BOOK REVIEW

The Iron Lady in Action

Сharles Moore once again vividly explores the widespread triumphs and struggles of Mrs. Thatcher running a national government, this time in the second volume of Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biography. He maps it internally with her Cabinet and corresponding bureaucracies, while simultaneously covering the inevitable external battles in foreign relations, the media, and maintaining a global presence.

Precisely one month before the snap election called by the second ever lady Prime Minister Teresa May, it seems even more fitting to review Mr. Moore’s second volume. The subtitle cleverly captures the mood and years after the British victory of the Falkland War – “At Her Zenith: In London, Washington and Moscow” and most notably putting Washington before Moscow.

This second volume covers a much shorter time span than the first and includes the years 1982 to 1987, encompassing two of Margaret Thatcher’s crucial re-elections (1983 and 1987). It is replete from the preface to the last chapter revealing little-known details that chart an even fuller picture of well-known political stories that add tremendous meaning and depth.

Each of Mr. Moore’s two volumes that have been released thus far correct and exceed the detail that are in Mrs. Thatcher’s memoirs. The author highlights that she “insisted” on not reading the manuscripts of the authoritative biography and added, “that it should not be published in her lifetime.” He quotes a number of Americans who were close to President Reagan, even Soviet correspondence, among other sources, to offer a fuller view of events.

Privately, Mrs. Thatcher was fully prepared to take on many of the political ideas and implement the philosophies when she commenced her Premiership, but publicly she waited patiently until after her 1983 re-election. The timing was superb. On the heels of the Falklands victory, she had the political capital necessary to proceed.

The far reaching impact that the Thatcher era brought about covered in volume two: visiting the Falklands after the war; meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl the month he was elected; achieving a record breaking re-election in 1983; investigating the communist infiltration amidst union struggles, the looming threats of miners’ strikes – “the political atmosphere was one of extreme unease,” recalls the author; negotiating the best “Agreement” for Hong Kong with Chinese leader Deng; “always kicking against the pricks of bureaucracy and inertia” she trusted a team led mainly by Nigel Lawson to pursue privatization of state-owned enterprises, reclaim “territory for freedom” and reinvigorate the economy; the slight set-back with President Reagan on Grenada and then the incredible bond with him on national security and focusing on winning the defense argument; the struggles with Ireland and the terrorist bombing in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference; discontent in the Middle East; helicopter manufacturing with Westland; and re-election in 1987, amidst other events. Any one scenario was enough to bring down a normal human being. Surrounding each challenging political affair, right or wrong, Mr. Moore highlights how Mrs. Thatcher created strength in uncertainty.

The most fascinating year covered in the second volume was 1984. In December, she concluded it with the most impressively productive week, which is mentioned differently throughout the book about five times. Her first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at Chequers (before any in the West knew he would become President), where “the lunchtime conversation [between them both]…had been one of the most remarkable ever to have taken place across that dining table. It defied all diplomatic norms.” The next day, the Prime Minister journeyed to Peking to sign the agreement she and her government had worked so tirelessly to ensure the liberties of the people of Hong Kong; a brief visit to Hong Kong to explain the agreement to the people. The whirlwind week ended in the U.S. with her great ally President Reagan for her first visit to Camp David – described by the author as one of the most astonishing single weeks “in modern political history.”

Stories revealed rather amusingly on at least two occasions, Mrs. Thatcher’s double standard combined with her uncompromising nature, whereby she did not want power leveraged against her but was unmovable when those with less power didn’t want her using it against them. Whether the Iron Lady stood loyally, obstinately, or both will be up to the reader.

Her early defense of the United Kingdom in fighting for the rebate from the European Community (now the European Union) was prophetic with the Brexit victory now in full view. Her political skirmishes demonstrated how attached to the will of her people she really was, and endeared them to her further. In retrospect, she genuinely envisioned a Great Britain with serious long-term interests, and acted on them when there was the highest probability of success, regardless of their impact on her re-elections.

The private records during her Premiership reveal the soft humanity that she displayed underneath the hard shell of the Iron Lady. One can visualize at times how truly vulnerable she was.

Two instances really stand out in the book. Her admiration of the British miners and their heroism was noteworthy as she worked behind the scenes writing personal letters to uplift the miners’ wives. Secondly, her high regard for British Intelligence and especially the Soviet Union mole, Oleg Gordievsky, in the London Embassy who relayed details back to British Intelligence from the miners’ strikes to NATO’s ABLE ARCHER exercises. Mr. Gordievsky was eventually found out by the Soviets and later fiercely protected by Mrs. Thatcher and worked even after her Premiership to reunite him with his wife and children.

The energy with which Mrs. Thatcher approached a problem, the interconnected decisions and choices that needed to be made with varying cadence are astounding. Mrs. Thatcher, for example, took a chance on officially meeting Gorbachev before he eventually became President. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that Reagan advocated was accessorized by Mrs. Thatcher’s pro-active involvement and keen sense of the personalities involved. Her judge of character and intuition were usually spot on.

The second volume closes with Mrs. Thatcher’s 1987 re-election and includes Tim Bell’s brilliant marketing with a campaign poster that had three major sections. The first was in the largest font that read, “BRITAIN NOW HAS THE FEWEST STRIKES FOR 50 YEARS.” The second line had smaller but underlined font and read, “The last Labour Government ended in The Winter of Discontent.” The final line was smaller still but in capital letters and contained a phrase that is familiar after the 2016 Presidential elections:

BRITAIN IS GREAT AGAIN. DON’T LET LABOR WRECK IT.
VOTE CONSERVATIVE

One detail that stands out to the reader – that it is useful and recommended yet not entirely necessary to read volume one before reading volume two. The author makes careful passing references to volume one and throughout other chapters in volume two. Mr. Moore grappled with the narrative structure and confesses that, “The easiest way to convey the mêlée of events is to stick to a single, blended, chronological narrative of everything.” Sometimes an incident, such as the bombing of US Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American personnel, is mentioned twice in the book, but the context is extrapolated to fit the chapter’s theme. The barracks bombing is mentioned in the chapter detailing the invasion of Grenada, and another referencing the discussions of foreign relations in the Middle East.

After all, this painstaking work is admired when one considers that when the third volume is eventually published it will have taken Mr. Moore twenty years to write the trilogy, longer than Mrs. Thatcher’s entire leadership of the Conservative Party.

Writing a book review could be reasonably compared to penning a review of a restaurant’s cuisine. The reader can be informed and motivated by the description of the distinctive tastes. But to truly understand the depth, to savor the meaning, the readers must try for themselves. This is only the second of a generous three-course meal; hence the dessert is duly anticipated with eagerness. Both the first and second volumes are highly recommended. The author, Charles Moore, artistically weaves in the subtle but needed obvious humor and gravity, yet engrossing details that are imperative to grasping the Thatcher era. It is a full-scale political account bursting with flavor.


Monica Morrill is a Geographer focusing on government economics, regulation and policies. She co-authored the book BETRAYED: The Shocking True Story of Extortion 17 as told by a Navy SEAL’s Father. Ms. Morrill is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.