Ruler of Britannia

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning, by Charles Moore, Allen Lane £30/Knopf RRP$35, 896 pages

Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher, by Robin Harris, Bantam Press RRP£20, 494 pages

The Autobiography, by Margaret Thatcher, HarperPress RRP£30, 788 pages

Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous, Arrow RRP£8.99/WW Norton $27.95, 336 pages

Making Thatcher’s Britain, edited by Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, Cambridge RRP£19.99, 368 pages

Since her death earlier this month, aged 87, vast tracts of newsprint have been devoted to the question of how we should see Margaret Thatcher. This is the moment when a controversial politician becomes embalmed in words that seek to define her for posterity. Some of the tropes are already wearyingly familiar through constant repetition. Over and over again we have been told that she was the Iron Lady, who boldly declared what she would do – and promptly did it. Thatcherism was so potent, we have been repeatedly assured, simply because it did what it said on the tin.

The publication of Charles Moore’s eagerly anticipated authorised biography, Not For Turning, is a notable landmark. The first of two volumes, it is not only long and exhaustive but meticulously researched and gracefully expounded. It is not the only biography to appear so opportunely, not even the only one under this same title. Robin Harris worked closely with Thatcher for many years, both in Downing Street and after she left office, and he, too, has appropriated the phrase for his lively and accessible insider’s account. Harris sticks closer to the Lady’s own account of her life, though with a few asides of his own, whereas Moore writes with greater freedom, insight and objectivity.

Moreover, we already have the work of a younger generation of historians to provide a more dispassionate perspective. In Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship, Richard Aldous has explored the transatlantic relationship between the two leaders with great verve but also with some adroit demythologising of this relationship in view of the archival evidence. He makes the point that their friendship, like that of Churchill and Roosevelt before them, was constructed pragmatically to serve their statesmanship. Similar insights inform several of the essays edited by Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders in Making Thatcher’s Britain. This is a further valuable contribution to the Thatcher debate, presenting the research of 16 academics in a lively as well as a scholarly way.

Both ideologically and personally, we now have a better understanding of the remarkable figure who became Britain’s first woman prime minister. One of Moore’s happy discoveries was a cache of letters that the young Margaret Roberts, leaving provincial Grantham behind to go to Oxford university in the mid-1940s, sent back to her older sister Muriel. Writing in graphic and spontaneous terms, Margaret reveals herself as already ambitious to seek a career in politics. That being so, as she candidly observes, it becomes important to acquire the right sort of hats and handbags, and also the right sort of husband.

There was, it emerges, a boyfriend at Oxford, Tony, who wasn’t quite the ticket. Then, in the postwar whirl of Young Conservative activities in the London area, comes an encounter with Willie, a Scottish farmer who likewise wouldn’t quite do for Margaret but was adroitly passed on to Muriel, whom he obligingly married. And Margaret, at 24 or so, was also involved for a time with Robert, a doctor twice her age. “I think we are both getting very fond of one another,” she wrote. She eventually settled on a slightly younger suitor than Robert, albeit one with less charm and also a wartime divorce behind him, but, as her father quickly spotted, “of course very comfortably situated financially”.

Denis thus supplied the name and the money for his new wife’s political career, which ultimately made Thatcherism into an international brand. Margaret stood as the Conservative candidate for Dartford in the 1950 general election, asking electors whether they wished the British spirit “to perish for a soul-less Socialist system, or to live to create a glorious Britain”. Moore calls this “the first clear text of Thatcherism”, suggesting that “the emotional force behind the piece is not a doctrine about economic liberty – strong though that is – but a romantic belief in the greatness, and a sad lament at the decline, of her country”.

When she became prime minister in 1979, the new coinage “Thatcherism” normally meant monetarism, often equated at that time with the fashionable doctrines of Milton Friedman. The context was the reaction against the ostensibly Keynesian policies of the 1970s that had failed to stimulate economic growth, instead simply feeding inflation at levels that threatened social stability. Hence the attraction of a policy that rejected a Keynesian fiscal strategy in favour of a gradual reduction of the money supply.

