From handbags to Westminster: Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: Volume I, by Charles Moore - Review
This long-awaited biography, with previously unpublished correspondence and unprecedented access, presents a fresh - even vulnerable - Iron Lady
The phrase “long-awaited” is over-used in politics, but the official, authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, 16 years in the writing, commissioned on the condition that it would only be published after her death, is just that: Charles Moore, whose first book this is at the age of 56, must have felt a heavy burden of duty to get it right – even though Lady Thatcher agreed that she would never read his manuscript, and while it is merely Volume I, it feels like a life’s work of research and interviewing.
Less than a month after her death, followed by days of retelling of the story of the former Prime Minister, Moore presents us with enough new material (including previously unpublished correspondence with her sister, Muriel) to offer a fresh, even vulnerable person behind the mythology. The details – her girlish obsession with clothes and appearance, well into her thirties; her fickle affections for men before she settles down with Denis; her naivety, on becoming Prime Minister, of how Whitehall works – do not undermine her Iron Lady image but, at a moment when her grand Establishment funeral appeared to afford her immortality, they make her mortal. As the Bishop of London declared in his St Paul’s sermon that “lying here, she is one of us”, so Moore fleshes out the ordinariness of the suburban, lower middle-class scholarship girl.
Her literary tastes are traditional and unadventurous: Shakespeare and Kipling. In the summer of 1944, as the Second World War reaches a turning point, an 18-year-old Margaret writes to Muriel: “Do you think the person who makes the handbags could make me one in maroon leather like your blue one? I have decided that maroon would be the best colour for my wardrobe ….”
Yet, here is a clue to what made Thatcher not so ordinary after all: at moments of external crisis, such as war raging in Europe or, in 1960, the illness and death of her mother, Beatrice, Margaret refers to neither in her vast amounts of contemporaneous correspondence with family and friends. This volume covers the period from her birth to the Falklands conflict in 1982, and although other dangerous moments, such as the miners’ strike and the poll tax, will come in Volume II, the book shows how she tried to protect herself from serious issues by apparently ignoring them.
The day before her mother died in December 1960, a comment piece by Thatcher about being a woman in politics, written when her mother must have been gravely ill, ran in the Liverpool Daily Post. Thatcher wrote that “charm is not enough” but must be accompanied by “courage and conviction, for without these qualities the others are hollow and useless”.
Thatcher’s coldness towards her mother and, in turn, to her daughter, Carol, is poignant, but it is frustratingly under-explored. About her mother, Thatcher told Moore in an interview: “After I was 15 we had nothing more to say to each other.” But she also hinted at regret, telling the author: “I don’t think I thanked my mother enough, because you don’t realise ….”
If she was so cold to both her daughter and her mother – although perhaps warmer to her sister – is it any wonder that she failed to lift other women into positions of power around the Cabinet table? It is disappointing if Moore failed to push her on this subject, but if he did, perhaps she refused to elaborate.
Moore observes that Thatcher was “happier when the focus of attention was her views rather than her sex”, but there is plenty of evidence in the book that she loved being a lone woman admired by equally intelligent, powerful men. While she all but grew out of her obsession with appearance and clothes, she used her gender to her own ends – rather than to benefit womankind.
Like his journalism in the Daily Telegraph and Spectator, Moore’s writing is often elegant and vivid, particularly when he escapes the burden of authorised biographer by turning to commentary on Thatcher’s behaviour and decisions. There are surprising moments of demythology: when she arrives in Downing Street in 1979 she asks a senior civil servant: “What do I do now?” to be told: “You’ve got to form an administration.” But at other times the book is almost too detailed, too exhaustive an account, particularly of her career as a junior minister, and it is difficult for the subject to come to life underneath the weight of information. The richness and depth of primary-source material on her earlier personal life, however, make this forgivable.
Moore says Thatcher can serve as a “cautionary tale” to some and a lodestar to others, but – unsurprisingly, given his politics are sympathetic – there is very little criticism of her policies. His 11 pages of acknowledgements read like a guide to the British Establishment and the Washington elite, and the book ultimately echoes what Thatcher’s funeral achieved for her record: creating an official, Establishment-backed, and largely uncritical version of a very controversial figure.
Jane Merrick is the political editor of 'The Independent on Sunday’
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