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September 01st 2013 print

Daryl McCann

The Determination of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: Volume One: Not for Turning
by Charles Moore
Allen Lane, 2013, 912 pages, $49.99

In 1960, the political philosopher F.A. Hayek wrote an essay titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”. Any conservative who expresses admiration for Hayek can expect to be challenged at some point for the alleged paradox of their position. Margaret Thatcher, a self-declared devotee of Hayek’s work and leader of the British Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990, was once questioned in a BBC interview about the incongruity of her stance. The Iron Lady waved aside the objection. According to Charles Moore’s authorised biography, she was right to assert a connection between Hayek and the Conservative Party—her rendering, at least, of the Conservative Party.

Postwar Britain can be largely defined by the changes that Clement Attlee’s socialist government (1945–51) imposed on the country. Honouring Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution, Attlee began by nationalising the Bank of England and the aviation industry, the railways and mines in 1947, and gas and electricity in 1948. The nationalisation of the iron and steel industries had to wait until 1949. Not exactly the dictatorship of the proletariat, sniped Attlee’s communist critics, but—from a Fabian point of view—20 per cent of the economy in the hands of the state represented progress.

Attlee’s socialist reconfiguration of the economy was accompanied by the creation of the Welfare State. The National Insurance Act of 1946 provided the framework for old age, sickness and unemployment payments, along with new benefits for marriage and birth. Underpinning the Welfare State was the establishment of the National Health Service (1948), which provided free medical and health care for the entire nation. With the swish of his legislative wand, Attlee had transformed the UK into the most benevolent place in the world. Alternatively, he had launched the UK on the road to economic and social ruination.

Though the Conservatives were in government after Attlee’s loss in 1951 and right up until Harold Wilson’s 1964 victory, they chose not to rescind Attlee’s Fabian reforms. Churchill (1951–55), Eden (1955–57), Macmillan (1957–63), Douglas-Home (1963–64) and Heath (1970–74) were all “consensus” men. For over thirty years the Tories, with their “One Nation Conservatism”, battled the Labour Party for electoral ascendancy, but Attlee’s socialist framework—the “postwar settlement”—went unchallenged. Enter the Iron Lady.

Not for Turning, which concludes with Britain’s victory in the 1982 Falklands War, is the tale of how Margaret Thatcher came to lead a revolutionary assault on Attlee’s legacy. Although the most significant achievements in Thatcher’s revolution occurred in her second term in office, 1983–87, discussion of these will have to wait until Moore’s next instalment. This book’s insightfulness derives not only from a comprehensive understanding of Mrs Thatcher’s cause but also unparalleled access to her inner circle and all her papers. If Thatcher desired a hagiography from this authorised project then she chose the wrong writer. The evidence, though, is that she cared not a jot for how she would be remembered in this great political drama, her only concern being that the historical struggle was properly documented.

Moore gets Thatcher’s “unusual” political outlook—“both conservative and revolutionary”—exactly right. These two concepts only seem like a contradiction. What Hayek laments in “Why I Am Not a Conservative” is the kind of European conservatism that “cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving”—which is “generally in a socialist direction”. The best this form of conservatism can offer, according to Hayek, is “resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments” without actually preventing “their continuance”. To bend the course of history in an entirely different direction—towards freedom and liberty—requires transformation and upheaval. Margaret Thatcher, who abhorred consensus and compliance in equal measure, was nothing short of a revolutionary conservative.

The genesis of Thatcherism, however, is not to be found in Hayek but in the life and times of Alfred Roberts (1892–1970), Margaret Thatcher’s father. She would often claim she owed “almost everything” to him. The Methodism of her childhood, contends Moore, inculcated a “reverence for truth-telling, hard work and putting into practice the teaching of Scripture”. There were no family holidays, lots of church, a religious-like reverence for work, moral uprightness, sobriety and not a lot of laughter, an overwhelming sense of responsibility for the well-being of the local community and for Jews persecuted in Nazi Germany, lively parlour debates, and then more church, the sermon frequently imparted by Alfred Roberts himself.

It was this austere and yet spirited start to life that informed, in a very general sense, what came to be called Thatcherism. Old-time Methodism was at the heart of her post-1974 political philosophy, as evidenced by this comment to a reporter in 1981:

My policies are not based on some economics theory but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.

Thatcher’s detractors, even at her passing, point to her line “There is no such thing as society” as proof positive that Thatcherism was a hateful and pitiless creed. To read her 1987 comment in its entirety, as Moore encourages us to do, is to appreciate that she was merely restating her belief in the (traditional) Methodist tenet of individual accountability and dignity, along with a concomitant concern that servility, irresponsibility and idleness too often attend modern-day life.

