This article from the Autumn 2020 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Senior Fellow Richard Allsop.
Charles Moore’s magisterial authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher reaches new levels of excellence in this third and final volume. Moore faithfully charts the path to that fateful day in November 1990 when Thatcher resigned the Prime Ministership. He is always sympathetic to his subject but, like all good biographers, aware of his subject’s flaws which contributed to her being in a position where she was in the end, as the subtitle says, ‘Herself Alone’.
The volume begins in the happier times of June 1987, with Thatcher having just recorded a thumping third consecutive election win to provide a stunning vindication of Thatcherism. Social Democrats leader David Owen argued that being “part of the disestablishment” had been crucial to Thatcher’s success convincing the public that Britain’s economic decline was over.
Reversing Britain’s economic decline was not such a priority for swathes of the establishment in the universities and churches. Oxford University refused to give her an honorary degree and, by the 1980s, the Christian churches had become unrecognisable from the churches of Thatcher’s youth. When Thatcher spoke about personal responsibility in a major speech to Scottish Presbyterians in 1988, it produced the usual round of bleating from church leaders about her supposed lack of care for the poor. Church leaders appeared not to notice that by 1988, Britain was far more prosperous than it had been when Thatcher came to power. However, the churches did not really want to open pathways to prosperity for, as Thatcher noted, it was “hard for us to be told to relieve poverty then when you do so, you are accused of being materialistic”.
There was certainly no suggestion as Thatcher embarked on her third term that she had run out of desire to reform the British economy. Relics of the postSecond World War consensus still needed smashing. One example was the Dock Labour Scheme, set up by Labour in the 1940s but shamefully reinforced under Ted Heath’s Tory Government in 1972. All ports which were part of the scheme had to offer dockers permanent, well-paid (partly government subsidised) jobs, with payment not only guaranteed if there was no work but also, if the port closed, a similar sinecure had to be found at another port.
Furthermore, the positions were hereditary, with sons (not daughters!) entitled to take over upon retirement. If these cushy conditions were not enough, the brazen dockers’ union refused to handle containers, thus denying the British economy one of the key drivers of greater transport efficiency. When the time came to legislate the scheme out of existence, there was a brief strike but the unions folded surprisingly quickly, demonstrating “how complete was her victory in the area which had seemed most difficult of all, the defeat of trade union political power”.
In her third term, Thatcher pursued electricity and water privatisation; sought to shake up public broadcasting and the legal profession; and attempted to reform health and education. She moved to a purchaser-provider model for the National Health Service and brought in a package of education reforms which provided some scope for escaping from the “bog-standard comprehensive” model of secondary education. She also brought in the concept of a national curriculum to mandate standards, but this created “tension between devolving and centralisation when trying to improve education”, a tension with which governments have grappled ever since.
There were elements of the same tension at the heart of the biggest own goal of Thatcher’s third term, the implementation of the community charge, or poll tax. The concept was designed to make local councils more accountable but, when it failed in this objective, Thatcher wanted to have the central government cap the charge reimposing “methods of control which the poll tax was supposed to supersede”.
Moore describes how in attempting to deal with the political fall-out from the poll tax, observers detected signs of Thatcher “flailing around”; they had “never seen her flailing before”. Thatcher not handling all issues as adroitly as she could have was hardly surprising: for more than a decade she had done an enormous amount of the heavy lifting. Still she persevered, “for Mrs Thatcher, political turbulence was rarely a reason for retreat… she still wanted to get things done”.
Thatcher’s domestic achievements were significant, yet surpassed by her major role in bringing about the end of the Cold War. Thatcher spotted early on that Mikhail Gorbachev was a leader with whom the West could do business. Moore attributes part of her success in dealing with Gorbachev to her recognition of the need to protect his position within the Soviet Union. She acquired the understanding of how to do so by exhibiting “a quality, surprisingly unusual in political leaders, of being extremely interested in the matter of many issues, rather than seeing them only as instrumental to political success (though no one cared more about political success than she did)”.
