With Britain’s Tories back in power—and a biopic starring Meryl Streep on its way—the career of Margaret Thatcher is newly resonant. A conservative revolutionary, she prefigured, then partnered with, Ronald Reagan, worshipping “real men” as she went where no woman had, never losing a national election (or a war), and defining an era. Twenty years after Thatcher’s retirement, her biographer Charles Moore re-assesses the most powerful British prime minister since Churchill, one who forged a legacy that will long survive her.
Not long after she resigned as prime minister, in 1990, Margaret Thatcher began to write her memoirs. I met her at a dinner party and asked her what she would call them. The famous blue eyes flashed at me: “Undefeated!” she declared.
This expressed a sober arithmetical fact. Uniquely at that time in British politics, Margaret Thatcher had won three general elections in a row as party leader and had never lost any. Before she had the chance to contest her fourth, she was deposed by members of Parliament from her own party in a coup. Yet, even in that contest, the pure numbers were on her side. In 1990, when the Conservative Party staged a challenge to her leadership, she won more legislators’ votes than her main rival, but not enough to avoid a second ballot. Her Cabinet colleagues convinced her that she would be humiliated in the runoff, and she resigned.
In the end, those memoirs were given a more boring title (The Downing Street Years), but that one-word exclamation succinctly expressed the great Thatcher myth of invincibility. And in a sense it was true. Much more than any other modern British politician—particularly Conservative politicians accustomed to swimming against a leftish cultural tide—Margaret Thatcher fought, and Margaret Thatcher won. Her victory was so great that it changed her political opponents—the Labour Party—as much as it changed her own party. Her defeat of the left made Tony Blair possible. And today, with David Cameron having finally led the Conservatives back to No. 10 Downing Street and wrestling with a massive inherited government deficit, as Mrs. Thatcher did 30 years earlier, all the old debates have become relevant once more.
As well as elections, Margaret Thatcher won wars. When Argentina invaded the British colony of the Falkland Islands, in the South Atlantic, in April 1982, she sent a task force of 27,000 across the world and recaptured them by June. As the force set sail, she paraphrased Queen Victoria: “Failure—the possibilities do not exist!” With Ronald Reagan in the White House for most of her time as prime minister, she was able to re-forge a mighty defensive alliance that outpaced the Soviet Union and hastened the end of the Cold War. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, in September 1990, she attended a conference with Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, who was undecided about how best to act. She told him, “Look, George, this is no time to go wobbly!”
Perhaps more important still, she won the big arguments. She argued that inflation was a disease of money that could be cured by controlling the growth of the money supply alone, without suppressing incomes. During her premiership, inflation fell from a high of 27 percent in 1975 to 2.5 percent by 1986. She believed that the political power of British labor unions had strangled enterprise and placed the country at the mercy of unelected barons. When she removed the legal immunities that protected unions from the financial consequences of their actions and overcame a yearlong strike organized by the hard-left leadership of the coal miners’ union, the employee days lost to strikes each year fell from 29.5 million in 1979 to 1.9 million in 1986. She said that taxes were too high and brought the top rate down from 98 percent to 40 percent. She declared that the state should not be running British business and led the world in “privatization”—a word she found ugly but a concept she loved—selling off airlines, airports, utilities, and phone and oil companies to the private sector. In every case, her critics said that it could not be done. Yet, for better and for worse, she did it.
To find out why, we must go back to Grantham, where Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on October 13, 1925. Grantham was, and remains, a small market town in the county of Lincolnshire, in the East Midlands of England. Neither rich nor poor, neither remote nor metropolitan, it is an ordinary place, and hers was, at least in appearance, an ordinary family.
Margaret Thatcher’s father was the single biggest influence on her life. Alfred Roberts was a grocer who ran two fairly successful shops in Grantham. He was also a Methodist lay preacher, well known for the quality of his sermons, and an alderman, a type of local politician now obsolete. Alderman Roberts had no sons and appears to have harbored for Margaret, the second of his two daughters, many of the ambitions which, had he been born to a higher level of society, he might have been able to fulfill for himself.
Roberts impressed upon young Margaret the importance of knowledge, duty, and hard work, the power of both the spoken and the written word, and the value of public service. The Roberts girls had to borrow and read two books from the library every week, at least one of them nonfiction. They attended church twice on Sundays (where Margaret sang notably well), and Margaret often accompanied her father to political meetings. Because the family lived above one of the shops, Alderman Roberts usually came home for meals with the girls. He and Margaret discussed public events, including the coming war with Germany. Of her mother, Beatrice, Margaret Thatcher said, “Oh, Mother. Mother was marvelous—she helped Father.”