Admittedly she never really bought into Friedman herself, preferring the starker insights of Friedrich Hayek, whose writings she often commended. But, on taking office, her government became committed to bringing down inflation by sticking to Friedmanite monetary targets, publicly defined at the time by the formula “M3”. Thatcher herself maintained a distinctive and aloof posture towards this, as towards other policies of her own government, which she often affected to hold at arm’s length. Thus when, in late 1979, her chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe told her that inflation was unlikely to fall below about 15 per cent, she responded with scorn and incredulity: “How could this be so if the Government were pursuing a tight monetary policy?” This was not at all “what it said on the tin”.

What actually happened in 1979-1981 was that the monetary targets were always overshot and inflation raced away regardless. The most obvious effect of the high interest rates that were supposed to tame M3 was, instead, to push up the sterling exchange rate, pricing British manufacturing exports out of world markets. What saved the government’s economic credibility at this juncture was a dose of pragmatism. Faced with the failure of monetary targeting, the chancellor’s canny, sceptical, lawyerlike instincts led him to substitute a fiscal squeeze instead. It was an old-fashioned remedy, since inflation would be checked along with the economic activity that generated it.

This was obviously rather different from what had been promised in 1979 but it had the brutally decisive merit that it worked. Moore quotes an apt comment from the current universities and science minister, David Willetts, then in a junior position in the government: “Though we were trying to do Friedman, we were actually doing Hayek.” The shift was masked by some adroit moving of the goalposts. Above all, the fact that, by the time of the next election, inflation was duly falling. This clinched the political case, allowing Thatcher to achieve her central objective at all costs, without too much fuss about doctrinal consistency. And if the unions did not like it, she was now ready to confront them.

There were many reasons why Thatcher did not like trade unions. But it is not true that, on coming to power, she engineered a stand-up, knock-down, drag-out fight with them. It was her much despised Conservative predecessor Edward Heath who had staked all on a big trade union reform bill in 1970; and it was her Heathite employment secretary, Jim Prior, bearing the scars of former lost battles, who counselled in 1979 that “it would be fatal to follow the 1970 pattern and rush things too much”. Though Moore shows some reluctance to acknowledge it, Prior seems to have had a shrewd grasp of strategy.

Moreover, despite some characteristic grumbling, Thatcher accepted Prior’s pragmatic advice. Thus her government trod softly on trade union legislation, opting to tighten the screw, ring by ring, rather than to act more provocatively. In the meantime, when trouble threatened from the miners in 1981, they were bought off. Not until Thatcher had been re-elected in 1983, and was now tactically ready to face a challenge from the mineworkers, was the prime minister ready for confrontation.

Caution, pragmatism and opportunism were often the watchwords of real-life Thatcherism. Many policies of her government were improvised incrementally, moving tentatively at first and only subsequently with a boldness assured by earlier success. The international appeal of Thatcherism was seen in the policy of privatisation; yet there was little hint in 1979 of the scale or popularity of such proposals. Only when the government saw the success of some early piecemeal sales of shares was the policy developed on a broad front, with a sort of populist hype that brought share ownership to sections of society for whom it was a novelty. The ideological case was for the creation of popular capitalism.

The pragmatic case was that the proceeds of such sales boosted the public finances, as did the sale of council houses to tenants. Here is a prime example of a policy that was developed by stages when it looked like catching on – and looked like catching out Labour, which was completely wrongfooted by the move. It yielded the political advantage of making Conservative inroads on a section of the electorate who had been thought of as inevitable Labour supporters. Yet Thatcher had started somewhat sceptical here, as Moore admits, and was a lucky beneficiary rather than a prime instigator of this policy.

Thatcher, photographed in 1974, often used the language of domesticity to explain the importance of balancing the budget

Thatcher preached the virtues of good housekeeping with earnest conviction. Part of her political legacy was to assert the old-fashioned Gladstonian verities of sound money and balanced budgets. These were the sort of homilies that she remembered hearing from her father, Alfred Roberts, the Grantham grocer who shed his Liberal heritage to become a respected local Conservative. His daughter, in making her own political career, had long used the housewifely idiom to enjoin the importance of balancing the budget; but by such standards she fell short.

