures steadied the ship and by the summer of 1978 there were signs of economic recovery. Inflation had fallen to below 10 per cent from a peak of nearly 25 per cent three years earlier. Thatcher was being drawn more and more to hot-button social issues like immigration in an attempt to extend her electoral appeal. She was in danger of losing the economic argument. But though Callaghan could deal with Thatcher, he couldn’t deal with the endlessly frustrated hope, which he had inherited from Heath and Wilson, of achieving a lasting settlement with the unions. He confounded expectations inside and outside his government by refusing to call an election in the autumn of 1978. Instead he chose to wait until a new government directive establishing a 5 per cent norm for pay increases could take effect. He was confident that by the following summer low inflation and a settled wage policy would be enough to see off Thatcher, who could be painted as having no alternative to offer except a free-market free-for-all. He would stand for order. She would stand for chaos. He was wrong. As Moore writes, Callaghan ‘thought the 5 per cent rule would be his salvation. In fact, it turned out to be his crucifixion.’
Over the next six months Callaghan lost control of his political destiny and handed Thatcher hers. Instead of disciplining the unions, the 5 per cent rule emboldened them and undermined the resolve of many employers, who decided the policy was unsustainable. Ford was one of the first to break the terms of the agreement and Callaghan, who was trying to manage a minority government, lacked the votes in Parliament to impose sanctions. On 12 December the public sector unions rejected the government’s pay deal, which presaged a wave of strikes over the rest of the winter, leaving rubbish to pile up in the streets and in some places the dead to remain unburied. Thatcher was now the one in a position to offer patronising and deliberately unhelpful advice. She promised the government parliamentary co-operation if it would ban secondary picketing, legislate for secret ballots and work towards no-strike agreements with essential services like the Fire Brigade. She knew full well that Callaghan’s parliamentary weakness meant he was in no position to agree these terms. His government limped on, struggling to patch together wafer thin majorities in the Commons until in April it lost a motion of no confidence by a single vote. In the subsequent election campaign Callaghan outperformed Thatcher on the stump, as he always did, but he knew it was too late. She had come to stand for order. He stood for chaos.
But what sort of order? Thatcher arrived in office in May 1979 more clearly defined by what she wouldn’t do than by what she would. She was the alternative to two approaches to politics that had both run out of road. One was consensus: at various points during the traumas of the 1970s it was mooted that only a national government of all the parties and all the talents could save the country (the octogenarian Harold Macmillan apparently spent much of the decade waiting for the call to lead such an administration, which goes to show what an unrealistic idea it was). Thatcher’s solid parliamentary majority of 43 put a stop to all such talk, at least for the time being. The other was confrontation: the Winter of Discontent had tested to destruction the idea that a managed wage policy could produce anything other than permanent antagonism between the government and the union movement, as each looked to see how far it could push the other. Thatcher’s alternative to both consensus and confrontation is conventionally understood to have been monetarism. A Thatcher government would withdraw from the industrial battlefield and focus its attention on tightening the money supply in order to attack the primary cause of inflation. Wage policy would be a matter for individual employers to determine, with the state’s role limited to enforcing the rule of law (beefed up where necessary) in any confrontations that might ensue. The government would not seek industrial agreement but neither would it attempt to impose its will by fiat. It would take a step back to create the monetary framework within which sustainable economic growth could be achieved without constant derailment by pressure-group politics and crisis management. The conventional understanding is, however, wrong. It is true that Thatcher was determined not to have a wage policy and she stuck to that. It is also true that she had an initial go at monetarism. But she didn’t stick to that. It turned out that her alternative to both confrontation and consensus was simply another sort of crisis management: she made it up as she went along.
