The Authorized Biography
Volume One: Not For Turning
London: Allen Lane, 2013.
Hardcover. 859 p. ISBN 978-0713992823. £30.00
Reviewed by Detlev Mares
Institut für Geschichte, Technische Universität Darmstadt
There can be no doubt that Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher is a major achievement. After being commissioned by the protagonist herself, Moore spent 16 years working on this project, reading through material that was in the public domain as well as classified items that were only available to him, speaking to people who knew Thatcher or knew people who knew the people she knew, and, last but not least, talking to Margaret Thatcher herself. By the time the former prime minister died on 8 April 2013, the first of two projected volumes had been finished and was published shortly after her death. As Moore stresses in his preface, he was able to present the results of his research without any interference from Thatcher, who did not see the manuscript but had held herself at his disposal for requests the author addressed to her.
Volume One covers Thatcher’s life from her beginnings in the by now famous Grantham grocery shop up to the immediate aftermath of the victorious Falklands War, thus cutting off at the arguably most successful moment of her career. Both the author and the publishers make much of the new material Moore unearthed on Thatcher’s early life, in particular a collection of letters to her sister Muriel. It adds some facets to the well-known image of the serious and hard-working girl by showing a constant interest in the movies and in dress, the latter one to remain prominent throughout her life. Moore skilfully dissects Thatcher’s early years for hints of things to come, trying to unearth a particular Thatcher outlook from the letters and speeches of the ambitious, spirited politician on the rise. In a letter of 1950, he already finds the phrase Thatcher used in Cabinet on the day of her resignation as prime minister: “It’s a funny old world” . More importantly, that staple of later Thatcher rhetoric, the decent housewife securing a proper family budget, is seen in operation right from her early campaigns for Parliament in 1950 and 1951. Although Moore occasionally mentions differences between Thatcher’s early pronouncements on State intervention and her later advocacy of economic freedom, his account is most striking in emphasising the early formation of a character that was hardly changing for the rest of her life, with an idea of entering Parliament appearing as early as the age of 21.
Despite the merits of his treatment of the early years, Moore’s story only really takes off with her arrival on the political stage. The biographer depicts a character whose major strengths were tenacity, determination and the will to work hard. These qualities enabled Margaret Thatcher to overcome set-backs, raise a family and study for the Bar before she finally managed to be elected to Parliament for Finchley in 1959. During these early stages of her career, she repeatedly had to fight the hostility of Conservative grass-rooters towards a wife and mother in politics. Once in Parliament, however, her sex and her assiduity helped to ensure a steady rise. In a political system facing the urgent need to open up to women, the industrious and (by surprisingly many accounts) attractive young MP, who was married to a successful entrepreneur, turned out to be a safe bet for promotion. Both in periods of Tory government and opposition, she mostly had to make do with rather unfashionable posts in areas such as pensions, insurance, housing, transport, fuel and power. But her experiences stood her in good stead in later years. Early on, she learned about the intricacies of welfare provision, had to deal with recalcitrant trade unionists and formed an opinion on the civil service more characterised by disdain than respect. She was strong-willed from the start but as Moore shows, some of the most prominent battles were not of her own making. For example, when in her first Cabinet post as Secretary of State for Education and Science, she was talked into the abolition of free milk for school-children, which earned her the devastating nickname “Thatcher the milk-snatcher”.