Life above the grocer’s shop was not glamorous or cosmopolitan, but Margaret Roberts’s upbringing was unusual for a woman of her background. She seems always to have been encouraged to acquire her own knowledge, form her own views, and make her own way. “Never do things just because other people do them,” her father told her, and she didn’t. “I knew that I would have to earn my own living,” she wrote. How did she know? This was an unusual approach at a time when most women were groomed for marriage rather than for a career. No member of Margaret’s family had ever been to a university, let alone to Oxford, yet Margaret won a place there when such a thing was rare in her class, and rarer still—especially as she was a chemist—for her sex. Her father drove her to it. He may have been a Victorian patriarch, but he was no sexist.
Perhaps because her first and greatest hero was her father, Margaret benefited from the emancipation of women without showing the slightest interest in it. “I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she said in an interview in 1982, and she never, in theory, rejected the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Indeed, she made great play with the notion that the housewife knows best. Seeking to paint her as a crude homebody, her opponents in the Tory leadership contest of 1975 played up the story, based on an interview that she had given, that she hoarded goods in her larder against the possibility (quite real at that time) of shortages. Mrs. Thatcher had the sense to be unashamed, knowing that many women voters would sympathize, and invited reporters to come and have a look at her larder. In the general-election campaign of 1979, which brought her to power for the first time, she explained that “any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running the country.” In every election campaign, she would charge into a supermarket, grab a shopping cart, and start off down the aisles at a fearful pace, chased by cameras as she piled goods—almost always British goods—into the basket.
The very name “Mrs. Thatcher” showed her ease with the traditional role. Not for her the ambiguous nomenclature of Hillary Rodham Clinton or Tony Blair’s wife, who is sometimes known as Cherie Booth and sometimes Cherie Blair. Britain’s most recognizable and individual peacetime prime minister was also the first to be known by someone else’s name. While she might have been the first science graduate to become prime minister, one of a tiny handful of women who became tax barristers, and a member of Parliament at age 33, not to mention the first woman prime minister, she never wanted to appear to upset the outward appearances of the old order.
When she married Denis Thatcher, in 1951, he was a well-established (and previously married) businessman and decorated war veteran, 10 years older than she and of a rather higher social class. She quickly and dutifully bore him twins, Mark and Carol, and set up a comfortable and orderly home in Chelsea. She always deferred to him in the conventional male areas—money, sports, the choice of a school for their son—and made much of producing his dinner, even though the meals were usually purchased ready-made at Marks & Spencer. Her bossiness toward him was the bossiness of traditional wife to traditional husband. I once sat next to him at a dinner where he was pushing his food around the plate, clearly trying to avoid eating it. “Don’t draw attention to it,” he told me, “or it will be cosmic obloquy from her.”
Her submissiveness toward him was traditionalist, too. During the Falklands War, he told me, she was terribly upset by the loss of British servicemen’s lives, particularly by the sinking of theSheffield, the first British ship to be hit. Denis sat on the end of their bed as she wept. “I said, ‘That is what war is like, love. It is bloody. I know. I’ve been in one.’ ” She relied on his manly comfort.
When Margaret Thatcher resigned, the first thing she asked of the Queen was that Denis, not she, be given an honor. He was made a baronet, a virtually extinct hereditary title, which permitted him to be called Sir Denis and, when he died in 2003, for their son to become Sir Mark. Thus the “Lady” in Margaret Thatcher’s name, like the “Mrs.,” comes from Denis. It was nearly three more years before she was made Baroness Thatcher in her own right.
Handshake Like a Wrestler’s
As for women, Margaret Thatcher showed precious little interest in them. In eleven and a half years as prime minister, she brought only one woman into her Cabinet, and she did not last long. I remember going to the 40th-birthday party of Michael Portillo, at that time a rising Thatcherite star. Thatcher made a speech and said, “We’d like to congratulate Michael and”—uncomfortable pause as she failed to remember the name—“his wife.” My own wife tells me that the handshake Mrs. Thatcher extended to women was like a wrestling move: she would grab her opponent and pull her as hard as she could out of the way to get on to the man next to her. Of the Thatcher twins, it was Mark, often considered the more wayward and difficult, who got more attention than Carol, who is a successful journalist. Once, when Mark was lost in the Sahara Desert during a motorcar race, the Iron Lady cracked and broke down in public. She did not have many close women friends. On the whole, the women who got on best with her were those who played vital support roles—secretaries, advisers on clothes, personal assistants. It was always men that excited her attention, affection, and competitiveness.
