Magazine article The Spectator

'Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography Volume Two: Everything She Wants', by Charles Moore - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography Volume Two: Everything She Wants', by Charles Moore - Review

Article excerpt

Margaret Thatcher's second administration saw bitter divisions at home, but abroad the breakthrough in Anglo-Soviet relations really did change history, says Philip Hensher

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography Volume Two: Everything She Wants Charles Moore

Allen Lane, pp.821, £30, ISBN: 9780713992885

In almost every one of the many biographies of Margaret Thatcher that now exist, the story is told of her being congratulated for her good luck in winning a prize when she was nine -- either for reciting poetry or for playing the piano. She indignantly replied, 'I wasn't lucky. I deserved it.' Now, in Charles Moore's biography, we reach the splendid zenith of Mrs Thatcher's career in the form of her second administration of 1983-7. We have to ask the question again: was she lucky, or did she deserve it?

Clearly, one of the chief reasons that she was re-elected in 1983 after a period of staggering unpopularity was the Falklands triumph of 1982, with which Moore concluded his first volume. That wasn't luck, at least in the sense that it happened at all; any other politician in Thatcher's position would almost certainly have sued for peace. But the scale of the war, and its moral clarity, were no doubt helpful.

And on the domestic side, Thatcher was certainly lucky in her opponents. Arthur Scargill, the architect of one of the principal challenges of her second term in the form of the longest miners' strike of the period, ultimately made things easier for her by his behaviour. She was fortunate, too, in the leaders of the opposition she faced. Michael Foot was so unelectable that he could safely be treated with elaborate courtesy. Neil Kinnock, handed the one parliamentary opportunity of the decade to eject her from office on grounds of improper behaviour over the Westland affair, made a mess of it. Had she been less competent, it would have made no difference. To that degree she was lucky.

But, reading the detail of this superb and utterly absorbing volume, it is clear that luck really had very little to do with it, and the most compelling episodes of her administration were created by her, and carried out at her insistence. The central episode of this volume, and the moment when Thatcher's visionary quality changed the world, is her first encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev, before the west had really identified him as the coming general secretary in the USSR.

Thatcher had, against all conventional diplomatic advice, made ferocious speeches against the Warsaw Pact, declaring at the Berlin wall in 1982 that 'pitiless ideology only survives because it is maintained by force. One day, liberty will dawn on the other side of the wall.' In 1983 she had visited Hungary to ask how the USSR, under the ailing Andropov, could be brought out of isolation; in February 1984 she went to Andropov's funeral, shook hands with his successor Chernenko, and was made aware of Gorbachev, though did not meet him.

In December 1984, Gorbachev accepted an invitation to Britain, and Thatcher invited him and his wife Raisa to lunch at Chequers. A colossal argument broke out; Thatcher 'deliberately and breathtakingly... set about serially cross-examining him about the inferiority of the Soviet centralised command system and the merits of free enterprise and competition'. The miners' strike, then in its ninth month, proved that 'communism was synonymous with getting one's way by violence'. Gorbachev gave as good as he got; at one point Raisa mouthed 'It's over' to her husband, suggesting that they leave. But the argument was inspired, and the afternoon ended on a joke. 'I can assure you,' Gorbachev said, 'that I am not under instructions from the Politburo to persuade you to join the Communist party.'

The Americans, hitherto very suspicious, were slowly convinced. Gorbachev's reforms were supported. When Thatcher visited the USSR in March 1987, she was greeted by adoring crowds and, astonishingly, she was interviewed on Soviet television with sensational effect, challenging the interviewers and presenting her own case. …

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