The Magazine

Iron Lady Rising

The historic ascent of Margaret Thatcher.

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By JOHN O’SULLIVAN
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In October 1968, Margaret Thatcher, then a rising young Tory on the Opposition front bench, appeared on the popular radio discussion program “Any Questions?” Among the other panelists was Malcolm Muggeridge, later a celebrated Christian apologist, then an ornament of both serious and satirical journalism. One questioner asked how the panelists felt about being imitated. This was clearly aimed at Muggeridge, who had a highly mannered style of speaking and writing, rather than at Thatcher, whom no one had bothered to imitate at this early stage of her career. Muggeridge responded with one of his most familiar tropes: that such things scarcely mattered since all people were “intrinsically ridiculous.” Let biographer Charles Moore take up the story:

Thatcher: This is a ridiculous answer. 

Muggeridge: Why?

Thatcher: You don’t regard yourself as an intrinsically ridiculous person.

Muggeridge: I do. Why are you contradicting me?

Thatcher: Because over dinner you took yourself extremely seriously.

Muggeridge: You don’t imagine you’re a serious person.

Thatcher: Well, I do. You may not.

In this small episode, Thatcher is doing more than merely contesting Muggeridge’s early essay in postmodernism. She is taking on the spirit of satirical frivolity that so dominated Britain in the 1960s that one critic feared the country “would sink giggling into the sea.” As well as defending seriousness, Thatcher takes the riskier step of identifying herself with it. She might have come across sounding pompous or trite; instead she seems straightforward and commonsensical. And, deploying the sharp wit that she supposedly lacked, she clearly wins the exchange. 

This seriousness is the central truth of Margaret Thatcher and the leitmotif of Charles Moore’s superb biography. 

Ferdinand Mount makes a strong case that “will” was her main quality in his scintillating review in the Times Literary Supplement. Will, determination, fortitude—these were certainly powerful motors of her life and personality. But they were always controlled by realism, practicality, and necessity. And this combination was vital to her success, because her political views were shaped by a strong patriotism and such traditional conservative virtues as self-reliance—virtues that leading Tories in her youth were already discarding as unfashionable and repressive. Therefore, she not only had to fight, she had also to maneuver to advance herself; and she had to work unremittingly to master briefs that she would often be presenting to a skeptical audience. The net result was a deeply serious woman. 

Moore’s chapters on the young Margaret Hilda Roberts confirm that this seriousness flowered early—she was hard-working and diligent at home and at school—but they also contain much new information, showing her in new and unexpected lights. Moore, too, is diligent and conscientious, but, at least as important here, he is also very lucky. 

Thatcher’s older sister Muriel found and gave Moore a long-forgotten cache of 200 letters that the young Margaret had sent to her from Oxford and London describing her early adventures in scholarship, politics, and courtship. These add immeasurably to our knowledge of a woman who even then was discreet, if not secretive, about her private life. She was quite a girly-girl, very clothes-conscious, and writes repeatedly about some nice underwear she had just bought. As a young woman of modest means competing in Oxford’s social life, she was always looking for a bargain when buying dresses and hats. She loved dancing—that continued into her premiership—and went out often to balls and formal dinners. She enjoyed going to “the pictures” and thought Terence Rattigan’s wartime comedy Quiet Wedding was “a scream.” And though she had suitors, she was only moderately lucky in love.  

Three men play romantic roles in her life before Denis Thatcher: a young undergraduate who, to her distress, let their first-love relationship “fizzle out” when he was posted to the Army; a Scottish farmer whom she liked but felt to be unsuitable for the life she intended (and whom she maneuvered into a happy marriage with her sister); and a distinguished doctor, Robert Henderson, the inventor of the “iron lung,” who was just over twice her age. Thatcher was seriously in love with Henderson, but he seems to have broken off the relationship, probably because of the difference in their ages. That happened about six months before she announced her engagement to Denis Thatcher, whom she had also been seeing for the previous two years.  

The Thatchers’ marriage was a happy one, and Denis’s death more than 50 years later hit Margaret Thatcher very hard indeed. But there is no doubt that, at its start, it was also a marriage of mutual comfort and practical advantage. As Moore points out, both were nursing romantic wounds. Denis appreciated her character and intelligence; Margaret saw him as a decent man who could provide her with the economic means to fuel her political ambitions; they were fond of each other. Things worked out well, but she paid a price in emotional self-control. 

She was a passionate woman in every respect. She loved poetry and enjoyed reciting Alfred Noyes’s highly romantic poem, “The Highwayman.”  Her first boyfriend confided that she delighted in physical intimacy. It was noticed in later years that she liked the company of conventionally good-looking, upper-class men of the Henderson type. But the serious, practical woman triumphed over the yearning romantic girl. As Moore reports, years later she said of Henderson: “And then Denis came along. It is no good regretting what might have been.” 