This was masked by a redefinition of the traditional terms. The key shift was to make the public sector borrowing requirement (PSBR) the crucial measure, which allowed the Treasury to pocket one-off gains from the sale of public assets as current income. Together with the tax receipts from North Sea oil (again a temporary bonanza), this pushed the budget briefly into surplus at the peak of the boom under chancellor Nigel Lawson in the late 1980s. After the resignation of Lawson in 1989, and of Thatcher a year later, later chancellors were left to repair their financial legacy.

Thatcher’s political genius lay in her adroit exploitation of the salient issues of her day, animating them with her own passion. She used the popular media to project a sort of moral populism that crossed traditional class lines. She conquered a new working class constituency for the Tories but at the price of losing traditional, professional middle class support in a way that later destabilised the party. As with many prime ministers, Thatcher achieved some of her objectives, fell short on others and was, especially in foreign affairs, at the mercy of events.

The most striking event of all was surely the ill-judged invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas by the Argentine military junta. This came out of the blue in 1982, at least for the British government. The crisis was, of course, the making of Thatcher as a national leader. “The Falklands War,” Moore concludes, “brought out Mrs Thatcher’s best qualities – not only the well-known ones of courage, conviction and resolution, but also her less advertised ones of caution and careful study.”

It was a situation that was thrust upon her, bringing out her capacity to improvise policy, project her own leadership and make her own luck. She spoke with moral fervour of the evils of South American military dictatorships (albeit later showing herself more pragmatic in her dealings with Chile’s Gen Pinochet). Just as North Sea oil provided an adventitious economic bonus for her government, so the Falklands paid a political dividend. She was subsequently taken at her own valuation; she was able to win a general election in 1983 with unemployment figures at levels that would have sunk any previous postwar government; she emerged for the first time as the undisputed boss of a cabinet of her own choosing. Above all, it was surely Thatcher’s ability to link the war in the South Atlantic with the narrative of the economic struggle at home that displayed her own political talents to unique advantage.

Some now ask, pre-emptively, who wants to go back to the 1970s? But this is a neat ploy to begin an argument, not a short-cut to its conclusion. “There is no alternative” was an effective rhetorical claim in its day; but the range of potential alternatives was never so easily exhausted. Thatcher had learnt much from working under Iain Macleod, an adroit Conservative of an older generation. “Iain was the best politician I ever remember,” she later attested, giving as her reason that “he always understood that politics is a question of alternatives”. Her own achievement was to impose her own priorities as mere common sense and get away with it. Talk of reversing a century of decline was surely a rhetorical trope of this order.

For the present state of post-Thatcherite Britain hardly supports simple triumphalism. If the ongoing problems of the stagnant and unbalanced British economy continue to confront us, the fact that its industrial base was eroded during Thatcher’s premiership can hardly be left out of the reckoning. We still face some of the same stubborn problems that she confronted. She was not oblivious of the fact that the spectre of inflation returned in the later years of her premiership, heralding the return of recession too. Hence the feeling comment in her memoirs: in politics, “there are no final victories”.

The death of Winston Churchill in 1965 has often been mentioned as a precedent for the events of the past three weeks, not least for the pomp and circumstance of a public funeral. But by the time of the great man’s death, his reputation had long since become entwined with the “finest hour” of which he had memorably spoken to his compatriots, a moment instantly mythologised by Britons across a wide political spectrum – “My Country Right or Left” as George Orwell had put it. For all the dignified bearing maintained by David Cameron and Ed Miliband alike, the fundamental contrast between 1965 and 2013 remains inescapable. Rather than simply calling the Cameron-Miliband generation “Thatcher’s children”, perhaps we need to recognise that we are all still Thatcher’s contemporaries, still arguing about her notable legacy in her long shadow.

Peter Clarke is author of ‘Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer’ (Bloomsbury)

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.