Margaret Thatcher might have “owed everything” to her father, but her adult relationship with Alfred Roberts could hardly be described as doting. Moore, like most of her biographers, categorises it as dutiful and pragmatic, a reasonably accurate description of her life up until 1974 when she became a “born-again conservative”. With diligence and proficiency, she had tackled a science degree at Oxford, her marriage to Denis, work as a scientist, the twins and parenthood from 1953, the law degree and time with a law firm, life as a parliamentarian and interludes as a government minister. She had displayed energy, intelligence and competency in the face of every new challenge, including her tenure as Minister of Education (1970–74), but that is about as far as it went. Moore asserts that not until late in the piece did Thatcher have designs on the prime ministership, her ambition previously limited to becoming Britain’s first female Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was Edward Heath, Leader of the Conservative Party from 1965 to 1975, who changed all that.

Harold Wilson’s government (1964–70) totally failed to cure an ailing economy, and as a consequence Heath won the 1970 general election. Militant unionism, declining terms of trade and growing national debt were by now the hallmarks of Britain’s Welfare State. The irresponsibility and sheer bloody-mindedness of Wilson was typified by the use of a £2 billion loan from the United States to abolish medical prescription charges. Nor did Wilson’s debilitating tax regime do a lot to revive British entrepreneurial initiative. “Swinging” voters, the euphoria of Beatlemania and Carnaby Street now a distant memory, decided that voting for the unfashionable Conservatives was preferable to the country going to hell in a hand-basket.

Heath’s term in office proved calamitous. Exports continued to decline, wages spiralled out of control and strike days doubled. He took on the union movement but quickly capitulated. The gloomy era of the three-day week arrived and powerful union leaders, invited to Number 10, spat out their contempt for their duly elected Prime Minister. Whose country was it anyway? Heath, who had previously lost to Labour in 1966, narrowly lost the February 1974 general election before being decisively beaten in the October 1974 sequel. Even the business world, suggests Moore, preferred an “emasculated Labour” regime running a broke (and broken) Britain to an ineffectual Conservative government led by the enigmatic Mr Heath.

For some reason—never properly explained—Ted Heath decided he should like to stay on as the leader of the Conservative Party, despite his three election losses and his failure as prime minister. Margaret Thatcher, thanks to the poor tactics and inadequacies of her rivals, became the first female leader of the British Conservative Party, first female leader of any major British political party, and of course first female Leader of the Opposition. The day of her win, February 11, 1975, also marked the commencement of what has been called the longest sulk in the annals of British politics: Edward Heath’s monomaniacal detestation of Margaret Thatcher.

The long-term evolution of Thatcherism as a fully-fledged political philosophy is not easy to trace, apart of course from its obvious Methodist origins. For the first half of her political life she remained a loyal and relatively conventional Tory politician who, as Moore says, generally went with “the flow”, satisfied by an amorphous belief that the Conservative Party, guided by commonsense principles, was better equipped to govern the nation than Labour. Along the journey she might have privately reflected, for example, that Harold Macmillan’s 1959 budget was too generous and so forth, but the contrarian side of Thatcher—in the ideological sense, at least—is hard to discern before she totally gave up on Heath: “When she later came to overturn the post-war economic consensus she did so because she believed it had failed, not because she had never believed it in the first place.”

Nevertheless, when she allowed her name to go forward for leadership of the Conservative Party at the end of 1974, she did so as someone prepared to make sweeping changes to the country if ever given the chance. Few people, according to Moore, thought the opportunity would ever present itself. Thatcher was treated by most as an anomaly—if not a novelty—and Prime Minister Wilson frequently wiped the floor with her in the House of Commons.

Margaret Thatcher was not the only Conservative politician to perform a volte-face on the “postwar settlement”. Keith Joseph might have been her intellectual superior but he entirely lacked Thatcher’s political nous. Nevertheless, his Centre for Political Studies and its examination of free-market solutions for Britain’s moribund economy, such as those espoused by the economist Milton Friedman, gave Thatcher’s socio-economic thinking a direction and framework. During her time as Leader of the Opposition, Thatcher read every relevant book or paper she could lay her hands while personally acquainting herself with an array of first-rate thinkers.

Thatcher had sound instincts and a propensity to fight the good fight, and yet she expressed genuine modesty about her intellectual ability. Her reading of Paul Johnson’s Enemies of the State (1975) not only accorded with her feelings about the “British disease” but also gave them an intellectual basis. In Not for Turning, Johnson sniffs: “I always liked her, but she always bored me a bit.” Even Thatcher referred to herself self-deprecatingly as “the eternal scholarship girl”, forever searching out correct answers without being a deep or original thinker in her own right. Nevertheless, her effectiveness as a courageous and clear-minded politician was greatly enhanced by a close study of the most profound conservative and classical liberal thinkers of her time. Moore recounts that during her time as Leader of the Opposition she would frequently pull Hayek’s Constitution and Liberty (1960) out of her handbag and declare: “This is what we believe.”

