Thursday 18 January 2018

How Britain's Iron Lady was almost sunk by the Falklands War

The conflict defined her, but it nearly ruined her career, says Maurice Hayes

Maurice Hayes

Maurice Hayes

It is difficult to review half a life: knowing how the story ends, the main interest is how the biographer is going to treat it, what conclusions he will eventually come to, and to what extent he is preparing the ground in his treatment of the subject and those around her.

This first volume of the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher brings the story to 1982 and triumph in the Falklands – the defining moment of her political career.

It is biography on the industrial scale; with free access to civil servants, hundreds of interviews, tens of thousands of files and documents and a huge reading list. There is at times almost too much information, but despite being an official biographer and a known admirer, Moore presents the evidence both for and against with scrupulous fairness.

He presents Thatcher as not having an intellectually orderly mind, or an original one. Rather than developing ideas on her own she was a sort of "stage-door Johnny" for the ideas of others, prone to captivation by a succession of economic and political gurus.

What he does show, however, is her clear-mindedness, her ability to get to the simple heart of an often complicated public issue and presenting it urgently.

What we do see is a self-driven obsessive worker, always on top of her brief, a loner in a man's world, isolated among the Tory toffs, determined to out-do them all.

The early years were enriched by a cache of letters to her sister which illuminate the enigmatic relationship with her father (and the non-existent relationship with her mother), often in grinding detail.

Moore seems determined to show the importance of seeing Thatcher as a woman (although never as a feminist) and to identify the human and emotional individual behind the Iron Lady of popular legend. He goes far to show the stereotype as caricature (partly, it must be said of her own creation) and that at this stage of her career she was slow to make up her mind (although resolute when made up), often uncertain, anxious to leave an escape route and vulnerable to the forces aligned against her – not least in Cabinet.

The most damning criticism of her management style comes from an adviser who describes her as bossy, bullying, openly critical of colleagues, with poor leadership skills and without management competence.

The volume ends in victory in the Falklands, but not before showing that it was a very close-run thing, and how near she was to losing everything to her opponents in the Cabinet. In short, the Falklands saved her political career.

Having left Northern Ireland to Airey Neave – a committed integrationist – in opposition, she came into office with no Northern Ireland policy, and a very poor understanding of the issues.

A committed Unionist, she was really an English Nationalist with poor understanding of, and less regard for the regions. She "didn't expect anything decent to come from an Irishman" and regarded Northern Nationalists as traitors – a poor recipe for a policy.

This account does show that far from being the intransigent figure of Irish legend, impervious to all appeals for mercy for the hunger strikers, Thatcher was open to several initiatives to end the strike – even to the extent of authorising secret (and deniable) contacts with the IRA – which rather strengthens the hand of those like Ricky O'Rawe who claim that there had been an acceptable offer on the table.

Like her or loathe her, Thatcher was the outstanding figure in British politics since the war; the only one with name recognition and international reputation, the only one to give her name to an ideology, and to become a cult figure for contemporary Tory yuppies. Charles Moore's monumental study is commensurate with her domestic and international status, and promises to be one of the great political biographies.

Irish Independent

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