Thatcher’s personal attachment to monetarism was never very steady. She was no economist: as one of her advisers put it, she was ‘good on finance … not good on economics’. She had read the high priest of monetarism, Milton Friedman (she and members of her shadow cabinet had met with him often), and she knew she wanted the same things he wanted: sound money, an end to stagflation, limits on government profligacy. But he was far from sure that she understood his prescription for getting there. There was one thing she liked even less than high inflation and that was high interest rates. They unnerved her because she felt she had direct experience of their effect on small businesses and ordinary families, especially those with mortgages. Her government’s first foray into controlling the money supply included punitively high interest rates, which made her uncomfortable. They also made Friedman uncomfortable because he thought this was the wrong way to tackle the problem: in his universe it was doing things back to front to use interest rates to control the money supply rather than acknowledging that the rate of interest simply reflects the supply of and demand for money. Friedman wanted the Bank of England to print less of the stuff and let things take their course from there. But Thatcher did not have the time or the political patience to let things take their course. Her tough monetary stance had had the unintended side-effect of boosting the value of sterling, so making it much harder for British industry to export. Within a year of coming to Downing Street her government was presiding over rapidly rising unemployment, stubbornly high inflation, an expanding money supply, sky-high interest rates and falling exports. It was time to try something else.
This is what she did in the autumn of 1980. Just as she was making her famous ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech to the party conference, the lady turned. She wanted lower interest rates. She also wanted a more competitive currency. Her government, under the direction of her chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, returned to traditional methods of exchange rate management through adjustments to interest rates and fiscal policy, hoping to patch together a short-term fix to get her over the worst. At the same time, she didn’t want to signal any weakening of resolve. She turned her personal attention to getting the spending of government departments under control. This was much more her style. The trouble with Friedmanism was that it attacked the mechanics of money rather than the people who used it: that was its point, to depoliticise politics. The MPs who had decided in 1975 that Thatcher was no technocrat had been right. She had no desire to take the politics out of politics. She needed flesh and blood creatures to get after. So she went after her colleagues, subjecting them to the sort of harangues that drove some, like Prior, to despair. The economic situation was not improving. Unemployment was approaching levels that only months earlier had seemed politically suicidal: by June 1981 the figure was 2.6 million and it would pass three million at the start of 1982. (When the Tories launched their ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster campaign in 1978, featuring a snaking queue for the dole office, the unemployment figure was just over one million.) Though she demanded resolve from others, she was perfectly capable of throwing in the towel herself when the occasion required it. In February 1981 she shied away from a fight with the miners, capitulating to NUM demands to abandon a plan of pit closures. The previous month, despite what Denis had told her about British Leyland being effectively bust, she signed off on a massive bailout to prop up the business. By now some of her strongest supporters were starting to wonder if her government had what it took. When the BL decision was announced by Keith Joseph, her closest ally in the cabinet and the secretary of state for industry, Alfred Sherman at the staunchly Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies turned his framed photo of Joseph to the wall.
But even if the lady was for turning, she was not for giving up. The mistake made by the ‘wets’ in her government was to suppose that her intransigence had boxed her in. They thought she didn’t understand the suffering and anger her policies were causing, above all that she was blind to the human cost of mass unemployment. They may have been right about this. But they were wrong to suppose that it followed that she would be unable to deal with the political consequences. Moore argues persuasively that the common failing of her opponents – within the Tory Party, on the Labour side and among the breakaway founders of the newly formed SDP – was their shared belief that she was a freakish aberration and that British politics would resume its regular course before long. They just had to wait their turn. This was a catastrophic error. A waiting game was what suited her best because it played to her strengths of resilience and remorselessness. Too many people at the top of British politics were biding their time in 1981, as riots broke out across the country and rising chaos looked ready to sweep her away. Too few were thinking about how they were going to stop her themselves. In public she announced that there was no alternative. But she had plenty of alternatives still to try. It was her opponents who appeared to lack them.