In 1975, she commenced a series of consultations with distinguished historians and commentators—from Robert Conquest to Michael Howard—on the subject of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. She had never hidden her antipathy towards communism, but in Not for Turning the historian Hugh Thomas offers this recollection: “She was interested to know how historians saw things, though she hadn’t done much background reading.” What she gleaned from those first-rate history minds confirmed her gut feelings and also provided her with the confidence and wherewithal to play the role of the Iron Lady and kick-start the West’s pushback against Soviet communism. The process began—it should be recalled—while she was still Leader of the Opposition.

The Labour government, under Harold Wilson (1974–76) and then Jim Callaghan (1976–79), alternatively belittled and patronised Margaret Thatcher in parliament. With her sometimes rushed and shrill delivery, combined with the challenge of being the first female Leader of the Opposition (something about which she never complained), the odds were against her making it to Downing Street. What’s more, she accepted—in contrast to the hapless Heath—that she would get only one shot at the prime ministership. Finally, Labour handed government to her on a plate when the 1978–79 Winter of Discontent showed once and for all that they had no idea how to govern modern Britain.

Charles Moore acknowledges that Thatcher’s paraphrasing of the Prayer of St Francis—“Where there is discord may we bring harmony”—in her victory acceptance speech outside 10 Downing Street hit the wrong note. This was something a “consensus” politician might have uttered in the context of life in the UK circa 1979, and it allowed her detractors, in the years ahead, to disparage her as a hypocritical fraud. A more accurate pointer to the future was the passing reference in her address to Airey Neave, one of her closest parliamentary colleagues. In the weeks before, during the election campaign, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) had assassinated Neave, the Tory shadow secretary for Northern Ireland.

At the time of Neave’s murder, Thatcher described him as “one of freedom’s warriors” who “lived for his beliefs and now had died from them”. IRA and the INLA inmates tested Thatcher’s own resolve with their 1980–81 hunger strikes. Ten Irishmen, in the final count, managed to starve themselves to death in their quest to be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals. Thatcher’s intransigence in the whole dreadful episode might have played into the hands of the well-fed IRA and INLA leaders, and yet who knows what negative consequences capitulation would have brought?

The greatest value of Charles Moore’s Not for Turning is that it provides an insightful portrait of the private—or, in any case, the non-public—Margaret Thatcher. She passionately believed that the times required an interlude of Churchillian courage and clear-mindedness at the top; and circumstances, not all of her making, had thrust her into that role. The woman depicted in Not for Turning is “amazingly retentive when it came to mastering the facts and figures of government” but, unlike Churchill himself, without a reflective bone in her body. She was a doer. According to Moore, everybody whoever worked in her staff—as distinct from her parliamentary colleagues—rated her as a fair and considerate boss, her kindness expressed less with words than with thoughtful and practical deeds. Thatcher was no sociopath and no witch: she privately acknowledged the bravery of the Irish hunger strikers, even if she fervently opposed their cause and believed they were manipulated by the IRA and INLA leadership.

The title of Moore’s book refers, of course, to her October 1980 speech to the Party faithful, “her people” as distinct from the “Wets” who dominated Thatcher’s first cabinet. By this time the unemployment rate in the UK had deteriorated from 1.5 million to 2 million and virtually every politician in the land, Labour and Conservative alike, demanded that the situation be “saved” by the government borrowing money from somewhere and injecting it into the economy. Thatcher was decried as some kind of monetarist fundamentalist who would not be satisfied until she inflicted maximum suffering on the British people. The naysayers were everywhere. Moore even produces a private memo from Harold Macmillan advising her to return to the good old days of “One Nation Conservatism”. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he did not dwell on the fact that in 1961 his Conservative government borrowed—Third World-style—£714 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Similarly, critics from the Left had forgotten about Labour’s 1976 IMF bailout, or that James Callaghan, Labour’s previous prime minister, had come to the conclusion while still in office that government fiscal responsibility was essential for Britain’s future. Thatcher’s public persona, as exemplified by the “This lady’s not for turning” performance, was a weapon in her cause to make the British face the reality of their dire situation. She herself, as Moore carefully details, often felt absolutely beleaguered. “Lawson’s Boom” of the late 1980s would eventually vindicate Thatcher’s holding of the line, but nobody knew that in 1980 when the British economy was like a dying drug addict begging for one more hit.

The chapter on the 1982 Falklands War, the last in the book, best captures the combination of anguish and audacity it took to perform the role of the Iron Lady. Most fair-minded people would agree that the actions of Argentina’s military junta gave the British government no choice but to persecute the war—sinking the Belgrano included—and anybody seriously involved in the operation of the campaign agrees that no politician other than Margaret Thatcher could have seen it through successfully. She basically did everything right from go to whoa. Those accusing her of being a warmonger who delighted in the whole ghastly affair are wrong and should read Charles Moore’s account of what really happened. Thatcher, along with the soldiers, sailors and pilots who bravely served their country, alternately experienced immense anxiety and heart-breaking grief before achieving a just victory.

