Monday, 24 June 2013

A must-read biography

Charles Moore's Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography; Volume One: Not for Turning is a wonderful book. As other reviewers have noted, it's not often that, after 758 pages of text, you're left wanting more, but you do. This volume takes us up to the end of the Falkland war, in 1982: we've got the miners, the Brighton bombing, the Anglo-Irish agreement, privatisations, the economic recovery of the UK in the Eighties, and Mrs Thatcher's ultimate decline and fall, yet to come.

It's practically impossible in New Zealand's polarised play-the-man-not-the-ball politics, to say anything that won't be misinterpreted, and while I'm not genuflecting to the grab-them-by-the-goolies-in-the-scrum that passes for literary criticism in Godzone, let me make it clear that in commending this book, I'm doing it because it's a wonderful book, not because I necessarily subscribe to everything that Thatcher did or stood for. As have even the left-leaning UK reviewers.

In the Guardian, Andrew Rawnsley said, inter alia, "He [Powell] mines his sources skilfully without becoming their captive. His prose is more considered and his conclusions more nuanced than his partisan journalism. He is not afraid to address the contradictions and tease out the inconsistencies of his subject. Nor to be critical, sometimes deeply so. The result is to paint a much more multidimensional portrait of Thatcher than the caricature heroine adored by the right or the devil incarnate loathed by the left".

Also in the Guardian, an otherwise rather snarky review says that "After all the eulogies, it is refreshing to read about an odd, driven, believable person – rather than some abstract national saviour or demon".

And in the New Statesman, which scored something of a coup in getting David Owen, a former political heavyweight, to write the review, Owen says, "Good biographies, and this is an exceptionally good one, tell us things we did not know about the life of their subject".

I worked in the financial markets in London (1979-1982) during the early Thatcher years. I was torn between extreme irritation at the woman herself - bear in  mind that I'm Irish and congenitally adverse to plummy-voiced people telling us what's good for us, and even more so when we might feel that the plummy voice is an acquired affectation - and admiration for her policies. I gather from the biography that many others felt the same way. At one point her advisers sent her a memo telling her how awful her management of other people was. Read the biography for the details.

And yet. For all that she made my fillings fall out, my ideal politician would be someone who is economically orthodox and socially liberal, and in some respects she came into the picture. As David Owen's review noted, "she was determined not to be easily typecast: she was in favour of abortion, fairly relaxed about sexual conduct and had no hang-ups about appointing or being seen around gay men, many of whom she rather liked". Owen's assessment of Thatcher turns harsher later, but this assessment of her social views is generous, especially (as the review says) Thatcher had been rather disrespectful of Owen's wife.

The biography reveals a lot of things: some have put it down to Moore's semi-privileged access to the source data, and there is that, but personally I put it a lot of it down to his extraordinary diligence in following up with those involved at the time. Who would have guessed that French President Fran├žois Mitterrand - leader of a country that had made an art form of stymieing other countries' foreign policy initiatives - would have been so supportive over the Falklands? Or that he rather fancied her? And that she was at the least grateful, and arguably fancied him back?

De gustibus, as was said long ago, non disputandum: there's no accounting for tastes. Another strange thing (at least to me) that emerges from the biography is how many people found her physically attractive. You'd have expected that from some people. Alan Clark, the famous diarist, was, predictably, one of them, but as he'd have humped a chair leg if the sun shone on it, his view isn't entirely representative. That said, the reaction was remarkably widespread. It's an interesting perspective: it would be demeaning her to say that she took advantage of her femininity across the negotiating table, but she enjoyed flirting and being flirted with, and had more time for those who played the game than those who didn't. If you've got a mental impression that the Iron Lady was iron-like in every respect, think again.

She was distinctly illiberal in one respect. In all her time, she appointed precisely one woman to her Cabinets. I'm somewhat amused: men are often given a serve for appointing people from an Old Boys' network, but the most chauvinist male has nothing on Mrs Thatcher. There was room for only one woman where she was concerned.

Moore is an ideal biographer - you get just enough of his own opinions and conclusions without feeling he is intruding too much into the picture. This is without doubt one of my books of the year, and likely destined to be one of the classic political biographies.

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