Book Review: Margaret Thatcher The Authorized Biography. Volume One: Not For Turning. By Charles Moore

In the days immediately following Lady Thatcher’s death in April, some observers might have been forgiven for thinking that they had good cause to doubt the choice of official biographer handpicked by the former Prime Minister to chronicle her life and career. Appearing on BBC’s Question Time and elsewhere, former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore made a number of bizarre pronouncements. Lady Thatcher’s economic policies were a direct result of her gender apparently. The Lady played a major role in freeing Nelson Mandela too, we learned. She was not as apathetic about Apartheid as was previously thought. And, most eccentric of all, apparently Lady Thatcher wasn’t a divisive figure. This is just a myth propagated by the “left wing” BBC! Strange indeed. As anyone who watched it will know, the BBC’s coverage of the days following Lady Thatcher’s death was reverential in the extreme. Surely the fact that the first woman Prime Minister was divisive is the one thing everyone can agree on?

This did not bode well for the first volume of Moore’s biography which takes us from Lady Thatcher’s humble birth in 1925 to her “finest hour”: victory in the 1982 Falklands conflict. In fact, although inevitably sympathetic to his subject (it would be surprising were he not), this is actually a triumph.

Perhaps no Prime Minister has had a stronger mythology structured around her life than Margaret Thatcher. Somehow the stories of Tony Blair being in a rock band at Oxford or Ted Heath’s days in the Second World War have never caught the public’s imagination in the same way that Margaret Roberts’ rise from Grantham grocer’s daughter to Downing Street has.

Moore succeeds in making this well-worn subject, covered expertly in the past by the late Hugo Young, John Campbell and by the Lady herself, remarkably fresh and readable. He even uncovers new information. He exposes the lie that Denis was her first boyfriend. There were several others before him.

Perhaps the most extraordinary fact is that the young Margaret as revealed through frequent teenage letters to her sister Muriel was remarkably ordinary. She is far more interested in fashion, films and making ends meet than in the underlying progress of the Second World War (rarely mentioned in her letters). She is a perfectly normal girl – a little bossy perhaps, but hardworking. She is not unlike the parody of Margaret Hilda Roberts written by Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend twenty years ago. She was sneered at for taking elocution lessons by her lower class contemporaries. Like Richard Nixon, she developed a slight resentment of the privileged leftists who often sneered at her too, in her case at Oxford.

Denis remained bedrock of support throughout her life after their marriage in 1950 and is entertaining in the book. “Oh God. They look like rabbits. Put them back!” was his reported response on first seeing his twin children, Carol and Mark.

Inevitably, as her ambition grew, Margaret grew distant from her sister, father and old friends. Although she held her father up as her political inspiration on entering Downing Street in 1979 stating that she “owed everything” to him, in reality, she had seen little of him in the years after she became an MP in 1959 and his death in 1970. This is understandable. She was a mother of two, a rising politician and a young woman in a hurry.

It is hard now to appreciate just how unlikely it seemed that Thatcher would ever be PM in the years before it happened. She herself had set herself the ambition of being the first woman Chancellor of the Exchequer as the summit of her ambition (interestingly, this remains the only one of the great offices of state which no woman has held even now). She only stood in 1975 when it became clear that now largely forgotten figures like Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph were not up to the challenge of displacing Edward Heath. “Heath will murder you,” predicted Denis. He was wrong.

Even as Opposition Leader, her prospects of power looked remote. Heath, still in his early sixties and more popular than Thatcher always seemed poised to make a comeback. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan remained more popular than her too right up until the 1979 election. Only the mistiming of the election that never was by Sunny Jim (a mistake Gordon Brown repeated twenty-nine years later) and the ensuing “Winter of Discontent” ensured her General Election victory in May 1979 just as the Falklands conflict ensured her resurrection in office three years later.

This is a long book- over 700 pages long – taking us from 1925 until 1982. Moore overstates Thatcher’s role in ending the Cold War (it is very hard to see how even without Thatcher it wouldn’t have ended as it did anyway) but happily, despite his pro-Tory leanings keeps it entertaining throughout. Unlike the Lady herself, it never really feels like it’s going on and on and on. Volume II is keenly awaited.Image

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Thirty years of A Very British Coup

Written during the gloomy days of the early Thatcher era, Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup has since inspired two Channel 4 dramas series: a 1988 series adapted by Alan Plater and the current  The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne..

