Saturday 11 May 2013

Review of 'Margaret Thatcher: Not For Turning' by Charles Moore


Consule Planco. (Horace)

I did not like Mrs Thatcher at the time but now I do. I like her for all the things she did not do - and which Labour subsequently did. And for some of her achievements. 

I received yesterday Charles Moore's life of Lady Thatcher from Amazon and have already got through most of its almost 800 pages, though skipping quite a lot. I am reading it avidly because I love Moore's writing (at 56 this is his first book, though he wrote it years ago), as much as from interest in his subject. I have to say his prose and his insights are not quite as good as I expected, because my expectations were very high, though there is much to enjoy and learn from. My abiding impression is that Margaret Thatcher was a very dull person. As were Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, James Callaghan, Clement Attlee and most prime ministers.

This was something we knew about Margaret Thatcher at the time, of course. With very few exceptions it is only the biographies of writers that are interesting as biographies, as opposed to history.  Writers are interesting because we have their words and because they reflect on their lives and the human condition, which Margaret Thatcher never did. Even the good looks of Anthony Eden, the war, Suez, his adulteries and drug addiction do not make him interesting. He remains as dull as his speeches.

The great exceptions, of course, are Disraeli and Churchill - but these are exceptions that prove the rule, as both were very good writers. Wellington is another exception, but he was first and foremost a general. Another possible exception is Lloyd George but he led the British Empire in a world war and was a remarkably flamboyant figure anyway. Yet he lacked the introspection which makes the subject of a biography truly interesting. As Keynes said of him,
When Lloyd George is alone in a room, the room is empty.
This is why biographies of the Bloomsbury Group are so much more interesting than lives of politicians, even though the Bloomsbury Group did more harm to their country than the politicians.

Palmerston and Pitt the Younger are interesting, because of what they did. I have not read Lord David Cecil on Melbourne but imagine it is fun. Of the politicians who did not achieve the top job, John Wilkes and Charles James Fox, of course, are very compelling. Joseph Chamberlain and Sir Oswald Mosley also come to mind. But the diarists Sir Harold Nicolson and Sir Henry Channon will interest our grandchildren much more, of course, than the politicians they write about, Churchill excepted. 

Will the politician, diarist and satyromaniac Alan Clarke interest them more than Lady Thatcher? I do not think he is in the same league as Nicolson or Channon but yes, he probably will. Ironically, she, who said she hated feminism like poison, will be remembered as a feminist heroine. History is like that.

I always thought the right length for biographies is the length Plutarch, or  many biographers who wrote before Boswell, such as Izaak Walton, used- about fifty pages or so. However, this will not do for an official biography of a Prime Minister and certainly not for this Prime Minister, the most important since Churchill. (Attlee was a brilliant chairman, who achieved much, but he did not make the weather and he was incredibly dull.) Congratulations to Mr Moore for keeping to two volumes, rather than stretching it to three, as Norman Sherry did for his disappointing life of Graham Greene. I always suspect writers who do that of doing so to increase royalties. Even so, Mr. Moore's book is rather too long and too detailed.

By chance, I see that in this week's Spectator Mr. Moore has a very interesting revelation:

On Tuesday night, at a Spectator readers’ evening, Andrew Neil interviewed me about my biography of Margaret Thatcher. He asked me if, after leaving office, Lady Thatcher had come to the view that Britain should leave the European Union. I said yes (I think it happened after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992), although advisers had persuaded her that she should not say this in public since it would have allowed her opponents to drive her to the fringes of public life. I had believed this was widely known, but according to Andrew, it is a story. My revelation, if such it was, came on the same day as Nigel Lawson’s piece in the Times saying that he would now vote for Britain to leave the EU. How things have changed. Even the BBC treats Lawson’s view as respectable. In this year, the 25th anniversary of the Bruges speech, people can see much more clearly that, far from living in ‘a ghetto of sentimentality about the past’ (© Geoffrey Howe), she was thinking harder than her contemporaries about the future of Europe.

Mr. Moore has found many gems, especially in the footnotes. I liked, for example,  Mrs Thatcher's right-wing Jewish adviser, Sir Alfred Sherman' impatience with talk of Britain's Judaeo-Christian heritage. 'It's not Judaeo-Christian, it's Christian.' And her having to looking  after her not very socially elevated Uncle Harold,  who gatecrashed the count the night she won her seat, Finchley, for the first time. He had no means of getting home and Mrs Thatcher's father, Alderman Roberts, was very cross with him for embarrassing the new MP.