Whatever the cost, she paid it faithfully, found it far from exorbitant, and set about enjoying its benefits. By the time she could exploit her new prosperity to study for the tax bar while giving birth to twins, moreover, she had already been a parliamentary candidate in two general elections and was within grasp of a safe seat. 

How had the shy, socially insecure undergraduate managed to get so far? The answer is twofold: Though she had been socially insecure, she was always politically self-confident, and the male-chauvinist Tory party gave her the warm welcome that the progressive women dons at Somerville College, Oxford had denied her. Its principal, Janet Vaughn, later said that Thatcher “was set as steel as a Conservative. .  .  . We used to entertain a good deal at weekends, but she didn’t get invited. She had nothing to contribute, you see.” 

By contrast, the middle-aged men who ran the Tory party from the engine room to the bridge relished the arrival of this clever and pretty young woman who, as soon as she stood up to speak, became a forcefully glamorous performer who could out-debate veteran socialists and bring audiences to their feet. Though she encountered a little antiwoman prejudice (often from other women) in her search for a winnable constituency, it was more than outweighed by the favoritism that senior male Tories displayed towards her and her advancement. She was elected to the House of Commons two days after her 34th birthday and became a junior minister two years after that.   

Up to this point, Margaret Thatcher’s opinions had not mattered very much. Candidates and junior ministers can’t afford such luxuries. In 1964, however, the Tories went into opposition and embarked, by degrees, on a fierce ideological debate that would last almost 20 years. As this happened, it slowly dawned on the Tory leadership that Thatcher presented a unique problem: Here was a woman MP of first-class abilities and unfashionably conservative views; she could neither be sidelined into “statutory woman” jobs nor promoted to prominent posts reserved for safe loyalists. The Tory faithful throughout the country realized much the same thing—i.e., she’s one of us—when she delivered a major “think-speech” that she had written herself to the 1968 Tory conference. As Charles Moore rightly observes, the speech sounds, in retrospect, like a manifesto for the conviction politics of Thatcherism. Prime Minister Edward Heath and his colleagues never really solved the problem she represented. She advanced, uphill, toeing the party line when necessary, while mastering the details of the dullest legislation and putting in the long hours needed to achieve triumphs in debate. She performed well the tasks that were given to her, even when she disagreed with them. Heath reluctantly promoted her to increasingly prominent positions until, in 1975, after two election defeats, she rode a wave of discontent among MPs and the party faithful to defeat him in the struggle for the Tory leadership.

Moore’s telling of the rise of Margaret Thatcher is full of fresh and fascinating information. Though it broadly confirms the picture of her as a serious and dedicated public figure, it also gives us insights into her life and personality that we did not have before, partly because—and I write this as one of her “ghosts”—she did not want to reveal too much of her inner life. In particular, she tended to conceal or deny her setbacks, disappointments, and wounds. (As we shall see shortly, she sometimes turned the same blind eye on her political setbacks.) She moved on, relentless, forgetful, and seemingly untroubled by second-thoughts or self-doubt. Moore’s discoveries help us to glimpse the cost, as well as the importance, of being earnest.

There are fewer complete surprises in Moore’s account of the period from 1975 to Thatcher’s 1982 victory in the Falklands war, where this volume ends. There are some important ones—her secret dealings with the IRA over the hunger strikers; the pressure Ronald Reagan exerted on her to make fundamental concessions on the Falklands; her inner circle’s savage criticism of her management style—but Moore is usually covering ground already ploughed by earlier biographers. 

What he provides here is the most complete narrative yet of a dramatic story—of Margaret Thatcher’s battle to revive Great Britain. His account rests on sound judgment, fair-mindedness, and the scrupulous use of evidence provided by his main character, her friends, colleagues, and enemies (some of whom change places in the course of the telling). The telling itself is highly readable. Moore, though an admirer of Thatcher, never shrinks from necessary (and sometimes very harsh) criticism. And though the narrative line is a simple one, it is complicated by the fact that her battle was fought on many fields and against many enemies—foreign, domestic, and mostly timorous. 

To become a sure guide through this mayhem, as he remarkably succeeds in doing, Moore had to become an expert in such varied and intimidating topics as monetary economics, global strategy, labor law, industrial unrest, domestic terrorism, Tory history, postcolonial diplomacy, and much, much else. But so did Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, as opposition leader and prime minister, she had to learn and fight simultaneously on all these fronts.  

