'Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone' is a biography of the Iron Lady with a 'darker and sadder tale to tell'
Journalist and editor Charles Moore wrote the biography with Thatcher's permission, so long as it was only published after her death
Charles Moore concludes his epic three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher with this immense new volume, Herself Alone, reaching 1,000 pages and covering the years from 1987 to her death in 2013, chronicling her third term in office and its aftermath.
Critic Peter Stothard, reviewing the previous volume in the Times Literary Supplement in 2015, referred to the whole endeavour as “this most official of official biographies”, but these great volumes have been entirely free of sycophancy. Thatcher originally agreed to the project on the condition that she would not read the manuscript, and it be published only after her death.
The first two volumes were deeply impressive, charting the former British prime minister’s rise from obscurity to virtually regnal political power during the height of her influence. This third volume opens at those heights and therefore has nowhere to go but down.
It has a darker and sadder tale to tell, one too easily given Shakespearean dimensions: a world-bestriding figure whose own strengths – pride, determination, self-assurance, dominance over all rivals – become fatal weaknesses.
“Above the smoke of domestic battle, people tend to see a few big things,” Moore writes, talking about the task of looking at Thatcher’s life in fine and in full, “themes about economic liberty, vigorous defence of western civilisation and the nature of woman-power.” And, Moore adds, those same people tend to leave out “the annoyances which are more visible close up”.
The author’s prodigiously researched concluding volume serves up a veritable blizzard of such up-close details, touching on everything from her relationships with the other towering political figures of her time – Ronald Reagan, naturally, but also, crucially, Mikhail Gorbachev during the collapse of the Soviet Union – to the growing political tensions in her own nation.
Those tensions boiled over during the Paris Charter conference held in November of 1990, attended and dominated by Thatcher, while she was losing key electoral support back home. “When she could have been fighting for her political life,” Moore writes with the sure, polished-silver prose that fills all three of these volumes, “she would have to listen to speeches by the chief ministers of San Marino and Liechtenstein instead.”
While she was at the conference, the votes were going fatally against her in London, to the point where all of her most loyal adherents were echoing Peter Lilley, “the purest Thatcherite in the Cabinet”, when he told her: “Will support you if you stand, but inconceivable that you will win.” In his diary, conservative member of Parliament Alan Clark wrote: “What a way to go! Unbeaten in three elections, never rejected by the people. Brought down by nonentities!”
What Clark expressed privately, Thatcher expressed publicly in her memoir The Downing Street Years: “I wanted to leave behind me when I went … candidates with proven character and experience from whom the choice of my successor could be made,” she writes, continuing blandly: “For various reasons, I did not believe that any of my own political generation were suitable.” From such a point, downfall seems not only inescapable, but richly deserved.
Thatcher’s post-power life was narrowed by both changing times and a series of strokes, and when Moore concludes his story and looks back to survey her place in history, he asks an appealingly elemental question: “Was she a traditionalist or a radical?”
Perhaps inevitably, he concludes she was both. “Few,” he writes with neat asperity, “were less questioning than she of the customary modes of British life.” And yet, like John Milton (who she never read but liked to quote), she was also a radical: “She had the radical’s total lack of embarrassment about arguing from first principles.” Above all, he continues, she had “the radical’s permanent, angry ambition for change”.
The ominous ambiguity there is at least a big part of Moore’s cautious assessment. His portrait of Thatcher seems quietly affectionate throughout, and although he presents the coarseness of Thatcherite policies with less venom than their critics will like, his account is as balanced as anything yet written.
Back in 1989, when Thatcher was still very much in power at London’s 10 Downing Street, historian David Cannadine wrote that “the magnitude of her achievement means that she is already part of history: but it will be the second decade of the 21st century before we can hope to get her full measure as an historical personality”. He was accurate virtually down to the day; with this edition, Moore presents a multi-volume biography of a British prime minister that deserves inclusion on a short shelf of masterpieces, alongside John Morley’s two-volume life of Gladstone and, of course, Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume series on Winston Churchill.
Updated: December 2, 2019 09:44 AM