How would historians and biographers look upon the 20th century when two immovable ladies, a Queen and a Prime Minister, simultaneously governed the same nation during a period of uncertainty? One would sensibly begin with Charles Moore’s biography about the British Prime Minister who came to be known as Margaret Thatcher. Mr. Moore’s first volume was released in May of this year, shortly after the death of the late Prime Minister. Even when preparing for her eventual passing Margaret Thatcher was capable of choosing a writer who would follow through with a distinctive, yet independent task of telling her story.
Lady Thatcher chose well. Mr. Moore’s first volume covers the first fifty-seven years of Margaret Thatcher’s life. From the beginning of the book, every detail crafts for the reader a prescient young girl, born Margaret Hilda Roberts, which carefully builds each anticipated leap in her life. Mrs. Thatcher’s (then Miss Roberts) formative years can be the most deceiving because an average observer might simply view her as a grocer’s daughter who was raised in the strict form of the Methodist Church. However, there is a constant tide of struggles and successes in the life of Miss Roberts. Not one iota of opportunity is wasted as Mr. Moore points out that, “One of [her] best political gifts, born of a rather surprising lack of self-confidence and a female conscientiousness, was never to take anything for granted.”
Young Miss Roberts observes, learns and tests her upbringing in religion, education and politics in Grantham, England, a market town of about 25,000 people. Her father, Alfred Roberts, was active in business (grocer) and local politics. As president of the Grantham Rotary Club in 1936, he shared his political views with an audience explaining why he shifted from the Liberal Party to the Conservative Party. In Mrs. Thatcher’s memoirs she elaborated further: as with many others her father was, “left behind by the Liberal Party’s acceptance of collectivism,” implying that the individual was subverted, anathema to the Roberts family philosophy.
From an early age, Miss Roberts observed election campaigns with keen interest and derived wisdom from participating in elections involving her father and other politicians, whom she admired. The Robertses were known and respected for their thrift, common sense and patriotism. Alfred Roberts was actively involved in war-related efforts and in addition to his committed tasks of owning a corner grocery store, carrying local political responsibilities, and serving as a lay preacher, he may not have fully grasped the impact all this ‘work’ had on his second daughter.
At age nine, her own schoolwork led her to win a prize. After being congratulated on her luck by the school head, Miss Roberts gave a rather precocious remark, “I wasn’t lucky. I deserved it.” Mr. Moore offered a fair analysis to the various versions of this family story, “To say anything else would be to cast doubt on the entire judging process.” Miss Roberts gave the head of the school her forthright opinion. What mattered were her convictions, and the honesty of the approach. This characteristic would shine through in her academic pursuits (science and law), her personal life, and particularly in her political career. For instance, in 1979 about a month after Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister, Nigel Lawson explained in an interview that she was an atypical politician, “A key to understanding Mrs. Thatcher was that she actually said what she believed.”
The pre-politician Margaret Roberts later Margaret Thatcher, however, made it her goal to understand early on what it took to excel and therefore she sought guidance from able men and women (usually men). Early on in this quest for knowledge, it was cultivated at Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School (KGGS), which revealed a competitive Miss Roberts. As Prime Minister, she later recalled that she owed being at No. 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s residence) to KGGS. Eventually Miss Roberts expanded her zest for learning and political involvement at Oxford University to study chemistry and became fully immersed in the Oxford University Conservative Association.
Despite her scientific degree, Miss Roberts longed to study law (as a barrister) – the opportunity was delayed – and a few years after Oxford she was eventually launched into her first political campaign for a parliamentary seat for Dartford in 1949. Dartford led to her meeting and eventually marrying Denis Thatcher, a union that would prove so essential to her life. Mrs. Thatcher consecutively studied and came to admire in Grantham the laws of God, at Oxford University the laws of nature, in London the laws of man. These were the three pillars that guided her throughout her political career and steadied her path in economic doctrines.
Throughout these and many other experiences: coal disputes, inflation, education, Mr. Moore weaves Mrs. Thatcher’s encounters with relevant British and world political history. He lucidly demonstrates that the cerebral pivot of Margaret Thatcher, combined with her early quiet political determination, formed and shaped her into a formidable character. This often led people to underestimating her. Such miscalculations allowed her to learn from the failures of others and win the favor of her peers through her willingness to be politely combative. This was exemplified through Ted Heath’s leadership of the Conservative Party. In fact, if Ted Heath had succeeded, perhaps a Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister would never have emerged. Likewise, Mrs. Thatcher succeeded in nearly everything Mr. Heath did not. The diary entries of Airey Neave as a backbencher MP under Mr. Heath reveal the tantalizing behind the scenes details that prepare readers for the enormous challenges and successes of the Thatcher premiership.
Naturally, there was a delicate and sensitive side to Mrs. Thatcher, although it may have been punctuated with strong opinionated beliefs. Under Mr. Heath’s leadership in Shadow Ministerial positions, she frequently erred on the side of caution. From the 1960s until she became Conservative Party Leader she rarely confronted people in her own party.
Her charm and intelligence led her to be insightfully recognized as a ‘rising political star’ by the U.S. diplomat William J. Galloway when he remarked on her, “very strong will” and her “high standards of ethics and morals.” Mr. Galloway, the first secretary and political officer at the U.S. Embassy in London, arranged for Mrs. Thatcher’s first visit to the U.S. in 1967 through the State Department’s International Visitor Program, allowing prominent non-U.S. citizens an extended opportunity to learn more about the American culture. Mr. Moore shares some impressive details about her visit from sea-to-shining-sea, which were altogether positive, “She loved America, felt at ease there and wanted to go back.”