Thatcher might have scraped back into power at the 1983 general election even without the popularity generated by Falklands War triumph. Her monetarist policies had vanquished inflation and from late 1982 the British economy began to regenerate. The Labour Party, helpfully, went to the 1983 general election with what has been described as “the longest suicide note in history”. Having learned nothing from their debacle in government, the Labour Party promised to nationalise the banks, raise personal taxation and increase government intervention in the economy. They were also in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawing the UK from the Common Market, the latter because they feared it would be advantageous to the interests of business.

Thatcher’s resounding electoral victory in 1983 allowed her to take on and crush union militancy, extend the council house sell-off to tenants and take the privatisation of state-run enterprises to another level, this time involving British Telecom, British Leyland and British Steel. It also made it possible for Thatcher to build on her close alliance with Ronald Reagan and comprehensively increase the pressure on the USSR, so much so that an unnerved Soviet Politburo voted on March 11, 1975, for Mikhail Gorbachev to become their new General Secretary. The rest, as they say, is history—the 1987 INF Treaty, the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, in time, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The Iron Lady played no small part in remaking the world.

Moore’s final few pages include a vivid account of the service held at St Paul’s in late July 1982 soon after the Falklands War. Though Thatcher “feared she might be accused of triumphalism or hubris”, she insisted that such an event be held to honour the courage and sacrifice of British servicemen, not least the 255 British men who lost their lives in the war. She did not want to use the occasion to push herself forward in any way. As Moore says: “She was quite happy to lord it over political rivals, but hated the idea of upstaging the military or the monarchy.”

Moore’s documentation of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that accompanied the service is grimly humorous. The left-wing Dean of St Paul’s, Alan Webster, “objected to the idea of a thanksgiving service at all and wanted one of reconciliation”. Dr Webster further suggested that the Lord’s Prayer be said in Spanish. Other high-minded clerics refused to participate if members of the armed forces were invited to read the lessons. Cardinal Basil Hume, on behalf of the Roman Catholics, was also against combatants reading the lesson and “objected to the service being for the liberation of the Falklands”. Dr Kenneth Greer, speaking for the Free Churches Federal Council, was so opposed to the war that he seems to have rejected any kind of service. One wonders if these self-righteous fellows and their latter-day equivalents are now backing the cause of sharia courts in Britain and the local chapter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

In October 1982, Prime Minister Thatcher hosted a dinner at 10 Downing Street for 120 of those most involved in the Falklands victory. Moore provides us with the recollection of one of those who was present that night: “She spoke like Queen Elizabeth I. She looked like Queen Elizabeth I!” Margaret Thatcher, daughter of a provincial high street grocer, had become—in Moore’s words—a “figure of legend” and in “command of the whole field”.

The Thatcher revolution charged into the future, seemingly taking all before it, until that gloomy day in November 1990 when the Iron Lady was cut down by her own forces, to be replaced by somebody more in their own likeness, the unremarkable John Major.

The question Moore tacitly poses at the end of Not for Turning, as we look ahead to her achievements in the second term while still in “command of the whole field”, is whether the framework of her revolution might have been too narrow. In the years ahead, Arthur Scargill would be comprehensively beaten and the genius of British entrepreneurship would make a welcome return. Maybe that was enough in itself. The campaign mounted by the PC brigade—in 1984 of all years—against Roy Honeyford, principal of Drummond Middle School, Yorkshire, for expressing a dissenting opinion on cultural relativism, might suggest otherwise. We shall have to await the sequel to Not for Turning to find out Moore’s take on the matter.

The fact remains, however, that right now a plethora of inter-connected perils haunt the United Kingdom: the Islamisation of the country; the soft totalitarianism of the PC brigade; the cultural relativism preached in educational and religious institutions (except Islamic ones); the anti-Semitism of the BDS movement and associated academic bodies; the machinations of the European Union; and let us not forget the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming hoax which Thatcher partly encouraged over three decades ago before roundly turning on it. There is also the perfidy of the BBC, which was “neutral” during the Falklands War but today would no doubt take an anti-British line. Thatcher’s revolution routed Old Labour and the Old Left and yet, even before that battle was done, the forces of socialism were already reconstituting themselves in new and menacing forms.

If civilisation, as we have known it in the United Kingdom, is to be saved, then the spirit—if not the particulars—of Churchill’s wartime stoicism and Thatcher’s postwar “revolutionary conservatism” must once again see the light of day. Were Margaret Thatcher a young woman today she would, hopefully, avail her services to Nigel Farage’s UKIP rather than David Cameron’s prevaricating Conservative Party. In that sense, at any rate, Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative” essay retains its relevance.

Daryl McCann has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au.