Review: Thatcher’s determination battled her flaws
By Martin Hutchinson
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The first volume of Charles Moore’s authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher covers the British prime minister’s life “From Grantham to the Falklands”. In his recounting of her childhood and early years in power, Moore shows her great determination, which was often needed to overcome previous mistakes.
Moore, an Old Etonian, reveals a snobbish disdain for Thatcher’s father Alfred Roberts, who by small-town standards was highly successful (he became mayor of Grantham) and a strong personality who inculcated in her values that were to last for life. Roberts was also initially a Liberal, which became important in his daughter’s later iconoclastic approach to long-established institutions, contrary to the traditions of her Conservative party. Moore is generally interesting on her early life, having traced school friends, university friends and old boyfriends, who painted a picture of an attractive young lady of great abilities and even more self-confidence.
Thatcher’s rise up the Tory party ranks owed much to luck, although her immense capacity for hard work, careful preparation and her husband Denis’s solid financial position also contributed. She was lucky to get a safe Conservative seat in Finchley for the 1959 election, even after diverting her political career for several years to marriage, the bar and motherhood.
As education secretary, the Cabinet’s token woman, Thatcher was undistinguished, doing little to reverse the transition to non-selective “comprehensive” schools in spite of her own support for educational quality. She was thus a barely plausible candidate for the leadership in 1975, and was extraordinary lucky in Edward Heath’s obstinately blocking stronger successors from the left while Keith Joseph, the right’s strongest candidate, withdrew after proving himself incapable.
Moore is most interesting in discussing the economic turnaround on which Thatcher embarked after her election in May 1979. The common narrative is of the Iron Lady who stuck to her policies through a period of exceptionally high interest rates and sharply rising unemployment in 1979-82, seeing off the 364 economists (including the future Bank of England Governor Mervyn King) who denounced her policies in a famous open letter of September 1981.
Moore tells the story differently. He thinks she made a major error in not cutting public spending sufficiently on first obtaining office, so that she was forced to impose two later rounds of draconian cuts over howls of opposition during a recession. Had she cut sufficiently initially, the deficit would have been smaller, its financing less difficult, the necessary rise in interest rates less steep and the recession both shorter and less damaging.
Moore points out that Thatcher’s intellectual direction in economic policy was uncertain – her academic qualifications were in chemistry and law, and she was far too busy to read very widely. She doubted even the economically obvious decision to sweep away exchange controls in October 1979. Both here and in the budget difficulties her chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, was invaluable; while himself toward the center-left of the party he believed in the economic strategy and had the calmness and credibility to stick to it while other Cabinet members, the media and the public assailed it.
In some respects, Thatcher lacked the courage of her convictions. This was apparent in the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe settlement, where her initial instinct was to support the recently elected semi-democratic government of Bishop Abel Muzorewa. However she allowed herself to be overruled by Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington, the U.S. Carter administration and the 1979 Commonwealth leaders’ meeting in Lusaka. In the light of an eventual settlement which brought three decades of tyranny and economic destruction, a bit more iron resolve might have been helpful.
Thatcher’s leadership in the Falklands crisis was eventually incomparable, but – as on the economy – her determination and courage were the more needed because of her previous failures. She had made no proper strategic arrangements for the Falklands’ defense, removing British ships from the area. She had also failed to make it clear to the unstable Argentine regime that invasion would face a military response.
Thatcher was an immensely important historical figure, and Moore’s biography is the first true historical appraisal of her. Her admirers compared her to Winston Churchill – but then modern historical scholarship has shown that he too was not the flawless colossus of popular memory.