Despite her reputation for determination and pugnacity, Thatcher, in Moore’s portrait emerges above all as a cautious politician who had no clear view of the policies she wanted to adopt after her surprise win in the Conservative leadership election in 1975. She was clear, though, about her enemies: she wanted to fight Socialism in all its guises, be it an overarching Welfare State, the Labour Party, the trade union movement or international Communism. When she was dubbed the “Iron Lady” by a Soviet army paper after her warnings of Communist aggression, she happily adopted the sobriquet for herself. But which would be the means to wean Britain off its supposedly Socialist track? Thatcher may not have been an intellectual herself, but Moore presents the unusual sight of an opposition leader relishing the advice by well-known economists and social thinkers in order to find a policy which would suit her aims. Only then, monetarism turned up as the most prominent plank in her economic platform. Moore’s account is full of detail on the problems and inconsistencies which beset the early years of the Thatcher Government’s attempts to put her economic ideas into practice. The prime minister almost seemed to have failed and be ripe for shedding by her own party, when she unexpectedly got the chance to prove her mettle as the “Iron Lady”: When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic in 1982, Thatcher was determined from the outset that this breach of international law should not be tolerated and answered by military force. Moore wonders whether a prime minister with some personal experience of warfare might have been more aware of the imponderables of the military campaign and thus less able to be as staunch as Thatcher was in pursuing this course of action. In any case, much against her custom, Thatcher quickly realised that her aims were best served by staying on the sidelines of strategic planning and let the generals proceed, although she was involved in momentous decisions, such as the sinking of the Argentine battleship Belgrano with the loss of hundreds of lives.
By closing the volume with the celebrations of the Falklands victory, Moore ends on a suggestive note of political success. However, he mostly manages to avoid hagiography. Nobody would expect an authorised biographer to express dislike of his protagonist, and neither does Moore. At the same time, he does not shy away from a nuanced account of Thatcher’s character. In his subtle approach, Thatcher emerges as a much more vulnerable personality than expected. The book is full of tears she shed, sometimes of rage, but often in anguish, most prominently when her decisions resulted in the endangerment or death of British troops.
Moore also emphasises the flexibility the “Iron Lady” might show behind the stern façade. During the hunger strike in Ireland, Thatcher used channels of communication to the IRA leadership despite her constant public proclamations against dealing with “terrorists”. The biographer also does not shy away from mentioning some of his subject’s more unsavoury character traits. Several times, we learn that Thatcher was loath to take the responsibility for unpopular decisions, leaving Cabinet colleagues exposed to take the blame. More than once, it was her Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, on the receiving end. For example, when she was forced to go along with a tax rise urged on her by the Treasury, she proclaimed that if anything went wrong, “then you (Geoffrey) are for the chop” . Her treatment of colleagues led to the perception that the seeds of her downfall had been sown as early as 1981 .
Moore produces this kind of telling anecdote from his vast range of sources, which enables him to surpass all existing biographies in depth and detail. With great care, Moore has studied the marginal notes Thatcher attached to all kinds of policy documents, using “wiggly lines”, if not her famous “No!”, to indicate disapproval. The extensive knowledge of the source material enables Moore to occasionally correct the account of events given by Thatcher herself in her memoirs. When she claimed that Cabinet had supported her cuts in public spending in October 1980, she concealed the fact that there had been opposition and no formal agreement reached , thus discounting the continued disagreements in Cabinet well into the first years in office. Frequently, Moore employs an enjoyable turn of phrase. When he describes the “party leader in search of ideas”, his economic metaphor seems delightfully apt: “Mrs Thatcher was the most clamorous customer in the ideological market-place. As a result, she was able to stimulate a good supply, and buy up more than her rivals” . Unfortunately, in the treatment of his sources, Moore could have been more transparent. He does not provide the precise dates of the numerous interviews he conducted with contemporary witnesses, thus preventing the reader from assessing the distance between event and account. Anyone who has read Claire Berlinski’s original presentation of her talks to Thatcher’s friends and enemies will know the extent to which memories depend on the context of their telling (1). In some cases, corroborating evidence would be welcome. Thus, Moore starkly argues that Thatcher “won her way to Parliament by fraud”  since although she had actually lost the constituency vote that made her a candidate for Finchley, she was proclaimed the winner. But the verdict seems to be exclusively based on an interview with the son of the man who had counted the votes. Such flaws do not, however, alter the fact that Moore has produced an original, most unusual authorised biography that makes readers eager for the publication of the next volume.
(1) Berlinski, Claire. “There is No Alternative” : Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. New York: Basic Books 2008.
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