And Margaret Thatcher had clear ideas—though she would never have put it this way directly—about the type of men she preferred. They should be tall, well dressed, and charming. It helped if they were upper-class, and it helped even more if they had a military background. Most of those with whom she fell out were fat, notably her foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe and Germany’s chancellor Helmut Kohl. And most of those she loved were thinner and better-looking: Ronald Reagan, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, even France’s François Mitterrand, who, though a socialist and therefore suspect, knew how to charm her and was duly charmed himself. He famously said that she had “the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe.” She liked courtliness and found it in Reagan. The manners did not work quite as well with his successor, George H. W. Bush. According to her most important foreign-policy aide, Charles Powell, Bush’s leisure style was too much that of a “man’s man. Jeans and cowboy boots and beer out of a can. She’d be in high heels.”
She was always on the lookout for “great men” and was wont to say that “when a big man has a big idea I never like to stand in his way.” This helps to explain why she never exhibited any of the anti-Semitism that used to exist in some Tory circles. She believed that Jews had more than the common share of great men and admired them for it. Her greatest political mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, was almost perfect in her eyes, being intellectual, good-looking, Jewish, and upper-class.
Men who understood Margaret Thatcher’s preferences figured out how to play on them. When the Falklands crisis broke, the head of the British armed forces was abroad. In his absence, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, the head of the navy, wanted to convey to the prime minister his view about whether the islands could be recaptured. Worried by the indecisiveness of civil servants and politicians, and determined to prove that the navy, which had been threatened with cuts before the crisis, could do its duty, Sir Henry decided to be as bullish as possible. He turned up in the House of Commons in full uniform, pushed his way into the key meeting, and told her, “We can retake the islands—and we should.” Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, “Now my outrage and determination were matched by a sense of relief and confidence.”
If she thought that a man was a “real man,” she would be extremely indulgent toward him, her sympathy often getting the better of cool judgment. In 1983 her dashing party chairman, Cecil Parkinson, was embroiled in a scandal when he was denounced by a former secretary who was pregnant with his child. Despite her strong belief in “family values,” Margaret Thatcher refused to criticize Parkinson, fought hard to keep him, and, when she failed, made sure that he was brought back into the government after the next election. In return, many of the more eligible men in the Tory Party came to love her for her zest and her (entirely decorous) flirtatiousness.
Because of Margaret Thatcher’s love of manliness, many observers made the mistake of thinking of her as a man in skirts. Even Ronald Reagan, so astute in his dealings with people, once described Mrs. Thatcher as “the best man in England.” That was wrong. In her view, she was the best woman in England, and, for all her love of men, she regarded the female sex as superior. “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man,” she announced in a speech in 1982. “If you want anything done, ask a woman.” When Denis, aged 87, had a bypass operation on his heart, she packed him off alone to a hotel in South Africa to convalesce. “When men travel alone,” she told me, “everyone always looks after them. When we travel alone, we have to look after ourselves.”
It was a constant source of pleasure to her that she was alone among men, and powerful men at that. For the Tories, of all people, to have chosen a woman leader more than 35 years ago was absolutely astonishing, and Margaret Thatcher knew how to exploit it. She knew, first of all, that some of her colleagues were frightened of women and inhibited about arguing with them. This was particularly true of many of the so-called Wets—the liberal Tory grandees who, in the early days, served under her most reluctantly and constantly denigrated her tough economic policies. As a result, though many of them whispered against her, none of them ever dared to confront her directly. In her later years she came to love adulation, but she never had the male’s craving for approval from his mates: she didn’t have any mates. That made her strong.
For any leader of the opposition, as Margaret Thatcher was during her first four years as party leader, public recognition is a problem. Not for the first woman leader in British history. You didn’t even have to name her—you just had to say “she” and everyone knew whom you meant. The world was automatically interested. It did not follow, though, that the world was automatically pleased. Many voters, including female voters, were suspicious of a woman politician, and there was much in the original image of Margaret Thatcher that did not appeal. She was widely known as T.B.W.—“That Bloody Woman”—and was criticized for her voice, considered too shrill, and her clothes, considered too fussy and too dowdy. Even her teeth, slightly protuberant and irregular, were unfavorably noted. Defects that in a male politician would not have excited comment were fastened upon.
All of this brought out Margaret Thatcher’s professional, carefully self-critical side. She was always proud of her looks and once defiantly told me, “You don’t have to be aristocratic to have beautiful blue eyes.” But she also judged her appearance by high standards. One day, when we were talking about her courtship with Denis, I made some gallant remark about her looks at that time. “No,” she said firmly, “I was too fat.” When the carping about her appearance began, her reaction to it was extremely practical. Under the guidance of Gordon Reece, a jolly, champagne-drinking former television producer with a knowledge of television sorely lacking in the Tory Party, she set out to change her appearance. The fussy bows gradually disappeared, the teeth were straightened, the hair was made more elegant. Hats, except on the most dramatic and ceremonial occasions, were cast aside. By the time of her middle period in office, she had become an outstandingly elegant “power dresser”: with her high collars, she was lampooned by some as “Gloriana,” a modern version of Queen Elizabeth I.
