Whether you loved or loathed her, there’s no doubt that Margaret Thatcher was one of the most influential – and controversial – figures of the 20th century. Even after her death, her name continues to inspire heated debate; no one who remembers her has a neutral opinion of her.
From a blogger’s perspective, controversy is always welcome, so I was pleased to secure a ticket to the launch of the third volume of the memoir by her official biographer, Charles Moore’s. He was interviewed by journalist Rachel Cooke, who grew up in Sheffield during the 1980s and “loathed” Margaret Thatcher: “I’m hoping that will add some piquancy to this evening’s conversation”, she joked.
The final chapter
This volume of Moore’s biography begins in 1987, when Thatcher and the Conservative Party unexpectedly won a third consecutive election victory, and concludes with the Iron Lady’s death in 2013 – so that is the period that this post will cover. I’m not here to pass judgement: I shall let you make up your own minds as to Moore’s findings. Along the way, we’ll encounter the ill-fated Poll Tax, the end of the Cold War, the AIDS epidemic and the ministerial crisis which, ultimately, brought down the UK’s first female Prime Minister. Charles Moore describes this journey as “replete with surprises”: read on to find out whether you agree.
In June 1987, the media were not alone in predicting that Margaret Thatcher’s downfall was imminent. She believed it, too – and had become “hysterical” during the election campaign. Instead, the Tories won the election with a large majority – and as Margaret Thatcher looked out across Downing Street the following day, she felt herself to be queen of all she surveyed. Finally, she believed, Thatcherism had been embedded in British society.
“What’s to stop us?” – become Margaret Thatcher’s mantra, and was the theme of that year’s Tory Party conference. Soon, though, the cracks would set in. “You can’t go on just doing what you want”, commented Charles Moore – but Thatcher had begun to believe she could do exactly that. Some complacency took hold, making 1987 a milestone in more ways than one: Margaret Thatcher had never before been complacent.
The Poll Tax: A serious mistake
Nowhere was that more evident than in her handling of the poll tax proposal. The intent behind it may have been good – Mrs Thatcher believed the existing local government finance system to be unfair and that some councils were wasting tax payers’ money and needed to be made more accountable. What the PM hadn’t taken into account was how many people the poll tax would impact: around eight million people would have to pay tax for the first time – and they objected bitterly. Stuck with a strategy she wasn’t able to change, Thatcher began making excuses and then tried to wrest financial accountability back to the government. The poll tax became a long-running disaster she was unable to find her way out of.
AIDS crisis: A hidden side to Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher remains the UK’s only scientist Prime Minister. As the AIDS crisis worsened during the 1980s, she wanted to understand the science behind this horrendous disease. During Moore’s research, he discovered that Thatcher made an unpublicised visit to an AIDS hospice, where she met with a number of its doctors and patients. The following day, she sent them a handwritten letter of thanks, together with a £1,000 donation of her own money. Despite a life-long prudishness towards sex, she believed that knowledge was better than ignorance. She was, says Moore,”…good at one-to- one conversations, and at visiting people in trouble”.
A woman in a man’s world
Margaret Thatcher was always, says Charles Moore, “very conscious” of being a woman. Living by the mantra that there were no second chances for women, she believed in the “superiority” (!) of the female sex – yet preferred the company of men, and loved being their boss. Never did she try to be a pseudo man (Spitting Image’s puppet of her was ill-conceived; she loved clothes, and understood their power).
As far as her fellow leaders went, whilst she disliked Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl, Thatcher loved Francois Mitterand (“He knows how to treat a woman”) and had a great rapport with Mikhail Gorbachev. She understood how to flirt – and responded in kind to Ronald Reagan’s “courtly ways”. The idea that she was Reagan’s poodle is “completely wrong” – it was the other way around, so much so that Reagan’s aides tried to keep her away from him, because he always gave in to her.
An early convert to the climate change cause
As a scientist, Margaret Thatcher understood the science behind the climate change school of thought and was the first world leader to take up the issue. “We don’t have a freehold on the earth”, she was quoted as saying, regularly dispatching her (often unwilling) cabinet ministers to environmental talks.
