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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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.