Traveling on the train from Brighton when the Tories were still in opposition, Reece had bumped into Laurence Olivier, Britain’s greatest actor, and raised with him the problem of Mrs. Thatcher’s voice. Olivier arranged for her to have lessons with the speech coach at the National Theatre, and soon the hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to softer notes and a smoothness that seldom cracked except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons. Once, in the twice-weekly Prime Minister’s question time, which became the greatest show in the West End, Margaret Thatcher got so angry with her opponent that she relapsed into the Lincolnshire dialect of her youth. “He’s frit,” she shrieked, meaning that he was frightened. But, by and large, she retained the ladylike modulations she had so carefully acquired.
The Soviets, her implacable foes, gave Mrs. Thatcher the big break her image needed. In 1976, three years before she became prime minister, the Red Army newspaper Red Star reported on a tough speech she had made about the weakness of NATO’s defenses and described her as the Iron Lady. With a bit of “little woman” playfulness, she seized the moment: “I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world. A Cold War warrior, an Amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter. Well, am I any of these things …? Yes—if that’s how they wish to interpret my defence of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life.” The idea of the Iron Lady caught fire and, as the years passed, spread across the whole world.
The most potent symbol of her strength—like the orb and scepter of the Queen—were her handbags. These sturdy, expensive, usually black appendages were with her at all times, and used to contain objects—a yellowing copy of the policy document that founded Britain’s welfare state, for example, or some wise words by Abraham Lincoln—which she would produce like rabbits out of a hat and wave in front of television interviewers. Just before he stepped down as Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz invited Margaret Thatcher to his last lunch in office. Bored by the official draft of his speech for this occasion, he telephoned the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Antony Acland. “I asked him,” says Shultz, “ ‘Does she have a sense of humor?’ ‘If you mean when you pull a chair out from under her does she laugh? No. Otherwise, yes.’ ” So the State Department bought her a handbag, filled it with her best quotes, and brought it along to the lunch. Shultz stood up. “Far be it from me to look into a lady’s handbag,” he said, but then he dipped in and pulled out her best lines to read to the assembled company. He presented her with “the Grand Order of the Handbag,” and she left glowing.
Years later, when she was out of office, one of her bags sold at a charity auction for $150,000.
Standing on the steps of Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, in May 1979, Margaret Thatcher had her words carefully prepared. She quoted the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, which begins, “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” These words, as critics did not take long to point out, were glaringly inappropriate for her style of government. Perhaps she herself understood this, for in her memoirs she wrote:
The rest of the quotation is often forgotten. St. Francis prayed for more than peace; the prayer goes on, “Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there
is despair, may we bring hope.” The forces of error, doubt and despair were so firmly entrenched in British society … that overcoming them would not be possible without some measure of discord.
Certainly she did not seek to bring peace if its price was feeble compromise. For the period from 1945 until 1974, there is no real evidence that Margaret Thatcher saw politics very differently from the mainstream Tories who governed for 17 of those years. While always toward the right of the party, she quietly endorsed the high-spending, middle-of-the-road policies of the time. As a junior minister of pensions in the early 60s, the young Margaret Thatcher simply worked incredibly hard and said very little that was controversial. Even when she joined the Cabinet as education secretary to Edward Heath, the man she eventually supplanted, she never stepped out of line. When Heath spectacularly went back on his election promises to reduce government interference in the economy and tame the labor unions, instead inventing a policy to control all prices and incomes and increasing public spending, Mrs. Thatcher made no complaint. It was only after the first election of 1974 that Margaret Thatcher came out, as it were, as a Thatcherite.
This was brought about by defeat. Enraged by what he considered to be a politically motivated strike by the coal miners, Heath had called an early election, asking the voters, “Who governs Britain?” Unhappy at being confronted with this question by their own government, but not much liking the strikers either, the electorate returned an uncertain answer, choosing a Labour government but denying it an overall majority in the House of Commons. In October of the same year, Labour called a second election and won it by a slightly better margin. The Tories could look forward to five years in opposition. For the first time since she had become a front-rank politician, Margaret Thatcher was facing failure, and she hated it.
