“Gentlemen, Shall we Join the Ladies?”

Margaret Thatcher, the only woman in the room, in talks with Ronald Reagan at the White House in February 1981.

 

by Jan Willem Scholten

In a book rich in detail and grounded on the mastery of a wide variety of sources, Daily Telegraph journalist Charles Moore unravels the road to the top of Great Britain’s first  female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The first volume of the Iron Lady’s long-expected biography, titled Not for Turning, has been published following her passing away in April 2013.

Thatcher’s voice and her politics still resonate, both within Britain and farther afield. This became clear earlier this year when the news of Lady Thatcher’s death in a London hotel was followed by stormy debates over her meaning and legacy. Much of what is written about her therefore focuses on the controversies brought about by her political program and style.

Charles Moore, however, goes beyond the political in this monumental work, and devotes considerable attention to Mrs. Thatcher’s pre-political life in wartime and post-war austere England. Thatcher’s background as the daughter of Alderman Alfred Roberts, grocer from the provincial town of Grantham, has always played an important role in evaluations of her, and Moore’s account is no exception. Breaking through social barriers forms one of the major themes of the first part of the book.

Via her degree in chemistry at the University of Oxford and her short pre-political careers as a laboratory technician and  a barrister, Thatcher became a Member of Parliament for the district of Finchley in North London in 1959, after several earlier unsuccessful attempts to be elected.

In retrospect, her road to the top was not without significant obstacles. The Conservative Party she entered in the 1950s was a bastion of male, and often aristocratic, ‘grandees’, which it was difficult for a woman to break into. Only through a prolonged and determined attempt could Thatcher transform her modest background into a successful parliamentary candidacy. The spirit of the times when she entered politics is illustrated by the fact that her husband Denis was not present at the birth of the couple’s twins in 1953, attending a test cricket match at the Oval instead.

Nonetheless, Thatcher’s background was also her biggest political strength. Within the Party, her ambitions were, to a certain extent, underestimated by the grandees of the old order. Combined with her relentless energy for parliamentary work, this led to Thatcher attaining the post of Education Secretary-labeled “a woman’s thing”, by Ted Heath-relatively quickly in 1970. After Thatcher dethroned Heath as party leader in 1975, he would be resentful of her for the rest of his life, and sometimes show active hostility in public.

Following her election as party leader in February 1975, she faced the gargantuan task of mobilizing and revitalizing the Tories to accept and support her vision for a new Britain. For the new leader, the future was far from certain: the Conservative Party was certainly not unreservedly Thatcherite from the start, and many of its grandees did not feel at home with the radical and uncompromising ideas of their boss. Henry Kissinger, writes Moore, opined in 1975 that he thought Thatcher would not last until the end of the decade as leader of the Conservatives.

However, the crisis of the Labour government of 1978, known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’, enabled Thatcher’s party to obtain electoral victory in 1979. Thatcher’s program is well-known: curb the ever-continuing inflation of sterling, and foster economic recovery by attacking the entrenched position of the trade unions.

In practice, however, the application of these ideas proved difficult. Moore describes the deliberations within her first cabinet in detail. One of the key players is Geoffrey Howe, who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, became the tapestry master of Thatcherite economic policy. Her cabinet was often fundamentally divided, and the first signs of a structural factional division between ‘wets’ and ‘dries’ was visible from the start. Some of the most outspoken critics were neutralized in the first cabinet reshuffle of September 1981, but this did not quell opposition. As 1981 drew to a close, an increasing chorus of commentators was openly doubting the wisdom of Thatcher’s politics.

Then, however, almost as a deus ex machina, the April 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falklands – the apotheosis of the book – occured. This event proved to be the definitive turning point for Mrs. Thatcher’s political fortunes; her approval ratings soared following British defeat of the Argentinians.

To a certain extent, Moore’s narrative confirms the existing images of Thatcher: he highlights her disdain for political compromise, her strong anti-communism (which also commits her to a certain enthusiasm for the European Community) and her warm trans-Atlantic bond with the United States.

However, the book also contains more surprising elements. Moore emphasizes the influence the wartime ‘community spirit’ had on Thatcher’s worldview. Her romantic belief in Britain as an imperial world power, and her strong will to do whatever it took to stop its decline, are highlighted as well. Secondly, Moore makes clear that the centrality of the concepts of individual responsibility and economic self-sufficiency were fostered by Thatcher’s strong Christian faith. “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well,” as she famously illustrated this in a 1980 television interview. Thirdly, her belief in the strength of family bonds is brought to the fore – although her career did not always allow her to devote as much attention to her own family as she may have wished for.

A last interesting nuance brought up by Moore concerns her relationship with Ronald Reagan, which was not always as unreservedly positive as conventional analysis has it. Thatcher was sometimes disappointed by what she considered the poor preparation or superficial intellectual engagement of the president. Moreover, sometimes Britain’s and America’s interests simply clashed. This showed most clearly during the Falklands War, during which a significant pro-Argentinian faction in the State Department attempted to convince Reagan to withdraw his support for Mrs. Thatcher.

Nonetheless, the end of the Falklands War brought Thatcher to the height of her popularity in Britain. After a dinner at No. 10 Downing Street with her cabinet and generals to mark the end of the war, a dinner where she was the only woman present, Margaret Thatcher could therefore exclaim with pride: “Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?” It was, perhaps, the happiest moment of her life.


 

Charles Moore
Thatcher: The Authorized Biography. Volume One: Not For Turning
London: Allen Lane, 2013; 859 pages. £30,00;
ISBN: 978-0-713-99282-3

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