Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume Two – Everything She Wants, by Charles Moore - book review: When Thatcher talked at the Queen

Part Two of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography reveals her idealised self-image – but is at its best when exposing her bad bits

Andy McSmith
Thursday 08 October 2015 14:16 BST
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"Right up to the 1979 election, many Tories continued to see Thatcher as a walking electoral disaster. One commentator, warned that she would take her party in “an extremist, class-conscious, right wing direction” that would prevent the Tories winning for a decade."
"Right up to the 1979 election, many Tories continued to see Thatcher as a walking electoral disaster. One commentator, warned that she would take her party in “an extremist, class-conscious, right wing direction” that would prevent the Tories winning for a decade."

what a one-off Margaret Thatcher was. I am a member of a diminishing band of people who actually met and talked to her while she was in power, and still struggle to marry the lively, confident conversationalist I knew slightly in the late 1980s, talking with whom was a bit like flirting with your granny, with that strident, rasping, domineering Prime Minister seen from a distance, who wanted to squeeze the country into the confines of her narrow-minded “pull your socks up” view of life.

Among the hundreds of small details that Charles Moore had dug out for his vast biography is a previously unpublished remark made by the theatre director Jonathan Miller. She had, he complained, “the diction of a perfumed fart”. For years, that voice was the eternal enemy of intellectual inquiry. She had the answers: we must think as she thought.

Yet, within herself, she profoundly believed that she was a fighter for freedom. Early in this, Moore’s second volume, covering the period between the Falklands War and the 1987 election in 700 dense pages, there is an account of the battle she fought with the Chinese regime over the future of Hong Kong. Moore does not pause to make the obvious point that there were no votes for Thatcher in caring what happened to Hong Kong’s four million or so Chinese residents, so long as their fate did not set off mass migration to the UK. Yet care she did, and through belligerent obstinacy, she extracted a better deal from Beijing than was likely to have been gained through conventional diplomacy.

This is the biography that Thatcher authorised, on condition that publication was delayed until after she was dead. This status has given the chronicler access to records and people that would have been denied to others. He secured, for instance, the first interview ever with Colette Bowe, a civil servant who shot to unwanted fame during a political scandal in 1986 known as the Westland affair. At the time, the civil service closed ranks to spare Ms Bowe from having to tell a parliamentary committee what she knew. What she told Moore suggests that had she given evidence, Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister might have come to a sudden halt.

There is much else in this forest of detail that shows Thatcher up in a bad light. In 1985, it became public knowledge that her attitude to the white supremacist apartheid system in South Africa was threatening to cause an unprecedented public rift between the Queen and the Prime Minister. They did not get on personally. During private audiences, Thatcher would sit nervously on the edge of her chair, produce an agenda from her handbag, and launch into a monologue. “I wasn’t given much encouragement to comment,” the Queen told her private secretary, Sir William Heseltine, one of the many Moore succeeded in interviewing.

The Queen feared that Thatcher’s intemperate opposition to sanctions could tear the Commonwealth apart. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, tended to agree with her. The contempt with which Thatcher treated Howe is one of the shocking aspects of the story. Yet it has to be said for Thatcher that she could so easily have done what other leaders did, and agreed to sanctions just because that was the way to an easy life. Instead, she battled relentlessly on for what she believed was right.

And all this time, when she was lecturing and hectoring the nation and the world, the 20th century’s longest-serving British Prime Minister did not feel secure in her power, and never saw herself as a tyrant. Her self-image was of a lonely fighter for freedom, battling against powerful vested interests. This was a Thatcher. May we never see her like again.

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