The second of these has so far has shown only a slight resemblance to Chris Mullin’s novel. But thirty years after it was first published, A Very British Coup remains one of the finest political novels ever written.

The story is set in what was then the future: the year 1989. The General Election has ended with an amazing shock result: the Labour Party led by former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins has been swept to power in an unexpected popular landslide. The result is a clear mandate for a truly radical agenda which proposes “consideration to be given” to withdrawal from NATO, an end to the nuclear deterrent and to UK membership  of the then Common Market, abolition of the House of Lords, an end to public schools and much more.

Little wonder the establishment react with alarm. The story of A Very British Coup is essentially of how the security services (with US help), the media and civil service all conspire to thwart the new government’s agenda and ultimately subvert democracy.

Some might scoff at the premise. 1989 after all, turned out to be the high watermark of Thatcherism in reality. And how likely is it that the Tories and SDP would form an alliance or that Labour would beat them with a manifesto which makes Labour’s real “longest suicide note in history” from 1983 look mild in comparison?

In fact, it’s not so far-fetched. Since 2010, we have been living under something very close to a Tory-SDP “Government of National Unity”. Labour also won an unexpected landslide on a very socialist agenda in the “khaki” election of 1945 and again, won unexpectedly (though much more narrowly) on a hard left manifesto in 1974.

There are also similarities between Harry Perkins and Harold Wilson, another Yorkshire-born Labour Prime Minister who resigned very unexpectedly in 1976. Even their names are similar. Wilson often talked of MI5 plots against him and it is easy to dismiss his talk now as an early manifestation of the Alzheimer’s disease which would blight his old age.

Except… it has since emerged: elements of MI5 were genuinely actively plotting against Wilson. Maybe not at the very top of the service, but some more eccentric right-wing agents apparently genuinely believed Wilson was a KGB agent who had assassinated his predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell who died in 1963. In reality, this conspiracy theory is unlikely as Wilson was not even favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of the latter’s death, George Brown was. There is talk at the end of the novel of a book being written which would tell the true story of “what happened to the government of Harry Perkins. There must, however, be some doubt as to whether it will ever be published.”

Such talk should only go so far though. The book is a novel. Chris Mullin, later a Labour MP and now an acclaimed political diarist would not actually have expected events to turn out exactly as he wrote them, any more than George Orwell would have expected the horrors of his vision of 1984 to be fully realised. Harry Perkins is not Harold Wilson: he is far more left-wing than Wilson ever was. Mullin’s vision of the pernicious effects of Thatcherism in the Eighties is highly prescient. He may not have anticipated the peaceful end of the Cold War (virtually nobody did in 1981) but nor did he predict a Labour election landslide for Michael Foot or a limited nuclear war started by President Ted Kennedy as Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta which also appeared in 1982 did.

Perhaps more by coincidence, Mullin did foresee a Labour Foreign Secretary being revealed to have had an extramarital affair soon after a landslide election win. This is exactly what happened to the late Robin Cook in 1997 although he didn’t resign and the affair thankfully ended more happily than it does for the fictional Tom Newsome. On the other hand, Mullin was somewhat off in predicting the age of King Charles III and Queen Diana would have begun by 1989.

My copy of A Very British Coup features the quote “A delicious fantasy” by The Observer on the cover. I’m not so sure. It’s certainly delicious but it clearly isn’t entirely rooted in fantasy. Remember, the first ever Labour Government was brought down at least in part by the faked “Zinoviev Letter” distributed by MI5 in 1924. Think about how ungracious the response to Obama’s re-election has been amongst some on the US Right (such as Donald Trump). Or how the UK establishment might react to an unexpected Ed Miliband win in 2015.

Consider finally, this real life quote by the noted right-winger Peregrine Worsthorne in the Daily Telegraph from 1979 with which Mullin begins the novel: “When treason can be right”, it explains: “I could easily imagine myself being tempted into a treasonable disposition under a Labour government dominated by the Marxist left . . . Suppose, in these circumstances, one were approached by the CIA who sought to enlist one’s help in seeking to ‘destabilise’ this far-left government. Would it necessarily be right to refuse co-operation?”

No wonder A Very British Coup also features a villain called Peregrine.