The beginning of the end
The departure of Willie Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s deputy, following a stroke was a significant blow for the PM. A skilled politician, Whitelaw was a very persuasive man; “bumbling, but acute”. Once he retired, Thatcher had no real link with senior Tories, all of whom were men and had disliked being ruled by a woman. Already feeling isolated, this estrangement from the Tories’ senior elite would prove fatal.
At no time was this clearer than on Thatcher’s tenth anniversary in power in May 1989. At a celebratory dinner, her then-Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, gave a glowing speech about her. Just hours earlier, he and Nigel Lawson had been plotting how they would force their boss to change her economic policy.
In the meantime, Denis Thatcher had come to the conclusion that ten years at 10 Downing Street was enough. Contrary to his public face he was, says Moore, a “shrewd adviser” with a solid understanding of what his wife’s peers were thinking. He encouraged Margaret to pack the job in – but she kept finding excuses not to do so.
Europe’s role in Margaret Thatcher’s downfall
It’s funny writing this as we live through the Brexit crisis; when HASN’T Europe played a key role in the success or failure of our politicians’ careers? Whilst it was the poll tax that made voters turn against Thatcher, it was Europe which cost her the support of her colleagues, starting with her refusal to support Nigel Lawson’s desire to take the UK into the ERM. She was also against European Commissioner Jacques Delors’ plan for a single European currency.
Interestingly, early on in her career Thatcher had been a moderate fan of Europe, but later on became worried about sovereignty issues. Just before her fall she told Charles Moore she thought the issue of Europe should be put to voters: in other words, she wanted a referendum on joining the single currency. (Her successor, John Major, also considered holding a referendum, but changed his mind when he found out Thatcher was a fan of the idea!)
Conflicting views on Germany’s reunification
Margaret Thatcher had intense sympathy for people living under communism, but limited sympathy for East Germans. Having lived through World War Two, she was frightened of Germany growing more powerful and therefore against its reunification, not least because of how Russia might react. These were, Charles Moore believes, rational fears – but her intense dislike of Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl was irrational.
At this point, our PM was incredibly popular in Eastern Bloc countries for helping to end the Cold War; flowers would be thrown into the streets when she toured those countries – a direct contrast to the bricks thrown at her at home.
How a friendship with Nelson Mandela blossomed
Margaret Thatcher had campaigned for Nelson Mandela to be released since 1984 and her efforts (and those of other world leaders) began to pay off when F.W. de Klerk became South African president. She had also secretly engaged with the ANC’s representatives in London, including Oliver Tambo; the ANC didn’t particularly like her, but understood the benefits of engaging with her.
After Mandela was released, tired and unwell, in February 1990, he was desperate to holiday abroad and enjoy some peace & quiet. Thatcher organised a safe house in Kent for Nelson and his wife Winnie and arranged for Oliver Tambo, who hadn’t seen Mandela since the 1960s, to visit them.
Following a joyful evening drinking hot port, Mandela telephoned Margaret Thatcher’s Private Secretary, Charles Powell, and asked if he could visit Mrs Thatcher in London – but there wasn’t enough time for him to do so before he & Winnie left the country the next day. Instead, the two leaders spoke by phone and Mandela was touched by the PM’s concern for his health.
They did meet, one month later, and Mandela expressed his admiration for how Margaret Thatcher had reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev and forged an unlikely relationship with Russia; Mandela saw parallels with South Africa’s political situation.
Backstabbing – and Margaret Thatcher’s inevitable demise
Looking back on the events of 1989 and 1990, it’s like watching a soap opera. Having demoted Geoffrey Howe and accepted Nigel Lawson’s resignation, Thatcher had lost the support of the Whips’ Office. Inflation and interest rates were rising; the poll tax controversy continued and a number of Thatcher’s colleagues had turned against her; others believed that she had had her day. The Conservative Party’s “male club” had never come to terms with having a woman at its head – and her rudeness to the people at the top of the organisation had alienated many (conversely, she was always nice to her more junior colleagues).
The rest, as they say, is history. Michael Heseltine triggered a leadership contest and, whilst not winning the job he coveted so much, secured his boss’s downfall. John Major, having originally said he would support Thatcher, turned out to be Machiavelli in disguise.