I always thought Margaret Thatcher was a very religious woman, although she rarely spoke of it and Carol Thatcher told me that her mother was not religious at all. Thatcherism was essentially a religious outlook. As she said,  
'Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul'.
Margaret Thatcher came from an  extremely, almost oppressively, religious family. Her father was a Methodist lay preacher (and notorious lecher, but this the book does not mention). The theme of the book is that Margaret Thatcher's Christianity was what drove her and there are moments in the early chapters when this feels almost like a devotional book (her devotion to work, etc). She had this in common with the Queen whom she served.  Like Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher was a better theologian than many of the clergymen (clergywomen had not yet been invented) who disapproved of her.

Her period in office will be remembered for increasing numbers of women having careers, which contributed to male unemployment; social liberalism (easy divorce, more illegitimate births, falling church attendance, increased acceptance of homosexuality); the Single European Act and high unemployment. Also: council house sales, privatisation, reducing the power of the trade unions (mostly because unemployment rose)  and ending the dreary business of prices and incomes policies. She failed in her attempt to reduce the number of immigrants and in her time over half a million immigrants came to the UK, mostly wives in arranged marriages from the Sub-Continent. Her administration encouraged the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, rather than abstinence. 
I was glad that Moore agrees with the view I took at the time that by announcing that HMS Endeavour would be taken out of service she probably is responsible for the Argentinians invading. Callaghan, old naval man, would not have made this mistake. The Falklands War was however her greatest hour and the Labour Party's worst.
She made two fatal mistakes: the poll tax and entering the European Monetary System (forerunner to the euro).  The first lost her the premiership in 1990, the second lost the Tories their majority in the House of Commons in 1997 and their reputation for economic competence. They have never recovered either to this day.

Social workers remained leftists and Marxists, as did many council officials. The 1980s saw the  consolidation of the left's hold over culture, academia and teaching (O Levels were abolished, grammar schools were not restored). What was in her time called 'the Loony Left' have  now in many respects taken over the British establishment.

She moved economics a long way to the right (in 1979 Tony Benn was saying that the victory of socialism was inevitable). She raised Britain's self-confidence, presided over de-industrialisation, failed to see the danger posed by the European Union to the UK. She did not repeal the anti-discrimination legislation brought in by Labour. She reduced the role of the state, in the economic sphere, but the EU undid her work and made the state even more powerful. She alienated the Scots and the Conservative Party lost most of its seats in Scotland (in 1955 the Conservatives had, for the only time, a majority of Scottish MPs). She was therefore indirectly responsible for devolution. She signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement that led eventually to the end of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Opinions differ on whether that was a good thing. She said her greatest achievement was New Labour.

Enoch Powell, who was introspective, said that 
All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.
Margaret Thatcher was a Powellite in her economic policy, and one wonders how much Powell would have achieved in the unlikely event that he had been Prime Minister. Her reaching No 10 was equally unlikely.

She will be principally remembered by history, I think, for the following four things: as the first woman Prime Minister, for inventing privatisation, for signing the Single European Act and for admitting around 50,000 immigrants a year into the UK, mostly wives from the Indian Subcontinent, who contracted arranged marriages with British subjects. 50,000 was very much fewer than the annual numbers under Tony Blair but it was the number which led Enoch Powell to declare in his famous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968:

We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.

I think Peter Hitchens is very good in his analysis of Margaret Thatcher as a tragic failure, here.

My thoughts when she died are here


  1. I think P. Hitchen's very brief analysis of
    V. Putin is good. But the Right-Wingers in western government don't like him either for the same reasons. They don't like sovereignty and independence in the new world order

  2. I think Hitchens is wrong to praise Putin, who I think is a murderer. According to Wikileaks Putin has salted away billions but what he did in Chechnya is worse. Please read my thoughts on Putin here:

  3. Does the author consider her as a Germanophobe who was vehiminently against the Berlin Wall coming down and Germany being finally reunited

  4. That is for volume 2 but she was in favour of the Wall being opened - just not in favour of reunification. I liked her instincts on that - which she shared with M Mitterand - even though in 1989 I disliked her very much. Which Frenchman said he loved Germany so much he wanted there to be two of them?