She turned for explanation to the restless mind of her old friend Keith Joseph. He diagnosed—and blamed himself for—a British postwar disease of socialism, state intervention, debauched currency, weakened incentives, and overly powerful trade unions. The Tories, he declared, had been complicit in all of this, and especially so in the case of Heath’s “U-turn” over economic policy. They must devise a new strategy, he said, and he set up a think tank, called the Centre for Policy Studies, to do so. Margaret Thatcher became its vice chairman and his disciple.
If there was to be a leadership challenge to Heath, it seemed likely that it would come from Joseph, with Mrs. Thatcher’s full support. But on October 19, 1974, Joseph delivered a thoughtful but characteristically naïve speech in which he appeared to be telling poor people that they were breeding too much. The ensuing furor convinced him that he could not become the next leader, and he left the way clear for Margaret Thatcher. She challenged Heath and the party establishment and beat them, taking over as leader of the Conservative Party on February 11, 1975.
From this experience she learned two things: do not compromise conservatism, and, when in doubt, fight. Although her tactics were often surprisingly cunning and cautious, she always adhered to these principles. They brought her triumph, but they also ensured her eventual downfall.
As soon as she took office as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher began to fight. Out went the 1945 economic consensus. The standard and top rates of income tax were cut, exchange controls were abolished, the money supply was brought under fierce constraint, unemployment was allowed to rise. In a series of summit battles that caused excruciating embarrassment to her ministers, who were used to emollience and well-oiled dinners, she insisted on a budget rebate for Britain in its contribution to the European Economic Community (what is now the European Union), shouting in public about “our money.” When the buildup of Soviet missiles threatened, she encouraged the stationing of American cruise missiles in Britain in the face of huge protests, mostly by women. When Iranian terrorists seized hostages in the Iranian Embassy in London, Mrs. Thatcher sent in Britain’s elite Special Air Service (S.A.S.). They brought all but one of the remaining hostages out alive and all but one of the terrorists dead. “We never thought you’d let us do it,” one of the S.A.S. officers said to her afterward. Protesting about their prison conditions and other issues, many Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) prisoners in Northern Ireland organized a hunger strike. Mrs. Thatcher refused to give in to their main demands, even though 10 of them starved to death. As a result, she rose to the top of the I.R.A. death list. She still has to be protected from Irish Republican terrorism to this day.
With interest rates punitively high, unemployment at more than two million, and rioting in black inner-city areas of London, Liverpool, and Manchester, the Wets, the media, and the Labour opposition brought massive political pressure to bear, and there was talk of another U-turn, like the one Heath had so disastrously executed. Mrs. Thatcher’s response was typical. In her budget the following spring, she refused all pressure to reflate the economy out of recession. It gave her particular pleasure that 364 economists wrote to The Times to denounce her policies: in her view, the more economists, the more error. She faced down her critics in the Cabinet and, in her reshuffle a few months later, got rid of most of them.
Margaret Thatcher asked the Queen for an early election in June 1983. At the campaign’s opening press conference, she presented her party’s manifesto and introduced her fellow ministers, inviting us journalists, without much conviction, to ask questions of them as well as of her. Noticing that the wording of the manifesto was surprisingly open to a rapprochement with Argentina over the Falklands, I asked her dovish foreign secretary, Francis Pym, what he thought. Poor Pym began to burble about the desirability of negotiations with our recent enemy, but his boss started fidgeting and soon leapt in. “No! I’m sorry,” she shouted, to general mirth, determined that the Argentinean claim to the Falklands should never be discussed. “I thought you were going to misunderstand that. Not on sovereignty!”
During the campaign, Pym incautiously expressed the view that a landslide Tory victory might not be the best result. Margaret Thatcher’s Tories won the general election of 1983 with 144 seats, the largest landslide majority of any government since World War II. She sacked Francis Pym two days later.
The Tory high noon—and the fruit of Thatcher’s policy of conflict—came the following year with the coal miners’ strike. In the previous Parliament, Battling Maggie, as the tabloid press liked to call her (though in real life no one dared abbreviate her Christian name to her face), had shirked a fight with the miners. Mindful of what had happened to Heath and believing that, with their moderate union leader, they would be popular with the country, she gave in to their demands. But by 1984 things were different. Mrs. Thatcher had insisted on building up huge reserves of coal to endure a long strike. The union had been taken over by Arthur Scargill, an unpopular hard-left activist who was spoiling for a political fight. The laws that protected unions had been altered, and Scargill made the mistake of calling a strike in March, when the weather gets warmer and there’s less demand for coal.