In 1981 she allowed Howe to persuade her of the need for an eye-wateringly tight budget, complete with tax rises, at a time when the conventional wisdom said only fiscal loosening could save her. It was tempting to suppose this must be the final nail in the coffin. Howe sold Thatcher on his budget by promising her lower interest rates in future, plus greater freedom of political manoeuvre once it was over. At the same time a group of 364 economists sent a letter to the Times condemning her economic policies (the signatories included Mervyn King, the future governor of the Bank of England). They wrote: ‘There is no basis in economic theory or supporting evidence for the government’s belief that by deflating demand they will bring inflation permanently under control and thereby introduce an automatic recovery in output and employment … The time has come to reject monetarist policies and consider which alternative offers the best hope of sustained recovery.’ There were two things wrong with this letter. First, it mistook Thatcher for an ideologue rather than a desperate politician scrabbling around for options. Second, as Moore points out, ‘it was significant that, beyond stating that alternative policies existed, the Times letter did not say anything about them. As with internal critiques by the wets, the letter was clear in its revulsion at what the government was doing, but much less confident about what to do instead.’ The economists’ intervention has since acquired legendary status as an example of academic hubris and cack-handedness. ‘The timing was exquisite,’ Nigel Lawson wrote in his memoirs: almost from the day the letter appeared the leading economic indicators started to pick up and the Thatcher boom was underway.
The recovery was hardly a ringing endorsement of monetarism. By reverting to the traditional give-it-a-go approach to managing the economy, Thatcher had bought herself enough breathing space to reap the benefits of a cyclical upturn, though her policies ensured that it would be a long time before unemployment started to come down (the number of unemployed began to fall only in the third quarter of 1986). By 1981 the Labour Party was undergoing its own spasm of leftward revulsion under the leadership of Michael Foot. Thatcher knew that so long as she lived to fight another day, she would get the chance to fight Foot at the ballot box. She had to be in it if she was going to win it. A group of MPs from the 1979 intake on the Tory backbenches, who called themselves the Blue Chips and in October 1981 published a pamphlet called Changing Gear, were the only ones among her critics who got her remotely right. They included Chris Patten, John Patten, William Waldegrave and Tristan Garel-Jones, and were soon to be joined by John Major. In the pamphlet they used as an epigraph a line from Macmillan: ‘We have at least the most important thing of all at the head of our government, a prime minister of courage, who I hope will not be led away from the old tradition of consensus.’ The Blue Chips didn’t attack the economic direction of the government but they called for more political flexibility: ‘A political strategy based on economic theory is a house built on sand.’ Thatcher could agree with that, whatever she thought of their views on consensus. Her other critics she batted off. The Blue Chips she promoted over time into her government and one of them, eventually, became her chosen successor.
This wasn’t the only area where Thatcher’s brutally resilient adaptability was on display during her early years in power. In Northern Ireland she was confronted with IRA prisoners going on hunger strike in the Maze prison in an attempt to force the British government to recognise them as prisoners of war rather than regular inmates. The IRA leadership, which included Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, wanted a show of strength and it was perfectly willing to see its men starve themselves to death to make its point. The more intransigent the British were, the better, since the IRA was confident it had the greater appetite for the long game. In this the hard men may have been misled by Thatcher’s gender: they assumed that she would find it hard to stomach young men dying on her watch, accompanied by the insistent grief of their families. But Thatcher was flinty in public: she would not negotiate with terrorists. Behind the scenes, she was a little more accommodating. She told her cabinet colleagues: ‘I am concerned to get us into the most reasonable position before the start, and stick to it.’ She agreed to meet the IRA halfway on the question of prisoners’ clothing (they could wear ‘civilian-type’ clothes). But even this overstated the firmness of her stance. Bobby Sands began his hunger strike on 1 March 1981, joined by a number of others. On 9 April, Sands was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election held in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. On 5 May he died. Thatcher came under immense international pressure, particularly from the United States and the Vatican, to do something. On 12 May a second hunger striker, Francis Hughes, died. The families of the other strikers started to worry that the British were going to let them all die. Brendan McFarlane, the IRA leader in the Maze, warned Gerry Adams: ‘It appears they are not interested in simply undermining us, but completely annihilating us … They are insane – at least Maggie is anyway.’ But Maggie too was exploring her options and looking for a way out.
