Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands

  • Charles Moore
  • Knopf
  • 896 pp.

A complex and nuanced portrait of the former prime minister.

This is a surprising, daunting, and rewarding book.

All of us have at least a basic image of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: slashing spending, tackling inflation, battling unions, defending the Falklands. She was confident and eloquent, conservative and yet revolutionary in reversing the trend towards socialism in Britain.

Charles Moore’s magnificent new book both confirms all this and complicates it, for there are surprises, large and small, on almost every page. We know, for example, from prior books, that Thatcher’s father, Alfred Roberts, was a Methodist lay minister. We learn from Moore, however, that he also had a weakness for women: one of Moore’s sources says that he “touched women in a way completely uncalled for.” And we learn that, although Thatcher later said that she learned everything from her father, she was not an especially dutiful daughter; her father often complained to her sister Muriel that he had not heard from Margaret.

Another surprise, much later in the book: we know that Thatcher recaptured the Falkland Islands and rejected efforts to reach a negotiated resolution with Argentina. But we learn from Moore how Thatcher agreed to compromise proposals, including a Peruvian proposal that her foreign minister described as “a fudge.” Moore gives us all the details, including the contrast between the events as they unfolded and Thatcher’s version in her memoir. “She cannot quite bring herself to say that she did, although with qualifications, approve the plan which she so much disliked.”

This is an authorized biography, based in part on interviews with Thatcher herself, as well as almost everyone who worked for or against her over many years. Although Moore generally approves of and admires Thatcher, he is not afraid (as the examples cited above show) to criticize her or those close to her. The book is filled with wonderful details, such as the description of Thatcher’s first meeting with Milton Friedman, at which she immediately asked him about different measures of the monetary supply.

For an American reader this is a daunting book, and not just because it runs to almost 900 pages. Moore often uses British phrases and abbreviations, sometimes with an explanation and sometimes without. He refers often, for example, to the OD, without as best I can tell any definition. He notes that in one election, one party “lost its deposit” without telling us (as I learned from Wikipedia) that this means that the candidate did not receive even 5 percent of the votes. Too many of Moore’s sentences are burdened with a full list of all the people who attended a particular meeting, detail that might better be reserved for the endnotes.

In the end, however, this is an intensely interesting, rewarding book. Moore never forgets that his task is not just to tell us what Thatcher did and said; his task is to reveal her character. He notes, for example, that she objected to the word “stabilization” in an economic memo. “She had a habit of seizing on a particular word in someone’s argument and wrestling with it. … She preferred to jump about, seizing one phrase, rejecting another, contradicting sometimes herself, and, much more often, everyone else. Such methods sometimes drove those working with her to distraction, but in the view of others they showed the flexibility which is always necessary for political survival.”

Moore wisely decided to break his two-volume life of Thatcher with the Falklands War, in 1982, rather than at her election as prime minister, in 1979. This gives him not only a stirring conclusion; it also gives him two chapters at the end that do not have to skip around among the various issues that she faced as prime minister, that can focus closely on a few intense weeks. We see her crying alone at the news of the death of British soldiers and rejoicing in crowds at the news of British victories.

This reader, at least, found himself crying and rejoicing with her.

Walter Stahr is a Washington lawyer and the author of John Jay: Founding Father and Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man.


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