Immediately after she resigned, Margaret Thatcher found herself “broke, unemployable and cast down” in her unloved Dulwich house. Events had moved so quickly that she had made no preparation for leaving politics and was unready for her new life. Bear in mind that, for the past ten year, she hadn’t made a telephone call, driven a car or used an answering machine…real life was a shock. And, like many Prime Ministers before and after her, she harboured a notion that she might, somehow, return to office.
Charles Moore’s concluding remarks on his 20 year-old labour of love
“I’ve spent longer writing this book than Margaret Thatcher was in power” remarked Moore, dryly. He remains “uncertain” why Thatcher chose him as her official biographer, but knows that she was advised to let someone she trusted look at all her papers, rather than leave such an activity to chance. And despite all the labour, he is “glad” he’s done it.
Despite never having warmed to Margaret Thatcher on a personal level, Moore loved her “courage and determination” – and the fact that “No one tried harder than she did”. Her fall was: “A tragedy. If she was going to be beaten, it should have been in a general election, in the way of great leaders”.
The way in which Margaret Thatcher was disposed of was, Moore concluded: “The greatness of a woman brought down by the littleness of men.”
Mrs. Thatcher always fascinated me. Looking backward without benefit of having done any serious reading about her, and all political opinions aside, I wish sincerely that more of today’s leaders possessed more of her finer qualities. Whatever anyone thought of her or Reagan, together they convinced Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” and the Iron Curtain came down. At the time, remembering my Cold War childhood and adolescence, that seemed like a huge miracle. Nothing is ever simple, least of all world politics, but I think that history, in the long run, will regard her well despite any errors in judgment (and I would leave that to my UK friends to decide). I think I must read more about her. Thanks so much, Liz, for this insightful and informative post.
Such an interesting post on one of the 20th Century’s most interesting leaders. I hated her when I was growing up but she was a revolutionary and what she did was in many ways remarkable. Thanks for your support for my blog. Caroline
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Wow! What a great post. I had no idea that her ‘official’ biography hadn’t been published yet. It’s a rare thing these days to have a writer admit that although he didn’t ‘warm’ to her, he admired what she did. That takes a lot of character to admit.
You have to admire her for what she achieved although I hated the woman for the way she treated the Unions. Just to clarify I am not some loony lefty, far from it but I was and still am a card carrying member of the actors union Equity and by taking the power from the larger unions she also took power from the smaller ones especially Equity. It was hard enough for actors to earn a living before Thatcher but took away all our bargaining powers and most of the contracts we used to work under were altered or ignored altogether. It is some many years since I had an acting job as I became a long term carer for my mother who developed dementia but I still keep my Equity membership up to date, you never know, one of the plays that I have written might get produced and I could cast myself in it. To any producers out there, here is a handy link! https://www.amazon.co.uk/Plays-Wot-I-Wrote/dp/0993523005/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
I am definitely in the “loathed her” camp and always will be for all sorts of reasons including her attacks on the unions as mentioned above. However, having read this, I am prepared to admit her attitudes to AIDS, climate change and Mandela are not what I expected and I will allow that she has some glimmers of good! BTW – first and only female PM? Have you forgotten Theresa May already? I loathed her too, but she wasn’t remotely in Thatcher’s category of competence.
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I would say I’m in that camp too but perhaps, after reading this post, I should accept she’s not quite the 2 dimensional figure of loathing that I thought she was.
Yes, I have grudgingly accepted that through gritted teeth!
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I was only born in 83 so probably don’t remember the dark days of Maggie Thatcher as well as others. However, the more I learn of her, the more I like her. A no-nonsense woman in a man’s world which must have been terribly lonely for her at times. Fantastic topic and article 🧚♀️
I always appreciate your insider perspective.
“The greatness of a woman brought down by the littleness of men.”
Wow! Just wow! I will always remember this quote from now on! As a woman, I can totally relate. I am no Margaret Thatcher, not even remotely close. Hardly anyone could come remotely closer! But for strong women who try to make it in this world, sadly, this happens whether we allow it or not. But men do try, and it makes the fight harder. But women keep on fighting.
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