Despite her public statements, her government was already involved in back-channel discussions with the IRA and the Irish government. She understood that the most important thing was not to get boxed in, so allowed the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic body primarily concerned with aid to the Third World, to enter the Maze and to indicate that the British government was open to discussions on the hunger strikers’ demands if they would stop their fast. Their IRA masters would not let them do that, but they did start talking about terms for ending the protest. The talks broke down, but they had the effect of raising expectations among the families of the remaining hunger strikers that their lives might be spared. This raised pressure on the IRA and eventually it was their leaders who could not stomach the drip-drip-drip of the families’ dashed hopes and futile grief. To stoke this, the Thatcher government kept dangling its olive branch. By September 1981, ten prisoners had starved themselves to death. After beseeching pleas from their mothers, two hunger strikers gave up their fast. Horrible as it seems, it is hard not to read in this story a dry run of what was going to happen when Thatcher finally decided to take on the NUM in 1984-5. Public intransigence, private flexibility, the constant search for the weak spot that would undo the other side’s resolve: the ruthlessness of a true political pragmatist.
The same qualities that meant Thatcher’s reverses were never as bad as they appeared also meant her victories were never as complete as they were presented. She outlasted the hunger strikers, but she didn’t achieve much by it except to ensure that the IRA would try to kill her if it got the chance (as it nearly did). The great set-piece success of her first year in office – the European budget rebate she secured in May 1980 – was also something of a Pyrrhic victory. She wanted far-reaching reform of European institutions, including the Common Agricultural Policy, which she rightly saw as a permanent barrier to change. But when she was offered a quick settlement and a chunk of cash, she took it. The newspapers hailed her as a warrior smiting the Eurocrats, but she and her officials knew she had merely put off the important battles. John Nott, her trade secretary, wrote her a memo which spelled it out: ‘One of the misfortunes for me of the budget negotiations was that we had very nearly achieved this objective … but we lost the opportunity when we accepted a temporary settlement.’ Thatcher’s later bloody-mindedness over Europe was in part a result of her sense that she had blown her best chance.
However, it was much harder to gainsay the defining victory of her first term and the one that fixed her reputation for steely resolve around the world. On 2 April 1982 Argentinian forces invaded the Falklands Islands. A task force was quickly assembled to get them back, despite the many warnings Thatcher received that it would prove either politically or militarily impossible. It turned out to be neither. On 15 June Thatcher received a telegram confirming an Argentine surrender that ended with the words: ‘The Falkland Islands are once more under the government desired by their inhabitants. God save the Queen.’ Thatcher knew that she probably could not have survived any other outcome, because it was her government’s confused defence policy and diplomatic incompetence that had encouraged the Argentines to try their hand in the first place. Once her foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, had resigned over these failings, she was next in the firing line. Her bloody-mindedness in this instance was fuelled by a sense of personal culpability: it was her mess to sort out. It took all her reserves of political graft to do it. There were many different aspects to the Falklands campaign, of which the most pressing wasn’t always the military contest with Argentina’s armed forces. Thatcher also had to deal with the Americans, who wanted a peaceful resolution to the conflict. This meant that for the first and only time in her career she was forced to square off against another woman, one almost as formidable as she was: Jeane Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador to the United Nations. Thatcher routed her as decisively as she did General Galtieri.
