In this biography of Thatcher, the author shows admiration for her political achievements, but has no illusions about her
“There is no such thing as society.” — Margaret Thatcher, interview with Woman’s Own, October 1987.
The British Conservative Party took years to live their then leader’s remark down, despite the fact that she had simultaneously restated the Conservative theory that people try to advance themselves first. Yet the episode typifies the life of Thatcher, who was never quite what she seemed to be, either to supporters or to detractors. This biography by Jonathan Aitken, a former Conservative MP who had a three-year affair with Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol, was in Thatcher’s Cabinet, and served seven months of an 18-month prison sentence for perjury, results from much research and considerable personal knowledge; Aitken also shows how intractable are the predicaments political leaders sometimes face.
Thatcher’s early years were truly formative. Born Margaret Roberts in Grantham in October 1925, she grew up in a Methodist family of severe outlook; they lived in a cramped house above her father’s shop, had no running water, used an outside toilet, and tightly controlled the few enjoyments their two daughters — Margaret was four years younger than her sister Muriel — were allowed. This may have been more her mother’s doing than her father’s; the former was as forceful as the younger daughter turned out to be, while the latter, a self-educated man of wide reading who later became one of Grantham’s Aldermen, seems to have been a more relaxed personality. Margaret got her love of reading from him. The girl’s willpower showed very early. At primary school, unwilling to use dirty toilets, she would walk a mile home and back every lunch time to relieve herself. She got a partial scholarship to a fee-paying secondary school, won prizes for playing the piano, and also won a handwriting competition which she said she would win. She made friends with pupils from much wealthier families (other pupils called her Snobby Roberts) and modulated her accent to conceal her class origins.
The Second World War had its own effect on the young Thatcher, with air force personnel very numerous in the county of Lincolnshire; they were then joined by United States troops, whose presence Aitken thinks may have convinced Margaret of the importance of the so-called special relationship between her country and the U.S. She won a scholarship to read chemistry at Oxford, where she also participated in Conservative politics, though her capacity to use people made associates wary.
Aitken, who greatly admires what he considers Thatcher’s political achievements, has few illusions about his subject. Capable of great warmth and sensitivity, Thatcher could also be brutally contemptuous and vindictive. She seems to have been cold towards her family, and according to her daughter would not even turn and wave to the watching children as she left for work.
As for the achievements, few were unalloyed. Even the purported 1978-79 winter of discontent, after which the Tories won a majority of 68 seats, was later admitted by a tabloid editor never to have been as bad as the media claimed it was; the tabloids had just decided to “get” the then Prime Minister, Labour’s James Callaghan. The miners’ strike of 1984-85, the bitterest and most divisive confrontation on the British mainland since the war, also saw what could only have been calculated government support by the press; the BBC resequenced an infamous news tape to show miners attacking the police, when the attack had been the other way round. In other matters, even some of Thatcher’s loudest proclamations preceded quiet shifts, and later in her rule she allowed a minister to hold back-channel talks with the Irish Republican Army, though she then attacked the 1998 agreement reached by the Tony Blair government.
Thatcher’s apparent invincibility was also not what it seemed. Aitken shows how the Prime Minister needed Rupert Murdoch and bent the monopolies laws so that he could buy the Times stable, and how she relied on close advisers rather than ministers and their departments of state — which habit led to the infuriated and damaging resignation of her finance minister Nigel Lawson in 1989. Thatcher was also, as Aitken shows, deeply insecure; that may have accounted for her craving for dominance and for her habit of asking about rising Tory figures or top civil servants, “Is he one of us?” She did, however, know how to say what people wanted to hear, and had that priceless attribute of successful politicians, namely luck, with a progressively more demoralised Labour Party, and the Falklands War. She herself had said in 1979 that if in three years unemployment quadrupled to three million then her government would deserve to be thrown out, but in 1982, with unemployment at that figure and her government in trouble, she reacted to intelligence reports of an Argentine military build-up by withdrawing the U.K.’s South Atlantic patrol and ignoring a Foreign and Commonwealth Office report which concluded that the British claim to the Falkland Islands was weak.
The Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri fell for Thatcher’s stratagem, and invaded. The resulting British victory saw Thatcher back in office with a 144 majority. Yet the war was close; if Argentina had succeeded in cutting the 8,000-mile long British supply line, it could well have won. Secondly, the United States took about ten days to decide whether to support its oldest ally or the spearhead of its anti-communist crusades in Latin America, while Thatcher could only seethe in silence. Thirdly, France gave the U.K. technical details of the armaments it had sold to Argentina, having bested Britain in that deal.
Many of Thatcher’s attitudes went unexamined, not least by admiring third-world elites, but as long as she helped them win elections her party adored her. That did not hold for her Cabinets. In 1985, the defence minister Michael Heseltine’s spectacular walkout, over Thatcher’s decision to buy U.S. Sikorsky helicopters and not the European Agusta-Westland aircraft, started the decline in Thatcher’s standing. Aitken, despite having become a born-again Christian during his prison term, does not forgive what many Tories consider betrayal, but he is unaware of the distance between Thatcher’s thinking and, for example, consistent public opposition to the privatisation of major public industries and services, which ran at 75 per cent throughout the 1980s and is not much lower even now. Secondly, he says little about the Big Bang, the deregulation of finance, which the U.K. government has barely re-examined even since the 2008 crash.
Inevitably, differences at the top intensified. Thatcher supported the Single European Act 1986, which she, as required by European Economic Community rules, incorporated into U.K. law; it made the EEC a single market in goods and services, but backbench Tories grew alarmed when they saw how it extended the Community’s supranational authority. Meanwhile Thatcher’s own attacks on the EEC became so strident that at one summit Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the French President François Mitterrand ignored her.
Secondly, the Prime Minister’s belief in her own rightness resulted in the Community Charge, widely called the Poll Tax, a new local taxation system whereby rich and poor paid the same amount. This Thatcher obsession was politically and economically disastrous, and by 1989 the Tory Party, with even some ministers shocked by the greed and selfishness Thatcherism had unleashed in British society, saw that the Prime Minister was their biggest liability; Aitken is frank about that. In November 1990, the Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe, in a terse and damning speech to the House of Commons, left the Cabinet over Thatcher’s attitude to the EEC. Nine days later, Thatcher also resigned.