  5. "Her administration encouraged the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, rather than abstinence. "

    Come on Paul, are you really alligning yourself with the ridiculous 'religious' right wing American bigots?

  6. I made no comment - but it shows how liberal her government was - not socially conservative at all. As she said - 'We should change the name Conservative Party, because we are not conservative'.

  7. I must say that I did enjoy bios of Rosbury and especially Balfour, but perhaps, as you say, for the history of those periods. I think, however, that they were interesting enough of themselves.

  8. You are right - especially the great RR Jmmes on Rosebery. Of course that era is so attractive unlike post 1945. On the other hand the 1980s with no hereditary peers, 26 women MPs and no women vicars seems almost Edwardian. The moral of which is that one should count one's blessings.

  9. Balfour was interesting. His memoirs were deadly dull but Rosebery could write. Asquith was interesting - perhaps since Churchill Prime Ministers became dull. Macmillan tried hard to be stylish interesting and partly succeeded, though as a backbencher which he was for a long time he was considered a bore. He was a bit of a fraud. Dear old Lord Home was lovely of course.

  10. Interesting concept that the left wing control welfare and education and the economy is run on right a right wing doctrine. Might this explain the tremendous political and social pressures (what the Americans would call "Culture Wars") that now beset the UK?

    I've always assumed biographies are boring and so avoided them. Not sure where I got this stupid idea from, but recently I read the most brilliant biography of Wellington (The Great Duke) who was a military genius on a par with Napoleon (but without his wanton disregard for human life). He was the one bright star in Britain's otherwise lacklustre military (I'm talking army here) history. I'd like to know your thoughts on him.

  11. Disraeli said, 'There is properly no history. There is only biography.'I once did not read biographies but of writers they are wonderful. The best is Johnson's Life of Boswell. Wellington was one of those very big men who threw off endless wonderful quotations. I am not interested in military history but I do love him. His politics were terribly reactionary though. Read a wonderful book, Hariette Wilson's memoirs to read about his sex life. It is very funny and well-written in an artless naive way. She wrote is as a form of blackmail which led the iron Duke to make the famous remark, 'Publish and be damned.' I read a very good collection of conversations with Wellington - I love conversation books - or ana as they were known.

  12. I need to get this! I've been reading extracts in the Telegraph, namely letters to her sister and I didn't think she was dull at all. But maybe her perspective was dull to men. I really respected her, she was such a brave person and she had vision. I do like Charles Moore, he's very thoughtful.

  13. Whether or not I agree with everything in this review of Charles Moore's book is irrelevant. I feel that this is a good review, certainly thoughtful and thought provoking (what more can one ask?) I seems, based on the review, that Charles Moore's biography is reasonably fair and balanced - of course, I say this without having actually read the book!

    I'm a little surprised that no mention is made of the Falklands / Malvinas War, 1982. It strikes me that this was a Godsend to PM Thatcher's career. Understandably, it galvanized the British public (here in the States, I was captivated by the course of the war). Britain's victory - not altogether assured (had the Argentines severely damaged or sank one or both aircraft carriers...) - revived the sense of pride within the British people that had, to one degree or another, been lost with the Empire. Moreover, Thatcher and the British people occupied the moral high ground, as the victims of an unprovoked attack (the Argentine Junta's clumsy handling of affairs and complete ignorance of an understanding if of the British people is reflected in those television scenes and still photos of the men of the British garrison lying in the ground under the guns of the Argentine Marines). Thatcher should have sent Argentina a big 'Thank You' letter for boosting her popularity among the very working class who suffered from her policies.

    It's no accident that I can see a parallel between the benefit to Thatcher's career of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands and the benefit to a certain U.S. President's career (at least initially) and the attack on the twin towers.
    Paul Walsh

    1. Unaccountable that I forgot to mention the Falklands War. I was glad that Moore agrees with the view I took at the time that by announcing that HMS Endeavour would be taken out of service she probably is responsible for the Argentinians invading. Callaghan, old naval man, would not have made this mistake. Still it was a great moment for her and a terrible one for the Labour Party and the appalling Michael Foot. I do not agree that this was the reason the Conservatives won the 1983 election, however.