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.