Monday 14 October 2019

Margaret Thatcher: Vol III: Herself Alone - Insincerity and betrayal: the dramatic downfall of Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher: Vol III: Herself Alone by Charles Moore, Allen Lane, hardback, 1,072 pages, €43.74

Ideology: officials in the British Foreign Office were not open with Thatcher about their support for joining the euro
Ideology: officials in the British Foreign Office were not open with Thatcher about their support for joining the euro
Margaret Thatcher: Vol III: Herself Alone

Andrew Roberts

Reviewers are supposed never to use the word "definitive" about a history book or biography, but with Charles Moore's life of Margaret Thatcher, of which this is the triumphant last volume, one has no other option. Over the past 11 years, Moore has consulted more than a million pages of documents that crossed her desk, especially at the vast Thatcher Archive at Churchill College, Cambridge, and conducted 600 interviews with everyone involved in her life - friend or foe - to produce a work that will not need revision for decades.

Thatcher was the longest-serving British prime minister in the era of universal suffrage, and this volume covers the period from her third election victory in 1987 until her death in April 2013. It therefore recounts world-historical events such as the final victory over European Communism in the Cold War, which led to the reunification of Germany, which in turn led to the economic and monetary union of the European Community. Domestically, her final years in office saw the stock market crash of 1987, the resignation of two chancellors of the exchequer and her fall from power in November 1990. This is thus an important work of history as much as it is the personal tale of a woman fighting against seemingly insuperable odds.

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Because Moore had access to papers that were not open to other researchers, this book is full of revelations that force us to re-evaluate our prejudices about Thatcher. Far from being a covert supporter of the apartheid regime in South Africa, as the Left has alleged, she began campaigning publicly and privately for the release of Nelson Mandela in 1984. Moore quotes her words to the South African ambassador Denis Worrall that she was "convinced that progress would only come with the release of Mandela", with whom she had good relations. She described apartheid as "wrong, immoral and contrary to the dignity of man" and also saved from execution the Sharpeville Six, ANC terrorists convicted of the murder of the deputy mayor of Sharpeville, something for which she has not had proper recognition before now.

Readers might also be surprised by the coolness between Thatcher and US President George HW Bush, with whom she simply could not replicate the friendship that she had enjoyed with his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Her relationship with Bush was uneasy on both personal and strategic levels, and although she respected him, he thought she had got too much out of Reagan and was keen to distance himself somewhat, preferring instead to try to create a close rapport with the reunited Germany. Working in the Bush presidential library, Moore has found illuminating diary entries, such as when the president wrote: "I don't feel the warmth for her as I do to say [the German chancellor] Helmut [Kohl] or even [the French president] Mitterrand."

It was Mitterrand and EU president Jacques Delors who attempted to ambush Thatcher at the Rome Summit in October 1990. The Foreign Office, Moore has discovered, "did not expose Mrs Thatcher to the full extent and momentum of the EC integrationist ideology, perhaps for fear that she might kick over the traces completely". The senior Foreign Office official John Kerr was open about how much his Whitehall colleagues favoured joining the euro, which was anathema to her. "She thought the pound was part of nationship," Kerr told Moore. "The rest of us didn't think that. It was not one of the stripes of the Union Jack."

The book also covers her sensational fall from power as it was played out in the seven days of November 16-22, 1990, and represents an absolute masterpiece of the biographer's art. It should be read whether one is interested in Thatcher and British politics or not, because the story of insincerity and betrayal, appalling mismanagement, ambition both secret and hidden, and (very) occasional acts of decency is a Shakespearean tale for the ages about human nature under pressure. It reminds us how politicians, in the diarist MP Alan Clark's words of this period, "are all sharks circling, and waiting, for traces of blood to appear in the water".

In trusting John Wakeham, Tim Renton (the chief whip) and Peter Morrison to run her leadership campaign, Thatcher made three dreadful mistakes, as the first two did not want her to stay on as premier and the last was either drunk or asleep during much of the campaign. "Does this mean a second ballot, Tim?" she asked Renton when it became clear she was two votes short on the first ballot.

"Yes I'm afraid so, prime minister," Renton replied. What he did not tell her was that he himself had abstained, and that if he and only one other person had voted for her, she would have beaten challenger Michael Heseltine.

John Major emerges as the Iago of the story, desperate for power yet afraid to be seen plotting.

Moore's intimate hour-by-hour account of that week in November is gripping as human drama, as in the end the Conservative ingrates clawed her down from office, and split the party with consequences that can still be discerned nearly three decades later.

She was felled by what Moore calls "the littleness of men", and usually men who owed their own seats in Parliament to her.

Margaret Thatcher: Vol III: Herself Alone by Charles Moore, Allen Lane, hardback, 1,072 pages, €43.74

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