Ever the eager scholarship girl, she set out to do so in the humblest fashion. She learned how to speak in a less shrill and “nagging” way by lowering her voice register under the supervision of a voice coach from the National Theatre. She brought in a series of economists, from Karl Brunner to Milton Friedman, to instruct her in the monetarist revolution. She consulted Robert Conquest on the Soviet Union and the nature of the threat it posed. She sat figuratively (and, on one occasion, literally) at the feet of F. A. Hayek on the topic of wider social thought. And she acquired a solid grasp of the latest academic knowledge underpinning her instinctively conservative politics. 

Even so, she was outnumbered in the Tory leadership and the Tory machine. In order to succeed, she had to overwhelm her opponents by promoting younger Tories of her monetarist stripe and by widening the internal party struggle into a large national debate. So, with the help of Sir Keith Joseph, she established one think-tank and drew on the work of others; she converted intellectuals from the left; she wooed journalists, toured universities, encouraged bodies like the Tory Philosophy Group; and, in general, midwifed the creation of what one irritated left-winger, Perry Anderson, called “the Great Moving Right Show.” 

Thatcher became an evangelist as well as a good student. This preparation—and she believed devoutly in always preparing—paid off. It created the circumstances for the defeat of the “Wets,” and Moore’s account of her gradual outwitting of those Wets in the Tory leadership over economic policy is a masterpiece of clear and intelligent writing. This was an uncertain and ferocious battle that lasted, with setbacks, until 1981, when she finally reshuffled her cabinet in a way that entrenched her control of economic policy. As Moore points out, she and her allies won the debate because, by the time it reached its climax, “the political heavyweights were economic lightweights and vice versa.” She could reshuffle the face cards from a fresh deck. The policy began to succeed from almost the same moment. 

Thatcher’s battle to revive Britain had just begun to succeed when history changed the challenge from the British economy to the South Atlantic, with Argentina’s seizure of the Falklands. Moore’s account of this is, as usual, fair and full. But it is also controversial and is a point where I part company with him. He argues that she went too far, indeed risked losing Britain’s and her own honor, in yielding to Reagan’s strong pressure to make concessions to the Argentinean junta that could have given them the Falklands by degrees. 

The facts here are not at issue: Reagan, acting on the strong advice of Alexander Haig’s State Department and Jeane Kirkpatrick, the American ambassador to the United Nations, did exert such pressure on the prime minister, who very reluctantly agreed to a “compromise” favoring Argentina. She suffered some anguish over this and felt almost betrayed by Reagan. And, as Moore points out, this was one of those occasions that she tended to gloss over in her later memory of the events. 

But why did she agree? Those close to her at the time argue that she was convinced the junta would never accept the proposal. That is to say, in a situation with no good choices, she took a calculated risk which, as it happens, paid off when the junta did reject the deal. Moore doubts this rationale, while accepting that it might be valid, and argues that she was in a tight corner politically, gave away more than she wished or should have done, and had a bad conscience about it afterwards. 

My judgment is that those close to her had it right: She took a risk from the firm conviction that the junta’s irrational intransigence would save her. But is there much difference between taking a risk from the conviction that it will pay off and taking one as the best choice available in desperate circumstances? And whichever motive was in play, why would her honor necessarily have been lost if the risk had failed and Buenos Aires had accepted the deal? As a serious woman, she had to contend with realities, and as a woman of honor, she had to secure the best outcome for the Falklanders that she could. If support in the cabinet, the House of Commons, and Washington was not forthcoming for the original British position, then she had to maneuver to get the next best thing. There would still have been plenty to play for in negotiations if Argentina had said yes. Maybe Reagan would have matched her cooperation with some of America’s own. And if Britain had, in the end, betrayed the Falklanders, despite her best efforts, Thatcher would probably have resigned. It would, after all, have meant the end of her project of national revival.

In the real world, Argentina said no, the British recovered the Falklands (with major help from Caspar Weinberger and the Pentagon), the junta fell, Argentina’s shaky democracy was restored, the State Department’s gloomy predictions all proved false, and Margaret Thatcher went on to win two more elections and to reshape British politics. All that is for Charles Moore’s next volume. But Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands is already one of the great classic political biographies, and Moore ends this volume with the story of Thatcher’s appearance at the formal dinner celebrating the Falklands victory, along with all the senior political and military figures involved in the campaign. It was here that she famously ended the proceedings with the words: “Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?”

This was, Moore speculates, perhaps the happiest moment of Thatcher’s life. It was certainly a slightly British blend of great victory and good joke. But the celebration lunch on the following day—attended by the enlisted men—was perhaps more significant. As Major General Julian Thompson tells it: 

Suddenly, before she could say anything, there was a standing ovation from the floor, led by the boys. The other politicians couldn’t believe what was happening. When Mrs. Thatcher had quieted everyone down, she said “It is I who should be down there, thanking you.” 

She was serious in every sense.  

John O’Sullivan, a former special adviser to Margaret Thatcher, is the author, most recently, of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.