Kirkpatrick’s importance derived not from her role at the UN but from her status as the author of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, which helped to define the anti-Communist stance of the Reagan White House. In a paper of 1979 titled ‘Dictatorships and Double Standards’ she had argued that it was crucial to distinguish totalitarian regimes (always bad) from authoritarian ones (unpleasant but often amenable). In the fight against Communism, the United States had to be willing to work with authoritarians in order to hold the line against the Soviets and their allies, who were by Kirkpatrick’s definition beyond the pale. The military junta in Argentina, which came to power in 1976 and was by the end of 1981 headed by Galtieri, became a test case for this approach. Galtieri may have been a thug. He may also have been a drunk. (When Reagan first phoned him to discuss the invasion of the Falklands, Galtieri was more or less incoherent from drink. My brother-in-law, who is Argentinian, was an 18-year-old conscript in 1982 and remembers having to tidy up one morning after Galtieri and his entourage had passed through; there were bottles piled up everywhere.) But at least Galtieri was not a socialist. Kirkpatrick thought that Thatcher did not properly understand the implications of what she was attempting: if the Falklands were retaken by force, the junta might fall, and then what? There had to be an amicable solution. Kissinger too tried to get the point across. Lord Hailsham, who had picked up some house party gossip, relayed the message to Thatcher at cabinet: ‘Kissinger said … that British were not aware of danger of Socialist Govt in Argentina.’ What really mattered, however, was whether the message was getting through to Reagan. The entire British political establishment, Thatcher included, was neuralgically sensitive to the risks of another Suez, when lack of support in Washington had scuppered the whole enterprise. So it was essential that Reagan and his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, listen to Thatcher, not Kirkpatrick.
To achieve this, Thatcher deliberately avoided getting sucked into geopolitical discussions with the president and his representatives. She stuck to a few basic points of principle – invasion of sovereign territory, outraged public opinion, our boys fighting and dying out there – then got down to details. She wore away at Reagan with her obsessive focus on logistics and the technical grounds for rejecting any proposed peace settlement. She was always much better informed than he was and able to dominate any discussion. Sometimes he barely got a word in. The UN secretary-general, Pérez de Cuéllar, tried to get Reagan to bring Thatcher to heel. He did what he could but it was never enough. Thatcher knew who was to blame: ‘Mrs Kirkpatrick’s behaviour had been very vexing and thoroughly anti-British.’ Once British troops were fully engaged in the South Atlantic the prospects for any negotiated settlement receded but Kirkpatrick carried on trying. She badgered Reagan to maintain the pressure for peace, and pleaded with Haig to authorise her to abstain on a ceasefire resolution that came to the UN Security Council on 4 June, rather than joining the British ambassador in vetoing it. Haig told her she had to support the British position for the sake of transatlantic solidarity, then at the last minute changed his mind and ordered an abstention. But the message arrived too late for Kirkpatrick, who had just cast a very reluctant veto. She then astonished everyone by announcing that ‘if it were possible to change a vote once cast the US would like to change its vote from a veto to an abstention.’ She followed this by reading out a poem by Borges about the horrors of war. Her humiliation was complete. So was Thatcher’s triumph over her.
Moore’s account shows that the common picture of Reagan and Thatcher as joined at the hip is thoroughly misleading. They were, in many ways, very different politicians. Reagan really did prefer the big picture, which is why Thatcher could so often get the better of him with her narrower focus and grinding attention to detail. He was broadly an optimist, whereas she was often fearful of the unexpected. He didn’t share her preoccupation with interest rates, instead seeing inflation as always and everywhere the enemy. When Reagan arrived in the White House, 18 months after Thatcher reached Downing Street, Thatcherism was being regularly derided in the United States as a failed experiment, far too erratic and ill-considered to arrest Britain’s decline; it was, if anything, accelerating it. Reagan was expected to learn from her mistakes, not to follow her example. He was also being encouraged to see Britain as a minor and fading player in the wider transatlantic alliance. The continental Europeans were the people who really mattered.
They also mattered to Thatcher, who was much more willing to take Europe’s side against America than her reputation normally allows. She repeatedly warned Reagan against undermining the position of the social democratic West German leader Helmut Schmidt, whose political interests were not well served by the blanket anti-Communism coming out of Washington. It is easy to forget that Thatcherism in its initial phase was a broadly pro-German project. It took much of its inspiration from the West German economic miracle, achieved under the philosophy known as ‘ordo-liberalism’ (a free market in an ordered society). The German model was also sometimes referred to as the ‘Social Market’, and Keith Joseph had originally wanted to use this term for the title of what eventually became the Centre for Policy Studies (when a ‘Social Market Foundation’ was finally born in 1989, it served as a rump SDP think-tank before being colonised by New Labour). Thatcher had no problem at this stage with the Germans, and certainly no problem with Schmidt, whom she found very appealing. Though Moore doesn’t go this far, it is said that some of her officials at the time thought European gatherings could be expedited if she and Helmut simply got a room.
