Charles Moore on Margaret Thatcher's 'loveable' side
“Often with a great figure, the first thing you think about them is the most important. The fact that Margaret Thatcher was the first – and only – woman to be British prime minister made everything different. It made her attitude different. It made people’s attitude to her different. It made her impact on the world different. I think it even made her ideology different. It certainly made her style of government completely different.”
So says Charles Moore, author of the first authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, who died last month of a stroke at the age of 87. The publication of the first volume – Not for Turning – is one of the less heralded results of Baroness Thatcher’s death. Written with the full cooperation of its subject, the book’s only stipulation was that it should not appear during her lifetime.
“This is not a history of her government. This is a biography,” Moore insists when we talk in the sumptuous surroundings of the Horseguards Hotel, not far from 10 Downing Street. “I have always been very interested in the relationship between Thatcher’s character, personality and of course her sex and her extraordinary deeds, her grasp of the subject and the global era. I have tried very hard to link the two – the private and the public Margaret Thatcher.”
On the face of it, Charles Moore is the perfect man for the job. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, the 57-year-old was a political commentator throughout Thatcher’s 1980s heyday. He edited The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers – stints that were separated by six years at The Spectator. Nevertheless, although he describes the commission as an “honour” and a surprise (“I had absolutely no idea it was coming whatsoever”), he confesses to “a certain trepidation” at the scale of his task. Nine years in the writing (“The serious work started in 2004”), Moore’s biography weighs in at 758 pages, with a further 101 pages of notes, the bibliography and the index – and this is only volume one of two.
Moore himself encountered Thatcher personally on many occasions as a journalist. “When she was prime minister I saw her quite often but I didn’t know her at all well. She would have me to lunch. I would meet her at receptions or other people’s dinners. She knew who I was, but we didn’t have any personal relationship.”
There were a few closer encounters. “I had twice done full journalistic interviews – one five days before she fell [from office in 1990]. I wrote strongly in her favour at a time when a lot other people did not. That was when she first became closer, in personal terms, but I was never part of the inner circle.”
This growing sympathy did not make the lengthy face-to-face interviews demanded by the biography any easier. Indeed, Moore says, the process of extracting first-hand information from Thatcher was never less than tricky.
“She had a dislike of being asked about herself. She was always very polite, but she didn’t really warm to the historical or autobiographical interview. This wasn’t to do with her declining powers – that came later. In her eyes, the interview is political combat. She knew perfectly well why I was there, but could not stop herself from having big arguments about public events.”
Thatcher herself had often played fast and loose with her life story, mythologising her modest childhood in Grantham as the younger of two sisters, which comprises the first third of Moore’s book. Margaret’s dominant influence was her father, Alfred Roberts, who was self-made (he owned two grocery shops), clever, a devout Methodist and fiercely ambitious.
“I think he recognised something in her. First of all, he had no sons. Secondly, he was very highly self-educated but had to leave school at 13. He transferred his love of education onto her. Margaret, without being horrible at all, somewhat neglected him, mainly through being so busy.”
Margaret’s neglect of her mother, by contrast, had begun many years earlier: “Margaret was not very interested by her mother and felt guilty about that. I don’t think her mother ever said anything that captured her imagination somehow.”
If Moore had some notion about Thatcher’s childhood, he found himself more than a little surprised when researching her love life, a subject about which she remained fiercely tight-lipped. Married, famously, to the wealthy, laconic bon viveur Denis Thatcher, she pursued three relationships of varying seriousness before settling down: with Willie Cullen, who later married her sister Muriel, fellow Oxford undergraduate Tony Bray and a doctor called Robert Henderson, who was almost twice Margaret’s age.
“The love interest was completely unknown to me – and to virtually anyone. People tend to think that because she was very serious and strong that she was without human feeling. In fact, she had raging passions about just about everything really. It didn’t stop her from cold calculation, but the idea that she was not really a woman because she was a brutal calculating machine could not be more wrong.” The question of Thatcher’s gender arguably defines Moore’s biography, as well as her unlikely rise to power up the Conservative Party. “One reason she succeeded in the 1980s was the almost unbelievable extent to which she was underrated by her opponents. Thatcher was the she-elephant in the room that everyone else ignored, even when she was prime minister changing everything in the country.”
Moore cites the infamous newspaper headline, “Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher”, as an example of misogyny when reporting her political activities. Forced by the treasury to slash the budget as education minister, Thatcher decided to charge schools for providing school milk to all but the youngest children. “Her enemies basically branded her as evil because a woman doing anything tough is considered disgusting. She resolved never to get so upset about a story again. She succeeded – except where her family was concerned.”
Thatcher gradually learnt to turn misogynist barbs to her advantage. Accused of being a “hoarder” after she confessed to occasionally buying more food than she needed, Thatcher invited the press to examine her kitchen cupboards. “This bad story became the good story. She’s the prudent housewife. Women understand economic problems as they apply to real life better than men.”
An even more potent example surrounds the creation of Thatcher’s iconic nickname. “Iron Lady” was initially an insult flung at her as leader of the opposition in 1976 by Russia’s Red Star newspaper.
“It was marvellous that they did it for her. Firstly, she was anti-Soviet and she wanted to be anti-Soviet. Secondly, what you desperately need as leader of the opposition is recognition. If the main hostile power in the world can be bothered to call you the Iron Lady, it’s gold, isn’t it?’
Moore accepts the criticism frequently aimed at Thatcher that she did little to advance women’s rights or causes. “She prefers the company of men but believes in the superiority of women.”
At the same time, this myopia reflected her own intense, and deeply personal, ambition to break through the glass ceiling for women politicians of the time. “She wanted to do things that were really seen as male preserves. In government there is a clear, male pecking order: money, war and power. That is where she wanted to excel – money, war and power.”
Although Moore has only narrated half the story so far (volume one ends with Thatcher on the brink of global prominence after victory in the Falklands), he expresses profound admiration for his subject. Indeed, he chooses a striking word – “loveable” – to describe his personal conception of her.
“I think there is something really magnificent about her – something warm. If she received loyalty she returned it. That is very rare in a politician. Her indomitable qualities are loveable.”
As for posterity, Moore is convinced that her stature and her legacy will only increase as history judges her time in power. “There is a whole ideology and her mythological quality which is due to her character and her sex. In her era, she is the biggest of the lot, in terms of personal impact. She is already like Elizabeth I, Nelson or Churchill.”
James Kidd is a freelance writer and reviewer based in London.
Updated: May 16, 2013 04:00 AM