Lady of the House
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning
By Charles Moore (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 859pp £30)
Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher
By Robin Harris (Bantam Press 494pp £20)
When people attain a certain level of fame, their notable acts have been so exhaustively described and analysed that what we crave to know about them is the banal and everyday: what they might have in common with the rest of humanity, rather than what sets them apart. This is true of the Queen, for example. Much excitement is created by disclosures about what she has on her breakfast table, and the more normal her tastes, the greater the interest. This is even truer of Margaret Thatcher, not least because we already know as much as we need to about her political battles and legacy: not only were there volumes of her memoirs, but all her senior colleagues published their own accounts.
Yet as Charles Moore notes at the outset of his epic voyage around Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister was not just an intensely secretive person; her lack of interest in people's characters extended to her own. Or, as he puts it, 'Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He had not, of course, met Margaret Thatcher.' She kept no diaries and regularly destroyed personal documents - out of obsessive tidiness, as much as secretiveness.
Moore, as Thatcher's authorised biographer, has been given access to all relevant Cabinet papers, a rare privilege. But the archival gold mine - the cache that makes his first volume of her life truly revelatory - lay far from the vaults of Whitehall, in the attic of Muriel Cullen. She was the elder sister of Margaret, and unlike the subject of this biography, Muriel was not a thrower-out. The letters from Margaret to Muriel reveal the ordinary femininity of the future prime minister - something that her political allies and opponents guessed at but could never really assimilate: 'I bought two underwear sets that I am very pleased with. I got a white Kayser set and a pink rather dainty set of some other make. I also got pink uplift bras.'
In another letter, which also tells Muriel of her ascent up the ladder of the Oxford University Conservative Association (she seems to have wanted a political career from the outset of adulthood, if not before), Margaret exults that she has bought 'silk stockings - fully fashioned, plus a bottle of "Great Expectations", the one created specially for Valerie Hobson'.
Much later in the book, Moore quotes Caroline Stephens, one of Thatcher's longest-serving personal assistants, telling successive newcomers to the private office, 'The first thing you have got to bear in mind is that Mrs Thatcher is a very ordinary woman.' As he comments, 'It was a strange thing to say about someone so clearly extraordinary, but it was also true.' It helps to explain her enormous success as a politician, even among those voters who might have shared nothing of her ideological outlook. Countless women, especially, seemed to have intuited that she was not just acting the concerned mother and housewife when it came to the prices of goods in the shops - she really was.
The Muriel letters also led Moore to the discovery that, despite all her denials when he questioned her about it, his subject had a number of romantic entanglements before she encountered Denis Thatcher. Indeed, it seems clear that she decided to marry him on the rebound from an unrequited love for Robert Henderson, a distinguished doctor twice her age who invented the 'iron lung'. But she and Henderson apparently parted on good terms - good enough, at any rate, for Margaret to have told Muriel that she had consulted him on where to get her newborn son, Mark, circumcised. This was not the sort of detail I had expected to read in Charles Moore's authorised biography - and doubtless not one she would have expected, either - but it is what helps make his work truly memorable. Although others have praised it as a 'great political biography', it is much more than that.
In fact, those who expected political scoops from Moore might be disappointed. The most explosive revelation - though it has previously been hinted at by other historians with less evidence to work from - is that, under intense pressure from Ronald Reagan, Thatcher had secretly accepted the Peruvian peace plan for the Falklands. This meant abandoning the invaded islanders' right to self-government under British administration if Argentina agreed to withdraw its forces. This fundamental concession came just after the sinking of HMS Sheffield, and Thatcher seems to have taken the same view as some of the more rattled members of her Cabinet. They subsequently told Moore that this was just a negotiating ploy, because she and they knew that the Galtieri regime would not agree to withdraw.
All the same, what if they had been wrong? It is hard to believe she would have survived as prime minister. In which case, most regrettably, there would be no second volume for Moore to write. This first one ends with the Falklands victory dinner. The prime minister was the only woman present, with spouses relegated to post-dinner drinks. After the toasts, Thatcher rose and declared, 'Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?' As Moore aptly concludes his astounding book, this 'may well have been the happiest moment of her life'.
Robin Harris's biography of Margaret Thatcher is also astounding, though in a very different way. It is remarkably disobliging, even cruel. Harris was appointed director of the Conservative Research Department by Thatcher in the mid-1980s and later became one of her speech writers. As he puts it in his preface, 'In the last two years of her premiership we became close: she trusted me.' He remained with her after her traumatic fall from power and was in charge of drafting her memoirs.
She did not, however, choose Harris to be her official biographer. Nonetheless, his book twice reproduces a signed letter from Mrs Thatcher, dated November 2005, thanking him for telling her that he will be writing a biography to be published after her death: 'The news was neither unexpected nor is it unwelcome ... I only regret that I will not have the chance to read it myself!'
Her friends and family will be very grateful that she did not have the chance. While Harris describes her as 'the only great Prime Minister of modern times' and compares his association with her to one between a pygmy and a giant, his book is suffused with a kind of bitterness. Perhaps it is simply a variation on the truth that no great person is a hero to his valet.
So Harris declares, of working with her, that:
Anyone who expected her to argue a case from first principles to its conclusion, rather than mixing up principles and conclusion in her introductory remarks and then remorselessly, endlessly, repeating the mix, was likely to be disappointed. When she appeared to reason a matter through, it was an illusion.
This was about Thatcher in her formidable prime. But it is when Harris lifts the veil on her years of mental decline that his pen becomes truly savage. By his own description, she was drunk a lot of the time, because her imbibing of quadruple measures of whisky combined with her near-obsessive weight-watching meant that she ate far too little to soak up the alcohol. Bitchily, he remarks that her favourite portrait of herself, appearing very thin, made her look like Nosferatu.
As her mind began to go, Harris tells us, she started to suffer from the delusion that Denis was being unfaithful to her. He, in turn, was quite unable to cope with her mental disintegration and would shout at her. They are both, by the way, portrayed as dreadful skinflints: Denis would avoid paying for anything, if possible, while Margaret 'never quite trusted anyone, even those she had known for years, not to short-change her in some trivial regard'. In retirement, she would 'complain ceaselessly and disagreeably about how much she had forgone' by not taking her full pay entitlement as prime minister.
It is all most distasteful - and of course completely compelling. Still, it is odd that the author of a book that denounces almost all of Thatcher's closest colleagues for ultimately betraying her cannot see that his is the unkindest cut of all.
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Dominic Lawson writes weekly columns for the Sunday Times and The Independent, and is the author of The Inner Game.