He also failed to put the matter to a vote by the membership, and as a result he immediately encountered resistance from miners in various areas. Some continued to work, despite violence, intimidation, and, in one case, death, and gradually their numbers swelled. Mrs. Thatcher invoked the new laws, and the police kept the coking depots and other sources of supply open. Three days short of a full year of dispute, the miners returned to work. Margaret Thatcher had finally beaten 40 years of union political power. The economic benefits were huge, and her prestige soared.
But there was also widespread distaste at her approach. During the strike, Mrs. Thatcher had spoken of “the enemy within.” She was referring to militants in the union, not ordinary miners, but critics took her words as a symptom of her divisiveness, her lack of concern for the social fabric. It was gently intimated that the Queen, who is never political, was worried about the unity of her kingdom. Mrs. Thatcher became notorious for asking of any potential collaborator, “Is he one of us?”—foreshadowing George W. Bush’s declaration, in the context of terrorism, that “either you’re for us, or you’re against us.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that a great many people now hated her.
A few hated her even unto death. On October 12, 1984, the day before her 59th birthday, Margaret Thatcher was staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton for her party’s annual conference. No official duty made her more nervous than the leader’s speech on these occasions, and she always insisted on staying up until the early hours arguing over the drafts. At 2:40 that morning, she finally decided that the speech was finished and sent her exhausted staff to type it up. At 2:54 A.M., when she was still up looking at government papers, an explosion rocked her hotel, hurling glass from the windows into her room. It proved to be a bomb planted by the I.R.A. Mrs. Thatcher was uninjured, but five people were killed, and Margaret Tebbit, the wife of her most “Thatcherite” Cabinet colleague, Norman, was paralyzed from the neck down. Mrs. Thatcher went ahead with her speech that afternoon, telling the audience, “The fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.” It was not until the ensuing Sunday, when she went to church, that the full horror of what had happened caught up with her. She wept, and when she emerged from the service she said, “This is a day I was not meant to see.”
No one ever doubted her courage in the face of such assaults (she also lost two of her closest friends and colleagues, Airey Neave and Ian Gow, in separate I.R.A. assassinations), but she was not, perhaps, entirely true to her words about resistance to terrorism. At the end of the following year, she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It was the first time a British government had conceded the idea that the Republic of Ireland should have any say in the affairs of Northern Ireland. So began a process of appeasement that culminated by the end of the century in the election of I.R.A. leaders, their followers still armed, to government posts in Northern Ireland.
In fact, Margaret Thatcher was quite often persuaded to pursue policies, particularly in areas outside the economic sphere, that ran counter to her instincts. In 1980 she settled the question of the rebel colony Rhodesia, renamed Zimbabwe at independence, in favor of the Marxist Robert Mugabe. At the end of 1984, she signed the Joint Declaration on the British colony of Hong Kong, handing it over to China when the lease on part of the territory ran out in 1997 without providing any means to preserve the democratic self-determination that was one of her guiding principles. Along the same lines—and more extraordinary—was the Single European Act of 1986, in which Mrs. Thatcher, excited by the prospect of a single market in the E.U., signed away much of the British independence she valued so greatly. In all these cases, she allowed the Foreign Office to push her against the grain of her beliefs. In all of them except Zimbabwe, she later came to have doubts about what she had done. In the case of the E.U., her regret was violent and, for her career, terminal.
“Europe” lays a curse on British governments of both parties, because it presents a dilemma they can never resolve. Do you want Britain to be inside a friendly association of neighboring democracies and trading partners? Yes. Do you want the loss of national independence that the other members of this association demand? No. Do you feel more European or more Anglo-Saxon? Do you look across the Atlantic or across the English Channel? Not sure.
But Margaret Thatcher and the grass roots of her party became increasingly sure one way, and most of her senior colleagues the other. Always a fierce Atlanticist, Mrs. Thatcher loved dealing with American administrations, particularly that of Ronald Reagan. When he asked her permission to use British air bases for the bombing of Libya, in 1986, she had to overrule the doubts of almost all of her Cabinet, and she was deeply worried, but in the end her heart told her what to do. Early in the morning, she found Charles Powell. “Charles,” she said, “we’ve got to support them. They’re our allies.” She came to speak more and more often of “the unity of the English-speaking peoples.” And at the same time, she came to detest the endless round of European summits and to suspect the character of many European leaders. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the president of France when she came into office, patronized her. He was, she once said to me with a telling pause, “extremely … noble.” She and the German chancellor Helmut Kohl reacted allergically to each other. On one occasion in Salzburg, Kohl, desperate to escape a meeting in which he thought she was lecturing him, falsely pleaded an emergency and cut out early. Finding herself at a loose end, Mrs. Thatcher toured the city’s shops. To her surprise she spotted Kohl sitting in a café eating buns.