Foreign policy became more difficult in her third term when George Bush replaced Ronald Reagan as United States President. It would have been almost impossible for anyone to replicate the relationship she had with Reagan, a fellow outsider who had a clear vision of a freer world. Moore brilliantly describes the difference in outlook between Thatcher and Bush:
There was quite a difference between Bush, the child of American wealth and privilege who regarded political office as public service, and Mrs Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter and first woman prime minister, who saw herself as having fought a lonely battle for the truth against feeble and complacent men.
Thatcher’s opposition to the reunification of Germany made the end of the Cold War less of an obvious triumph for her than it otherwise might have been. She also has not received the credit she deserves for her role in ending another long-running scar on global politics, apartheid in South Africa. She opposed the sanctions which other Commonwealth leaders loved imposing as she considered them harmful to both British industry and poor South Africans. However, she had campaigned for Mandela’s release since 1984 and constantly tried to encourage the South African regime to embrace reform.
Once F.W. de Klerk replaced P.W. Botha as South Africa’s president, Thatcher had a leader who understood change was essential, another Gorbachev-type figure. By this time, the African National Congress (ANC) had realised the quickest way to end apartheid was not armed struggle, but negotiations with the white regime—and that the world leader most likely to sway that regime was Thatcher. Her ultimate role in apartheid’s demise was recognised by both de Klerk and Mandela, the latter saying when he met Thatcher in July 1990 that her opposition to apartheid had been “clear beyond all reasonable doubt”.
How to manage Britain’s relationship with Europe came to dominate the political agenda as Thatcher’s third term progressed. Although she was often correct on the substance of the issue, Moore argues Thatcher made serious missteps in finding the correct way to proceed:
She was in the psychologically difficult position of having achieved great success against the odds over many years, believing she was right on this particular issue and yet making all sorts of mistakes which weakened her own position.
There was a growing divide between her view and that of her senior ministers, which led first to the resignation of her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, in October 1989 and then to that of her Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe, in November 1990. The latter triggered a serious challenge to her leadership. Her instinct was to fight, but she lacked the committed and politically adroit foot-soldiers needed to successfully execute the battle. In the end, she fell on her sword and helped ensure her protégé, John Major, succeeded her. Major’s role in these events does not read well, seemingly remaining loyal to his leader but at the same time busily positioning himself for leadership. It is hard to argue with loyal Thatcherite MP and diarist, Alan Clark, who commented on her final days in power:
What a way to go! Unbeaten in three elections, never rejected by the people. Brought down by nonentities!
While many of her Tory colleagues were behaving badly, at least two Labour politicians deserve honourable mentions. Frank Field, later Minister for Welfare Reform in the Blair Government, regarded Thatcher as “a most remarkable Prime Minister”. He visited her at Downing Street to warn she should “go out on a high note” before all “those terrible creeps who owed everything to her” had the chance to “tear her apart”. And go out on a high note she did, putting on a brilliant parliamentary performance on the day she announced her resignation, eloquently describing the values of free markets and free societies. She was aided by an injection from hard-Left Labour backbencher, Dennis Skinner, who suggested she could be governor of an independent European Central Bank. Thatcher instantly responded, “What a good idea, I had not thought of that”. Then, after a few lines about why she opposed a single currency, she exclaimed “I am enjoying this”.
It was never that good again. Thatcher lived for more than 20 years after the end of her Prime Ministership but, as Moore documents, there were more downs than ups in her retirement, with political disappointments, deaths of those close to her, and the decline of her own health.
Moore’s three volumes have provided the biography Margaret Thatcher so richly deserves. His work captures the seriousness of purpose which Thatcher brought to public life, a purpose which not only lifted Britain out of the economic mire of the 1970s but made a colossal contribution to ending the Cold War.
It seems unarguable that Thatcher sits behind only Winston Churchill in any ranking of the most consequential British politicians of the 20th century. Of course she made mistakes, as had Churchill on an even grander scale, but in the end, being right about the biggest things is what elevates a politician to greatness.