Charles’s elegance of mind is matched by a moral purpose which is serious, but never solemn. Undoubtedly, he knows a vast amount about politics, but it was English literature he studied at Cambridge and his distinction as a biographer lies in a novelist’s grasp of character allied to a magpie’s eye for telling detail... As Establishment forces continue to thwart Brexit, we are badly in need of Margaret Thatcher and her lonely courage. With perfect timing, Charles Moore has brought her back to life. And what a life it was.
The final part of Moore’s book describes Thatcher’s life after she left office. It is a sad tale, beautifully told. Once it became clear to her that Major intended to sign up to the Maastricht Treaty, which would turn the European Economic Community into the European Union, she turned on him, wholly unpersuaded by the opt-outs he had secured. She demanded a referendum on the issue, even though she had strongly opposed the 1975 referendum on membership of the EEC, believing it to be at odds with the tradition of parliamentary sovereignty. Major had also contemplated holding a referendum on Maastricht, but once she advocated it, he wouldn’t, for the old reason that he couldn’t be seen to do what she wanted. As he later put it, ‘the fact that she had called for the policy killed the policy.’ She opened her house and her heart to the parliamentary rebels who were making Major’s life hell during the process of Maastricht ratification. She set out her alternative vision for Britain’s future, though never going as far in public as she was willing to go in private.
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the scale of the task Moore undertook in 1997 and his dedication over so many years, by the clarity and elegance of his storytelling across 2,500 pages and three volumes. But like his subject, and like the Tory men who came to resent her, he pays little attention to the world beyond high politics. As the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, observed, Mrs Thatcher “didn’t understand the effects of her policies on the worst-affected communities”.
With ethical and scholarly discipline, Moore, a political columnist of a decidedly right-wing cast for The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator (and formerly the editor of both conservative publications, as well as The Sunday Telegraph), has produced a scrupulously evenhanded work. His use of evidence, absorbed from vast archival sources and hundreds of interviews, is punctilious, his judgments measured, his wit dry and sympathetic, his prose classically balanced. This sonorous, authoritative biography makes no empty claim to definitiveness. But it is a work for the ages: It will be the font from which every serious appraisal of Thatcher and Thatcher’s Britain draws.
Although he is dealing with ground that has already been well-trodden, Moore, because of his meticulous research and vast range of sources, adds depth and colour to just about every aspect of what, by any measure, is one of the most remarkable political lives of the 20th century. For me, however, the most interesting (and occasionally moving) chapters are the 130 pages devoted to her life after she left office.
For all the virtues of his biography, I am worried by the widespread view that Moore has provided the ‘definitive’ account of Thatcher’s career. Moore complains that Thatcher’s words have often been taken out of context. But the fact that many of the documents he uses and transcripts of interviews he conducted are not available to other researchers means that we are rarely sure of the context in which the quotations here should be placed. He is ostentatiously even-handed in the broad lines of his account. He admits that Thatcher was often the author of her own misfortunes. He disapproves of her campaign to prevent man-made climate change, but he describes it as carefully as he does her anti-European interventions, of which he approves.
Moore tells all this skilfully, and with sympathy for most of the protagonists. He could perhaps have kept his old journalistic instincts a little more under control in the footnotes... But these are second-order cavils. He becomes a fine historian when he describes the extraordinary skill with which Thatcher used her position with Reagan and with Gorbachev to help protect both in different ways from their own fundamentalists... And where his orbiter dicta on some others are not always fair ... he shows us all the evidence we need to make our own judgments on others...
This is a magnificent political biography, which takes its place next to Robert Blake’s Disraeli and Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson on the highest level. It is a huge literary challenge to make sense of lives of such public complexity: the topics of engagement must be separated out into their own discrete narratives, but an overall forward movement must be conveyed. Though the biographer can devote separate chapters to Northern Ireland, ERM questions and South Africa, these subjects would have piled upon the prime minister on the same day and in the same red boxes. Moore does a superb job in conveying, towards the end of Thatcher’s time in office, the rioting in the streets, the resignations, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the return of double-digit inflation, until the parallel narratives of themes subside into the single chronological story of betrayal and sacking. It is extraordinarily compelling.
Her demise was — as this outstanding, hugely readable biography shows — pure Shakespearean tragedy. The very virtues that made her great were also her vices. Inevitably, hubris led to nemesis...
Moore concludes that the manner of her fall was a disaster which created ‘an unforgettable, tragic spectacle of a woman’s greatness overborne by the littleness of men’.
As for the lady herself, the shock of leaving Downing Street, her home for the past 4,227 days, was immense. Moore draws a poignant and painful picture of what he calls ‘the lioness in winter’, shorn of her power, claws clipped and utterly lost.
Moore’s Margaret Thatcher is one of the truly great biographies. Throughout the three volumes it has been comprehensive and subtle, breaking new ground while being surefooted on familiar terrain. He provides a portrait of Thatcher — her anxiousness and her certainty, her strength and her frailty — that is surprising and fresh while still convincing. This volume completes a historical masterpiece.
Moore conveys brilliantly the sense of the walls closing in: first slowly and erratically, with regular apparent reprieves for Thatcher, and then very fast. As her official biographer, and a famous journalist and rightwinger, he has had access to more verbal and written sources than probably any other historian of Thatcherism, and he uses them to build a Westminster drama that is compelling and emotionally raw despite the fact that many readers will know the key scenes already. Some parts have a novelistic quality rarely found in the careful pages of political biographies.... (a) disappointment is this volume’s treatment of her life after Downing Street. Almost a quarter of a century is wrapped up in fewer than 120 pages, and with few revelations. Herself Alone is a sad, suggestive title, but the book’s intention is signalled more accurately by its cover: a flatteringly unlined and commanding portrait of Thatcher taken in 1991, before her decline really set in
Moore’s portrait of her final years, when she was overtaken by dementia, is so exquisitely judged that even the most glacial Thatcherphobes may find themselves melting. To a great extent she lived in the past: in one oddly moving passage, her granddaughter Amanda recalls how, when she was five or six, Thatcher read her a bedtime story before diverting into a little lecture on the Falklands: “Did I understand why it was important for the UK to reclaim its territory? Did I understand why troops had to stay behind even after the war was finished?”...As her mind faded, she ended her days as a touchingly childlike figure, fond of poetry, hymns and cats. On her last night on Earth she watched Songs of Praise and looked at pictures of puppies. In its way, perhaps it was not such an inappropriate way to bow out. For as Moore’s mighty volumes have shown beyond doubt, the Iron Lady was human, after all.
Because Moore had access to papers that were not open to other researchers, this book is full of revelations that force us to re-evaluate our prejudices about Mrs Thatcher, from both Right and Left political viewpoints. Far from being a covert supporter of the apartheid regime in South Africa, as the Left has alleged, she began campaigning publicly and privately for the release of Nelson Mandela in 1984.
The challenge in writing a book such as this is that we know how it ends and really, that’s the bit we want to read. Moore’s detailed, pacy and fair telling of the days which led to her downfall would make a stage drama. She chose a useless, drunk, sexually predatory MP as her link with backbenchers and he duly let her down (“He’d send me out for vodka in the middle of meetings,” recalls one witness of the campaign to save her job).
If a lot of this is already known from the many memoirs that have been written, then Moore at least does a fine job of bringing the story together and making it fresh.