Thursday, 10 March 2016

"That Bloody Woman" - my review of the second volume of Margaret Thatcher's biography for The Salisbury Review

I posted some remarks about Charles Moore's book on January 16th, but here's the full version, which has just been published in the Spring edition of The Salisbury Review.  For anyone who doesn't already subscribe, you should do so immediately in order to read "In the Tattooist's Parlour", a fascinating article by a former factory worker and tattooist, Victoria Sweetwater, about what life (her life) is like in one of this country's bedraggled Northern multicultural dystopias. It's startling to read an account of the tensions between working-class whites, Asians and Poles not written by someone who sounds like a visiting anthropologist observing primitive tribes in their natural (or unnatural) environment. Ms Sweetwater (presumably an alias, but it would nice if it wasn't) was apparently a left-winger until she came across The Salisbury Review. Meanwhile, here's my Thatcher review:

Margaret Thatcher, The Authorised Biography - Volume Two: Everything She Wants, Charles Moore, Allen Lane, 1015, £30

"That Bloody Woman"

In the 1996 film, Multiplicity, Michael Keaton plays a busy construction worker who, in order to cope with the demands on his time, agrees to let a doctor create several cloned versions of himself. It works for a while, but ends in disaster. During the course of this second volume of Charles Moore’s magisterial biography, which covers Mrs Thatcher’s second term as Prime Minister, one begins to suspect her of coming to a similar arrangement - the main difference being that, in Margaret Thatcher’s case, the experiment ended in triumph, with an unprecedented third general election victory in a row.

Each section of the book essentially covers one subject (often a crisis), so we see - in the space of just four years - Mrs. Thatcher, sequentially, trouncing the NUM; surviving the Westland affair; wooing Mikhail Gorbachev; keeping Ronald Reagan on track during arms reduction talks; dramatically increasing the pace of privatisation; securing a rebate of “our money” from the EU; signing the Single European Act; dealing with the fall-out from the American invasion of Grenada and the decision to allow the US to launch air strikes against Libya from the UK; battling the Commonwealth over South African sanctions; signing a hard-fought Anglo-Irish agreement; abolishing the Ken Livingstone-led GLC: helping Rupert Murdoch defeat the print unions; negotiating the deal to hand Hong Kong back to China - and, in the middle of all that, surviving an attempt by the IRA to blow her to bits. The reader moves from one episode to the next with a growing sense of wonder at this extraordinary woman’s stamina and resilience; wonder turns to disbelief when one realises that she was invariably dealing with several of these momentous, energy-sapping issues concurrently.

It’s no surprise that she came across, according to one source, as “everyone’s mother in a bad temper”, or that her official biographer decided to extend his planned two-volume work to three volumes. It’s a testament to Charles Moore’s journalistic skills - aided by chilly wit and elegant writing - that what could have been an exhausting and bewildering account of one damned thing after another is endlessly engrossing and entertaining (the footnotes are particularly enjoyable). Moore even manages to explain the Westland brouhaha without the reader losing consciousness: for that alone, he deserves a knighthood.

Perhaps the furious pace Mrs Thatcher maintained might partly be explained by her combative temperament - she thrived on drama - but also by her conviction that her time as leader was limited. “Within months of her landslide win in 1983, she became aware that many of her senior colleagues did not want her to fight the next election as leader.” Her characteristic response was to treat cabinet members with even greater brutality. The relentless diet of humiliation dished out to her Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, was positively sadistic, and she even managed to alienate her supposed soul-mate, Party Chairman Norman Tebbit. By 1987, the Tories, understandably hankering for a more sedate existence, had managed to convince themselves that the TBW (“That Bloody Woman”) factor had turned their leader into an electoral liability, and tried to reduce her role in the general election campaign. She was having none of it, and the election result proved her right. (Moore’s account of Wobbly Thursday, when Mrs. Thatcher and her election team - actually “teams”, because she had a dual operation running - went into meltdown over a rogue opinion poll is particularly compelling: somebody should dramatise it.)

