24 June, 2013Issue 22.5BiographyHistoryPolitics & Society

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The Indecipherable Cipher

Rhian E. Jones

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized BiographyCharles Moore
Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography
Volume One: Not for Turning
Allen Lane, 2013
896 pages
ISBN 978-0713992823


One of several non-plussing moments in the life of Margaret Thatcher occurs early in this book when, as a schoolgirl beginning biology, she remarks: “I never dreamt there was so much inside a worm before.” Readers of Charles Moore’s examination of the entrails may find themselves afflicted with a similar kind of morbid fascination.

This biography has furnished the bookshelves with the same unseemly haste with which most of this country’s political and cultural industry capitalised on Thatcher’s death, although Moore can perhaps be excused, having been commissioned for the task in 1997 on condition of posthumous publication. Moore is a product of Eton, Cambridge, the Spectator and the Telegraph, and his literary début is an impeccably Establishment project. This first volume of two is bound with the forbidding weight and solidity of a family Bible and is written with the air of a devotee to whom sacred mysteries have been revealed. Moore’s work is unlikely to alter anyone’s fixed opinion of its subject, however, and will be principally received as a contribution to the cargo cult of modern Conservatism.

Moore claims in his preface to find much political biography dull, and his own measured, avuncular prose largely succeeds in swerving any such charge. His major advantage over his predecessors is the opportunity to mine a seam of new material, notably a cache of Thatcher’s letters to her enigmatic sister, Muriel. Sensitive to the dominant tropes of the Thatcher debate, Moore records her lack of solidarity with other women and her resolute and dogmatic approach to everything from exam cramming to foreign policy. He also notes the way in which her provincial upbringing was not transcended by her transition to Oxford, her upwardly mobile marriage, and her political ascent, but rather woven into its fabric, with the anecdotal threads of her grocer’s-daughter background and penchant for didactic domestic homilies remaining to be drawn on when useful. Based more firmly in reality than myth, Moore’s Thatcher emerges as less than superhuman, her destiny not manifest and her personality frustratingly hard to fathom.

Readers who have grown up with their gorge primed to rise at the very name of Thatcher may recoil from the prospect of knowing her any more intimately. From this perspective Moore deserves a certain kind of credit for how sympathetic he renders the young Margaret Hilda Roberts. He emphasises her high-minded cleaving to education as a means for the ambitious but unwealthy to make their way in the world and notes the influence of Methodism, both in instilling its particular work ethic and in inspiring young Margaret to long for the frivolous and extravagant as an escapist antidote to its plainness and thrift. This latter note of wistful, materialistic rebellion persists in her yearning for glamour, excitement and “the centre of things”; her lifelong preoccupation with elegant clothes and grooming; and her teenage cinema visits in which she prefers Ginger Rogers to the glum realism of Love on the Dole. As a protagonist, she proves both unexpectedly endearing and curiously underwhelming. The reader, aware of our heroine’s subsequent fate, follows her progress almost in nervous apprehension of the narrative twist that must surely befall her, transforming this small-town everygirl into the towering apparition that still haunts the 1980s Imaginary, but the remarkable evolution of one into the other seems insufficiently explored.

As an adult, Moore’s Thatcher remains a cipher in significant ways. With her early Tory allegiance predicated vaguely on “the idea of my father that you can get on somehow”, she becomes politically organised at Oxford, but there is little sense that her politics stem from deeply-felt conviction. (Moore records, without comment, a number of occasions on which Thatcher benefits from the spirit of collectivism and wealth redistribution which she disparaged, from her scholarships to the attempts by her comrades at OUCA to provide her with a support fund on the grounds that “she’s going to be Prime Minister one day, but she hasn’t got any money”.) Her skeletal ideology—as opposed to her retrospective justifications of it—stays barely fleshed out as Moore concentrates more on events than interiority. Throughout her political career, she is defined almost entirely by her ambitions—both for herself and then for her conception of her country—and by her ability and willingness, in actions and iconography, to become an avatar and channel for the ideas of others.

Moore leaves his heroine, no longer an ingénue, stepping into her definitive role in history. While the battles of the 1980s have by now assumed the quality of myth or nightmare, their effects remain substantial and immediate, as shown by the celebratory rituals of catharsis that Thatcher’s death induced across the country. In his portrait of her government’s first term, rocked by inner-city riots, spiralling unemployment, hunger strikes by Irish prisoners, and war in the Falklands, Moore nevertheless presents her aspioneering rather than reactionary, a reformer rather than a destroyer. What his account inadvertently makes apparent, though, is how much of what Thatcher took care to avoid—antagonising the police, attacking the NHS too blatantly—is now being done with reckless abandon by the Coalition, and how much of current “austerity” is Thatcherism and Reaganomics turned transparent money-grabbing scam.

Throughout this book Thatcher herself remains, like Dickens’s Scrooge, “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”. We are reminded that she kept no daily diary and Moore documents recurring inconsistencies in her memoirs and recollections, as though she wished her myth to take precedence over recorded reflection or feared the susceptibility of self-examination to doubt or regret. Moore’s suggestion that her Falklands victory was “the happiest moment of her life” achieves a note more poignant than triumphant, particularly since he also asserts that “In her mind, it helped to create the dangerous idea that she acted best when she acted alone”. This sense of hubristic, solipsistic detachment saturates the narrative, leaving an abiding impression of a figure both extraordinary and almost pathologically indecipherable. Opinion will remain divided on whether her singular, peculiar trajectory should carry her down to Gehenna or up to the Throne.

Rhian E. Jones graduated from University College, Oxford, with an M.Litt. in Modern History in 2007. Her book, Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class and Gender, was published in March.