Kohl brought out a strong, simple, wartime prejudice. “You know what’s wrong with Helmut Kohl?” she once said, turning to me confidentially as if it were a secret. “He’s a German.”
The main battleground was over Europe and the pound sterling. The pro-Europeans argued that the British pound should join the exchange-rate mechanism (E.R.M.) of the European Monetary System. This was intended by all to stabilize exchange rates and by some as a prelude to the replacement of national currencies with what would become the euro. Mrs. Thatcher always mistrusted this strategy, but her able chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, supported by an increasingly rebellious Geoffrey Howe at the Foreign Office, began a secret policy of “shadowing the deutsche mark” in order to prepare the pound for entry into the E.R.M. (The entry took place, against Mrs. Thatcher’s better judgment, in October 1990.) The consequence was, among other things, renewed inflation and growing dissension.
At the same time, Mrs. Thatcher was coming to the view that “Europe” was a back door to socialism. Jacques Delors, the French president of the European Commission beginning in 1985, was a strong political figure and a socialist. In 1988 he addressed a gathering of Mrs. Thatcher’s least favorite people—the British trade-union leaders—and urged Pan-European collective bargaining. He wanted the E.U. to control economic, social, and fiscal legislation. All of Mrs. Thatcher’s free-market and patriotic suspicions were aroused, and at Bruges on September 20, 1988, she delivered a rousing defense of the nation-state and of her way of doing things: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” Battle was joined.
Although Thatcher’s views on this subject were popular at home, she herself no longer was. Her attempt to replace local property taxes with a poll tax, which charged per head, regardless of one’s ability to pay, was immensely unpopular, and she was constantly attacked for her arrogance, her divisiveness, and her declared enthusiasm, after 10 years in power, for going “on and on and on.” On the Continent, her European colleagues found her style, her views, and her habit of expressing them at summits increasingly unbearable. Having won great prestige in Eastern Europe for her stout support for the end of the Soviet empire, she squandered some of that goodwill by adamantly opposing the re-unification of Germany. Not realizing that this was the natural consequence of the fall of the Iron Curtain, which she had worked so hard to tear down, she held a summit at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house, about the dangers of the German character. The hinge of history had started to swing, and she was on the wrong side of the door.
The biggest threat to her, though, came from her colleagues. After years and years of punishment, the worms began to turn. And it was Geoffrey Howe, the most superficially worm-like of them all, who turned the most effectively.
“I’m Enjoying This!”
At the end of October 1990, Margaret Thatcher returned from an acrimonious E.U. summit in Rome, where she had been in the position diplomats dread most of all: “isolated.” Reporting on the summit to the House of Commons, she attacked what she said was Jacques Delors’s idea that the European Parliament should be the European Community’s House of Representatives, the commission its executive branch, and the council ministers its Senate. With her love of repeating the same thing three times, she shouted, “No, no, no.”
It was too much for Geoffrey Howe, an ardent pro-European and the last remaining giant from her original Cabinet of 1979, and he resigned. That weekend, Michael Heseltine, a leading Tory critic who was not a member of her government, hinted that he would challenge her. In a speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, Mrs. Thatcher drew a combative metaphor from the national game of cricket: “I am still at the crease And in case anyone doubted it, can I assure you that there will be no ducking bouncers, no stonewalling, no playing for time. The bowling’s going to get hit all round the ground.”
Geoffrey Howe ran with the image. He went to the Commons the following day to make his resignation statement. He attacked her way of dealing with colleagues over monetary policy: “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.” According to Mrs. Thatcher, this was a “final act of bile and treachery,” but, for a large enough segment of Conservative M.P.’s, it was the moment they had been awaiting for a very long time. On Wednesday, November 14, Michael Heseltine formally entered the lists against her.
The following evening, I interviewed Margaret Thatcher for The Sunday Telegraph at No. 10 Downing Street. What struck me most was her lack of focus. She fretted that, when the first ballot was being cast, she would be in Paris for the international summit that would effectively mark the end of the Cold War, but she didn’t seem to grasp that she could have averted the whole clash in the first place. In the interview, she delivered a long lecture about the nature of the rule of law. Starting with Justinian, wandering through Charlemagne, Magna Carta, and Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, she argued strenuously, as she had many times before, for the law-based liberty of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Fine stuff, but not the right material to hand a newspaper when you are fighting for your political life. Some have said that she had lost touch so completely that she thought she couldn’t lose. Certainly this was true of some of her campaign managers, but I don’t think it was true of her. Her mood seemed more like one of unhappy fatalism.