Mrs. Thatcher’s femininity - whether she’s deliberately or instinctively trading on it - is a major theme. Her relationship with Gorbachev is as sexually charged as a tango: according to one Russian interpreter: “[she] was all over him, charming him, fascinating him and he responded in kind…she likes to use her woman’s wiles to play games with Gorbachev…”  Reagan is like a rich, elderly admirer, desperate to avoid upsetting a feisty, strong-willed, younger mistress. She won a huge arms deal with Saudi Arabia party because King Fahd considered her “a very beautiful woman”. She had a fondness for dashing young men: explaining her willingness to make a concession to King Hussein of Jordan over the PLO, her private secretary Charles Powell says: “She had stars in her eyes about the gallant little king.” Attending Chernenko’s funeral in Moscow, Moore tells us, “As was often the case when she saw parades, Mrs Thatcher was much taken with the soldiers.” She insisted on greeting the “energetic and handsome” young Saudi Prince Bandar at the door of No.10 with a deep curtsey (he thought she’d slipped). According to one No. 10 civil servant, “She liked dangerous people.” As her fondness for Cecil Parkinson showed, she also had a weakness for charming courtiers: we’re told she “adored the Cecil type of flattery”. During the miners’ strike, she worried about what the families of her “heroes”, the working miners, were going through. After signing a heartfelt letter to one wife, she realised the potential danger of receiving a letter marked “10 Downing Street” in a mining community. “With a thoughtfulness and attention to detail which is hard to imagine in a male prime minister, she wrote a covering note which said: ‘Please send in a Plain envelope.’” And, of course, she worried about her children - the Tory MP Jonathan Aitken was never forgiven for ditching her daughter, and her son’s shenanigans made her “tense” and uncharacteristically “irresolute”. According to Carla Powell, the wife of her private secretary, “Everything about her was totally, totally feminine…she loved the boys [her private secretaries].” Tellingly, Mrs Thatcher once told Mrs Powell: “If a woman takes on a battle, she has to win.”

Naturally, these tokens of femininity counted for nothing with left-wingers. As the Labour MP Glenda Jackson remarked, ““A woman? Not on my terms.” This points to another of the book’s main themes -  the Left’s utter inability to understand Mrs Thatcher or her extraordinary electoral success. Convinced of her wickedness, they thought that “they only had to point this out loudly enough and voters would desert the Conservatives.” Moore goes on, “Never… did they coldly analyse why she was winning, in order to ensure that she would lose.”

The metropolitan liberal-left’s deranged hatred of this provincial female upstart revealed the grotesque snobbery of the nation’s compassion-mongering elite. The philosopher Mary Warnock produced this gem: “Watching her choose clothes at Marks and Spencer there was really something obscene about it.” For the opera director Jonathan Miller, she had “the diction of a perfumed fart’.” According to the writer Hanif Kureshi she had turned England into “a squalid… intolerant, racist, homophobic, narrow-minded, authoritarian rat-hole run by vicious, suburban-minded materialistic philistines.” The playwright David Hare predicted that, once she retired she would leave behind “nothing but the memory of a funny accent and an obscure sense of shame.” This subject sees Moore at his icy best: “She reads bestsellers was one of the attacks hurled at her by the novelist Anthony Burgess. Few of the wider public regarded this as a crime.” She was, as Professor John Vincent wrote, “…the point at which all snobberies meet.”

Why did the Member for Finchley generate such toxic loathing among the virtue-signalling classes? Because she simply had no time for them. As David Hare astutely put it, “Intellectuals in Britain had always dreamed of having influence with practical politicians, but the bitter irony was that when a prime minister came along who actually did like intellectuals, it was the blowhard right she wanted to listen to… not, if you like, the usual suspects.” Mrs Thatcher demonstrated her contempt for sentimental posturing in a 1987 eve-of-poll television interview. David Dimbleby asked her why she didn’t seem to care about the unemployed, to which she replied: “If people just drool and drivel that they care, I turn round and say, ‘Right, I also look to see what you actually do.’” Uncharacteristically (and disappointingly), she immediately apologised for using such intemperate language. But, as Moore comments, “… the words were of the essence of Margaret Thatcher. First they expressed fierce antagonism to the left’s pretensions to the moral high ground. Second, they encapsulated her tendency to judge by results and by action rather than by words.”

Despite Moore’s evident admiration for his subject, this is no hagiography: he doesn’t skate over Mrs. Thatcher’s faults, including her tendency to hector: “Once, when she was firing so many angry questions at David Willetts that he could not get her to read the brief which answered them, David Wolfson [her former Chief of Staff] intervened and said to Mrs. Thatcher, ‘Just shut up and read the bloody brief.’” A truly courageous man.

A great biography of a great leader.

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