Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatchers

Charles Moore’s multi-volume biography of Thatcher harks back to an ancient tradition

Artillery Row Books

Multi-volume biographies may seem Victorian as a concept and practice. In fact, they are far older, and the idea of a major biography goes back to the Classics and was thereafter very much the case with dynastic example and hagiographical piety. For British Prime Ministers, who certainly do not fit into the saintly category, the eighteenth century saw the development of the genre and some major writers engaged with it. William Godwin’s first book, published anonymously while he was still a Dissenting preacher, was The History of the Life of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (1783), who had died five years earlier. The greatest of the eighteenth-century biographer historians of Prime Ministers was William Coxe, an Anglican clergyman (1747-1828). Aside from much else, including a three-volume life of John, 1st Duke of Marlborough and An Historical Tour of Monmouthshire, which characteristically drew on archival sources, Coxe, a master of methodical slog, produced biographies of Henry Pelham and, his masterpiece, that of Sir Robert Walpole. Praising Walpole entailed breaking with the usual pattern of castigating the minister, one in which Tories could unite with opposition Whigs. Instead, complaining in the preface that too many writers had been misled by contemporary critics (who included Bolingbroke), Coxe argued that the sole way to avoid bias was to work on the papers of the politicians on both sides, and two of the three volumes of the weighty biography were devoted to documents. Private manuscript collections, including those containing the papers of Walpole and his brother, Horatio (a diplomat on whom he also produced a biography), proved his particular forte, a goal in which he benefited from his excellent connections with aristocrats. An Old Etonian, Coxe had taught the sons of several aristocrats both at Cambridge and as a travelling tutor. This research involved much work, not least because the collections were not organised or catalogued.

Margaret Thatcher: Not for turning by Charles Moore (Volume One)

In the next generation, Edward Nares (1763-1841), from 1813 the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, produced in 1828 a three-volume life of Lord Burghley, one in which, in the preface, he declared his determination to link Patriotism and Protestantism: ‘he prides himself upon being an Englishman, an English Protestant, a Church of England man, a Divine.’

Such works appealed in the nineteenth century, matching, to a degree, the series of weighty novels that also flowed from authorial pens and entrepreneurial publishers. The twentieth century provided a more mixed trajectory, with biography on the whole confined to the single volume, however much the weight of the latter might be fatal if dropped from any height. Martin Gilbert produced much on Churchill, although the quality did not match the effort, but most Prime Ministers were rated at a single volume.

There were exceptions, but those with which I am familiar hit difficulties. Setting out to produce a three-volume Walpole, J.H. Plumb, who certainly did not match Coxe in industry or probity, produced a pretty good first volume, but the second did not emulate Coxe, and, despite his claims, never really made much progress with the third. John Ehrman proved more successful, producing a three-volume Young Pitt in 1969-96, but this major work faced problems. He told me that he found the publishers, Constable, very reluctant to take the third volume; while, not unrelated to this, the work was not so much a biography but a governmental study of a man who spent most of his life as Prime Minister, a situation matched by no other politician. Indeed, Pitt often sunk from sight as Ehrman provided detail on institutional practice or diplomatic negotiation.

These comments are not a diversion from the assessment of Moore, but necessary to it as comparison makes apparent the nature and scale of his achievement. It is not that there have been no successful recent biographies of a Prime Minister of more than one volume. Angus Hawkins’ two-volume biography of the 14th Earl of Derby, The Forgotten Prime Minister (2007-8), is of particular note, not least because it sits as part of his wider project of understanding the Victorian political system and, indeed, the development of modern Conservatism, with a host of publications accordingly, notably Victorian Political Culture: ‘Habits of Heart and Mind’ (2015).

Margaret Thatcher: Everything She Wants by Charles Moore (Volume Two)

Thatcher, however, is different, not least because we are dealing here with someone for whom many of the witnesses are living. That poses particular problems with assessment, not least the prospect of the author being told by participants (often inaccurately for memory has its flaws) that they are wrong. I must confess, therefore, to difficulties as a reviewer. I have produced biographies of Prime Ministers (Pitt the Elder, Walpole) and others (George II, George III), but all are single-volume efforts and none are reachable through living witnesses who can be questioned. Moreover, researching institutional histories of the university of Exeter and the Phoenix Group indicated the very contrary views of such witnesses. So, I cannot but be impressed by the judiciousness with which Moore has dealt with this particular aspect of his task. There is much else to praise. The archival reach is impressive and so, even more, is the determination and ability to gain access to as many witnesses as possible. Moreover, Moore has ranged widely geographically, in particular drawing on American sources. His skill and effort in this field helps make his biography not only a model of its type and the best available for Thatcher, but also one that will be of great consequence for future readers, including academic historians if they can be persuaded from their obsessions with identity politics and related socio-cultural topics of supposed relevance.

The only significant problem I can find in what has been several months pleasant reading in bite-sized chunks is that a work on this scale multiplies the classic difficulty for biographers and, indeed, historians of capturing the simultaneity of events while also providing narrative and explanation in particular strands. Some readers may be wearied by the pages devoted to Northern Ireland, but the subject, which nearly led to her death, was important. The section on the Falklands is excellent and recaptures the drama.

Apt to refer to ‘our people’, Thatcher had a sharp eye for the partisan nature of society

There is also a marvellous capturing of an individual, as with Thatcher’s difficulty in keeping her weight down, her questioning of the value of having a Chief Scientist (which Moore deftly contextualises in a footnote), her dislike of holidays, her independence, and ‘the Lioness in Winter,’ notably the killing of a Hong Kong cockroach and being the sole guest in Government House, Hong Kong who made her own bed. The last sentence, ‘She gave everything she could’ is greatly moving.

Moore is convincing in his argument that her patriotism transcended and contextualised the question of whether she was a radical or a traditionalist. Alongside breaking with the central, fashionable, consensual soup of accepted beliefs, and, as a result, she became critical of leading national institutions, including the leadership of the Church of England, local government and the universities. Oxford, which very publicly voted down the proposal to give her an honorary doctorate, repeatedly had no such problems with candidates who were of less merit.

Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone by Charles Moore (Volume Three)

Apt to refer to ‘our people’, Thatcher had a sharp eye for the partisan nature of society. Opened on 14 October 1984, the Furness General Hospital was visited by Thatcher on 3 September 1986, with some NHS staff protesting. “Soon after we had a long conversation (with Thatcher supplied with several whisky and gingers) in which she remarked that the doctor who had shown her round, and she strongly emphasised to me that he had worn a red tie, had complained about the state of the NHS and yet, she angrily remarked to me, this was a new hospital and there was no such in her London constituency. She also told me that she was going to get rid of academic tenure and was somewhat nonplussed when I told her that this was a good idea but that the universities would not get rid of those who needed sacking.” Her eye for detail was acute. Lunching later in the decade at Durham University, where I then taught, Thatcher sent a handwritten thank-you letter in which she commented on her pleasure that the mineral water on the table was British not French.

I have not read such a good biography of a modern British political figure. That by Robert Caro on LBJ is the nearest on the world scale I can think of. It is a very interesting comment on the state of the profession, that this thoughtful, well-researched and highly important work, a model of the biographer’s skills, has not been produced by an academic.

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