Thatcher’s problems were all with the French. As leader of the opposition she had had a bad experience at a briefing with the director of the IMF, Pierre-Paul Schweitzer, ‘a languid, cigarette-smoking French intellectual of the type she had probably never encountered before’. He condescended to her and treated her like an ignorant housewife. She also got on very badly with Giscard d’Estaing, another supercilious snob. Things improved when the French elected a socialist, François Mitterrand, as president. Mitterrand could relate to her personal vanity and he knew how to appeal to it. The Falklands War helped. When Thatcher launched her task force, Mitterrand wondered: ‘Do I admire her or envy her?’ When it was over, she returned the compliment: ‘He was most understanding and splendid throughout.’
In the aftermath of the Falklands it became clear just how haphazard and contingent her political friendships and alliances were. If you stuck up for her when the chips were down, you were in (‘one of us’); if you didn’t, you were out. Those she felt had been ‘staunch’ in the war included – alongside Mitterrand – Pinochet, King Hussein of Jordan and David Owen of the SDP. (Owen seems to have been one of the surprisingly large number of men who found Thatcher intensely sexually desirable. Moore reports him telling the TV interviewer Brian Walden, off the record: ‘The whiff of that perfume, the sweet smell of whisky. By God, Brian, she’s appealing beyond belief.’) The Falklands may have helped convert Thatcher to the cause of environmentalism. She remained deeply attached to the work of the British Antarctic Survey, whose maps had shown the terrain of the islands before the task force landed. Not only did she make sure they received a disproportionate amount of government funding thereafter, but she also listened to them when they warned of the damage being done to the ozone layer by pollution. One of the things that has often puzzled people about Thatcher is that she later became almost the first major politician to take the threat of climate change seriously. The role of the BAS in the preparations for the Falklands War helps explain why: it was more or less random.
Thatcher’s focused, blinkered, relentless style of politics didn’t bring clarity as is so often claimed. It brought a hotchpotch of small revolutions that could appear like, but didn’t amount to, a much larger one. Along with her fixations she had massive blind spots. One was Scotland, a part of the United Kingdom she never really understood or cared seriously about. Her neglect (or worse) helped to create the conditions for the rise of the SNP and the destruction of Tory support in Scotland, to the point that the Conservative and Unionist Party now has few interests worth defending north of the border and it is the Labour Party that is desperately struggling to hold the Union together. Thatcher was also thoroughly neglectful of the scope for her economic reforms to unbalance the British economy. As Moore acknowledges, she never thought through the possibility that her right-to-buy scheme for council homes would create a housing shortage in the long run and fuel a destructive property bubble. The present mess in British politics owes as much to the incoherence of her political thinking as it does to her supposed radicalism. Still, all our current leaders want to be her. Ed Miliband is hoping that it’s 1977 all over again and he can be the one who surfs to power on a sea-change he has initiated in the battle of ideas. He is also, presumably, drawing comfort from the fact that before 1979 no one saw her as prime ministerial material. Cameron and Osborne are hoping it’s 1981 and they can be the ones who hold their nerve at just the point when the economists and intellectuals are all bleating that the austerity experiment has failed and it’s time to try something else. These comparisons are futile: 2013 is a whole new ball game. They also ignore the role that sheer stamina played in her story. Do any of the current lot have that? (Depressingly, I suspect that if any of them does, it’s Osborne.) Thatcher was a remarkable politician and Moore does justice to her distinctive qualities. But she left a terrible mess in her wake and it’s unclear why anyone would want to emulate her in that. ‘She hated muddle, but she also caused it,’ John Ashworth, her first chief scientist, said. Though in Moore’s telling we have only reached 1982, it could serve as her epitaph.
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