Her curiosity for economic solutions was reinvigorated after she visited the U.S., particularly on tax issues, a subject she practiced as a barrister. This eventually led to her joining a breakaway group from Mr. Heath to explore meaningful economic policies. Mrs. Thatcher developed a relationship with people at the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs, which continued even after she ended her premiership.
Interestingly, it was Denis Thatcher who first noticed and was won over by then Governor Ronald Reagan, when the latter spoke at the Institute of Directors in London in 1969. In 1972, Mrs. Thatcher attended a group luncheon at No. 10 in Reagan’s honor, but it wasn’t until April 1975 that they had their first candid conversation. Mr. Moore describes it as an enormous success, which would cement their relationship ahead of a more turbulent political climate from 1980-1982, which is described in chapter twenty of volume one. Reagan’s 1975
…meeting with Mrs. Thatcher, planned for forty-five minutes, went on for an hour and a half. ‘I was immediately won over by his charm, directness and sense of humour,’ Mrs. Thatcher later wrote. Reagan recalled: ‘It was evident from our first words that we were soul mates when it came to reducing government and expanding freedom.’ …They were not to see one another again or indeed speak until 1978, but their staffs stayed in touch…the seeds of future friendship had been sown.
In 1975, Mrs. Thatcher met with the British historian and poet, Robert Conquest, who was also an expert on the Soviet Union. Despite the decade of détente, Mrs. Thatcher asked Conquest “whether the Soviets had the long-term aim of getting rid of Western democracy – ‘The answer was yes’ – and whether the Soviet Union was, in the long term, viable – ‘The answer was no.’” Conquest assisted her in drafting a speech she would give at the Chelsea Conservative Association in July 1975. Firmly established in her beliefs, Mrs. Thatcher pointed out the facts to her audience. Communists took over Cambodia and Vietnam and made more serious inroads into Portugal, and furthermore the Soviet Union showed no signs of disarming. But Mrs. Thatcher didn’t simply judge this from Soviet weaponry stocks, but by the internal suffering:
So when the Soviet leaders jail a writer, or a priest, or a doctor or a worker, for the crime of speaking freely, it is not only for humanitarian reasons that we should be concerned. For these acts reveal a regime that is afraid of truth and liberty; it dare not allow its people to enjoy the freedom we take for granted, and a nation that denies those freedoms to its own people will have few scruples in denying them to others.
It is possible that this speech and other subsequent pronouncements by Mrs. Thatcher provoked the Soviet Red Army’s newspaper Red Star to call her the ‘Iron Lady.’ An opportunity that did not go to waste, she claimed the name proudly in January 1976 and continued to use it against the Soviets even after their collapse, thanks in part to Mr. Conquest.
Mr. Conquest was not an ideological warrior but only interested in the truth. Mrs. Thatcher was an ideological warrior for truth and freedom and intended to implement her beliefs as such. This slight difference may have influenced Mrs. Thatcher’s decision in declining his request to become Ambassador to the UN, yet he continued to advise her on Soviet issues from the Hoover Institute in California. They shared a professional and formal relationship publicly but underneath the press and diplomacy the relationship was very cordial. In the 1980s, Mr. Conquest, even to others, always addressed her as ‘Prime Minister.’
If one could summarize Margaret Thatcher in one phrase after reading the first volume, it would undoubtedly be “Mrs. Thatcher stood for truth and freedom.” She shared this enthusiasm generously with her husband Denis who was her greatest support and friend; she introduced it carefully to their children; happily and bravely to those who genuinely wanted to partake of a freer Great Britain and beyond. Most importantly for the readers of both biographical volumes, Mrs. Thatcher wanted her chosen biographer Charles Moore to have the liberty to share the details (truth) of her personal archives and his political historical analysis on her life.
Mrs. Thatcher’s notion of truth and freedom, and her fierce defense of it, is infused throughout volume one. For her, it was grounded in the ‘rule of law’: Mrs. Thatcher stood firm in the law of God and built the others upon this foundation (laws of nature, laws of man). She viewed her nation as undergoing a spiritual crisis – the duty to God and ethics and the teachings had been cast aside. Mrs. Thatcher wanted to, “‘resuscitate a world we had lost’, and she ‘ransacked’ Christian thought for intellectual backing…‘What mattered fundamentally was Man’s relationship to God, and in the last resort this depended on the response of the individual soul to God’s Grace.’” It was this foundation that would prepare her for the Falklands and subsequent political decisions in the 1980s.
The book is brimming with magnificent and amusing stories. Mr. Moore brilliantly captures the depth of character of Mrs. Thatcher and one cannot help being transported into an era that now seems to only exist on paper but must live on in all who embrace the essential freedoms that Margaret Thatcher fought for and defended so vigorously. The present author shall not give away the ending of volume one, yet when the readers reach the final chapter and page they will understand her opening question above. Then one must briefly revel in the intermission and prepare, as there are still seven more years to unfold in Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership that readers eagerly anticipate from the biographer Charles Moore, in volume two.
Monica Morrill, ABD at Cambridge University, is an Economic Geographer and has taught as an adjunct at the Institute of World Politics. Ms. Morrill is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.