The Nation


Books review

The Forging of the Iron Lady

More alloy than purely ferrous, Margaret Thatcher could be insecure and compromising, her official biographer admits. A second chronicler rises for the defence

Two separate and significantly different biographies of Margaret Thatcher have arrived at Asia Books since her death in early April. Conservative Daily Telegraph and Spectator journalist Charles Moore agreed that his authorised account, "Margaret Thatcher", would not be released until she was out of earshot, and Robin Harris, her former adviser and speechwriter, whom she called in her own memoirs "my indispensable Sherpa", simply has good timing with "Not for Turning".

A broader analysis of the British former prime minister that has also just turned up might complete the picture - Christian Caryl's "Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century", in which Thatcher is portrayed along with Deng Xiaoping, Pope John Paul II and the Ayatollah Khomeini not as mere conservatives but counter-revolutionaries who together changed the world.

Deng and Thatcher "both demanded change, both tolerated inequality, both obsessed over the need to create wealth before it could be shared", Caryl has been quoted as saying. Abetted willingly or inadvertently by Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Afghan warlords, they launched the good ship Globalisation, with the market providing the steam and government loosely prodding the rudder. Only now might the pendulum be swinging back, following the financial debacle of 2008 and amid the swelling of Islamic fundamentalism.

A Nielsen survey at the end of April found Moore's biography outselling Harris' three to one in the first week after their release. It might seem that the figures ought to be the other way around. Moore's official tome is only half the story, since the second volume is still to come, and because it's the authorised version, kowtowing is to be expected.

As it turns out, however, Moore's first volume is better by half, while Harris' account is far more fawning. Condensing Thatcher's story into 500 pages proves inadequate, and Harris, who helped Thatcher write her memoirs, omits crucial episodes, such as her dealings with the Irish Republican Army.

Harris' aim, he declares, is to show "what she was really like" during his stint at 10 Downing Street in 1989 and 1990, "a time of assorted disasters". He merely shows why he admires her so much, to the point of vilifying the striking miners who disrupted her career half a decade earlier. Harris points out why the National Union of Mineworkers was in the wrong, fair enough, but without displaying the least empathy for the plight of the working man. He is equally abrupt about the poll-tax riots that cut deeply into Tory support. (Moore's assessment of the miners' strike and tax policy are awaited in Volume II.)

"Not for Turning" is lightweight and so too, disappointingly, is Harris' writing. Only when his beloved Thatcher is being forced out of her post by conniving Cabinet usurpers does he catch the essence of the drama. Here the premier is delivering her resignation speech to a House in mayhem:

"The bellows of approval from the Tory benches that greeted her performance were also expressions of shame and relief. As the crowd at a bullfight roars when a fine, combative specimen breathes its gory last, so the Parliamentary Conservative Party roared as it now dispatched its leader."

Unsurprisingly, both biographies give considerable spin to the reasons why Thatcher had to be dispatched. She had by 1990 squandered all the merit gained from her triumph in the Falklands conflict, a fight that Britain fomented, initially bungled and could very easily have lost. The "miracle" of victory, as she privately deemed it, served to embolden her on every other issue. "In her mind," writes Moore, "it helped to create the dangerous idea that she acted best when she acted alone." Having demonstrated to the world that she was indeed ruthlessly effective, Thatcher now wielded the sword of arrogance. Hubris proved disastrous.

There followed the rioting, the massive unemployment and the battles with unions. Within months of recapturing the Falklands, Thatcher's policy unit was warning that her "credibility and prestige are draining away very fast" and that she lacked "management competence" to the point that "you bully your weaker colleagues". With only the greedy clinging-on of John Major in the interim, this was the cue for Tony Blair and New Labour.

Critical readers' views of Thatcher can only soften amid revelations of the contradictions in her character, much better depicted by Moore than Harris. She had no problem with abortion or gay rights, jettisoned her prejudices regarding the old African colonies (and their people), and was at first willing, secretly at least, to negotiate with the miners' union, the IRA hunger strikers and Argentina.

But those same readers' views will harden again when reminded of Thatcher's post-premiership support for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, jailed in London in 1998 for crimes against humanity (he'd offered her help against Argentina). And readers will bristle at the assertion in both books (qualified only in Moore's) that she had the Midas touch with the British economy. The gilding, they say preposterously, lasts to this day.

Tellingly, most of the largely favourable reviews of these books have focused on the "new material" that emerges, but it's nothing to write home about, let alone write books about. This involves Thatcher's youthful exuberance for clothes and boys and the fact that her marriage to Denis was no bed of roses. The best that can be said about this is that you see her as an ordinary human being, multidimensional, neither high-class nor metallic. She didn't get along with her mother well, so maybe that's why she was mannish (although Moore often finds Prime Minister Thatcher in tears, which does come as a surprise).

Given that Harris, despite an interesting account of Thatcher's later years, doesn't dwell on her death and that Moore has yet to address it, it might be just as well to abide by two earlier biographies. Hugo Young's "One of Us: Life of Margaret Thatcher" (1989) and John Campbell's "The Grocer's Daughter" (2000) and "The Iron Lady" (2003) were widely acclaimed and bear no stigma of Conservative obeisance. Left to the more recent accounts, a saltshaker at hand is recommended.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning

By Charles Moore

Published by Allen Lane, 2013

Available at Asia Books, Bt895

Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher

By Robin Harris

Published by Bantam, 2013

Available at Asia Books, Bt585

Reviewed by Paul Dorsey

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