In the British Embassy in Paris, early on the evening of November 20, she received the news that she had won, but with two votes short of the majority required to avoid a second ballot. She came out and told the waiting press that she would go forward to the second ballot. But she could not sleep that night, and spent most of it sitting up talking to Cynthia Crawford, her closest personal assistant, about her life, her childhood, and her family.
She reached No. 10 by noon the following day and agreed to see each of her Cabinet ministers separately to assess her chances. This procedure, proposed by her former chief whip, was probably a device to stop her from going on. Following a formula they had more or less arranged in advance, most told her that they would support her in a second contest but that they thought she would lose. The next morning, she took the hint and resigned, seeing the Queen before lunch to inform her. By one of the odd quirks of the British parliamentary timetable, it still fell to Margaret Thatcher to defend her administration that afternoon in a “no confidence” debate in the House of Commons. She was in top form, recounting her vision of a strong and free nation and what she had done to bring it back into being. When a veteran leftist interrupted, she slapped him down to general enthusiasm, then shouted, “I’m enjoying this!” With truly magnificent British hypocrisy, the Tories who had just assassinated her cheered and cheered.
She ceased to be prime minister the following Wednesday, when her successor, John Major, was appointed. In accordance with British tradition, the departure was immediate and total. When she tried to pass from the private flat at No. 10 to what had been her office for more than 11 years, she found that the locks had already been changed. By chance, her old friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan were staying in London shortly afterward, and she called on them in their hotel. “She was upset,” says Mrs. Reagan. “She wasn’t quiet. She was quite explicit about what she felt.” She felt betrayed.
Margaret Thatcher never wholly recovered from her loss of power. She felt bitterness about what she regarded as the “treachery” of her colleagues, and she tended, in private at least, to complain about her successors. Above all, she simply missed the delight of being prime minister, something, I am convinced, she enjoyed more absolutely than any holder of the office before or since. Once, at lunch, when she was approaching 80 and experiencing some problems with her memory, we fell to talking about which part of the Downing Street house she had preferred to work in. In her mind, she guided me, with total recall, through the geography of the place, the rooms she had redecorated and hung with portraits of great men, including Isaac Newton, who also came from Grantham. Suddenly, she burst out. “Oh, I should dearly love to be back there now! There’s so much for us to be doing.” “Doing” was what she loved, and she did more of it than anyone since Winston Churchill.
One summer weekend in the 90s, we were staying with friends beside the sea in southern England with the Thatchers as our fellow guests. After lunch, Margaret and I were sitting in the drawing room when my seven-year-old son entered. I didn’t think he knew who Mrs. Thatcher was, but, to my horror, he sat himself down on the sofa, put on a grown-up expression, and said to her, “Did you like being prime minister?”
She did not seem surprised or annoyed. “Well, we had the chance to make important decisions and improve the life of our country, so, yes, we liked it very much,” she said.
“Did you make any good laws, then?” asked our son.
“Yes, we did! We made Britain strong in defense, we reduced the power of trade unions, and we cut taxes so that people could keep more of what they earn. And if people keep more of what they earn, they earn more.”
The next question (“Oh, so did you get very rich then?”) was not so happy, but what struck me was Mrs. Thatcher’s ability to encapsulate her own achievements and present them in a way even a child could understand. She was always a brilliant performer, a sedulous promoter of her own myth.
And it is at the level of myth, even more than for her many specific, factual achievements, that she will endure. Margaret Thatcher was, is, and will always be a legendary figure. For some, she is the wicked witch of selfishness and privilege. For many more, she is a symbol of what women can do, what the British character can be, what the English-speaking peoples stand for, and what conservatism is. It was she, in her eulogy at Ronald Reagan’s funeral (played on tape because her health was not good enough for her to deliver it in person), who set the seal on that alliance of history, people, and ideas. For centuries, “Thatcherism” will mean something to people all over the world who are interested in liberty. So will the brave, ardent, sometimes impossible woman who gave it its name.
- Margaret Thatcher Quotes (wtmmb.wordpress.com)
- Margaret Thatcher kept sketches drawn by Ronald Reagan – Daily Mail (dailymail.co.uk)
- The Iron Lady: We’ll still be in awe of Margaret Thatcher years after Blair and Major are forgotten (dailymail.co.uk)
- Margaret Thatcher on Socialism (garnetspy.com)
- Cartoon: The Iron Lady (englishblog.com)
- Margaret Thatcher – The Iron Lady (devil67712.wordpress.com)
- Margaret Thatcher on Socialism (garnetspy.com)
- Cartoon: The Iron Lady (englishblog.com)
- Margaret Thatcher – The Iron Lady (devil67712.wordpress.com)