Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Not For Turning - Robin Harris Bantam Press / Not For Turning, The Life of Margaret Thatcher - Charles Moore

Margaret Thatcher, circa 1970 … ‘After all the eulogies, it is refreshing to read about an odd, driven, believable person.' Photograph: Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

UK writer Dr. Robin Harris has written for The Daily Telegraph and Prospect amongst others but in hardback he’s a true blue Tory. Originally the Director of the Conservative Research Department (1985 to 1988) and a member of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit from 1989 to 1990, an author of the draft Conservative Party manifesto (1987 general election) he’s responsible for a at least three major Conservative Party histories: The Conservative Community: The Roots of Thatcherism - and its Future (Centre for Policy Studies, 1989); A Tale of Two Chileans - Pinochet and Allende (Chilean Supporters Abroad, 1999); and The Conservatives - A History (Bantam Press, 2011). So given all that Harris is definitely the man to know all about the days and nights of the Iron Lady, Maggie Thatcher.

Yet how much more is there to say about Margaret Thatcher? This is not the first and will certainly not be the last word on the woman. This, his own work is more a personal memory, although it’s pretty obvious from the get go that it’s more an historically accurate homage than a work of academic historian importance. The title is not original, e – taken from one of her most self-mythologising moments, her studiedly defiant speech to the doubting 1980 Conservative conference – and I wonder how much real originality will ooze out. Given Robin Harris "close" working relationship with the lady, for quarter of a century from the late 70s, as a speechwriter, ghostwriter, adviser, organiser and diehard supporter he’s bound to have the blublockers on through out. If you accept that then reading this will be easier. Actually, in her memoirs, she calls him "my indispensable sherpa" Interesting, though, that it was the more controversial Charles Moore who was chosen by Thatcher to be her official biographer in 1997. Remember, if you can, that it was the year her party finally lost power: her reputation, it was reasonable to assume, was going to need some protecting. "The arrangement that Lady Thatcher offered me," writes Moore, "was that I would have full access to herself … and to her papers. She would assist all my requests for interviews with others … As a result of her support … the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, gave permission for all existing and former civil servants to speak freely to me about the Thatcher years, and allowed me to inspect government papers, held back from public view under the thirty-year rule." In his eventual biography, Moore exploited this unique access with thoroughness and skill; but there’s still a sense of the British establishment granting favours to one of its own hanging, like a blunt instrument, over this book. Harris, on the other hand feels compelled to print his ‘letter of permission’ from the good Lady, including letterhead for authenticity, almost as a way of dispelling any myths that he’s writing this work out of spite for being discarded for Moore on her biography. "I can think of no one better placed than you to tackle the subject … You know, better than anyone else, what I wanted our reforms to achieve." Shame, if he was a bit more disgruntled, then we may have got more dirt and less boot polish!

Harris began his book in 2005, the year of another post-Thatcher Tory general election defeat. Despite the existence of the Moore project, it appears she was keen to collaborate with Harris too. I wonder if this was part of reputation-damage control or a genuine attempt to stay loved in a world of Thacherite hate backlash. Remember, next to Regan she was the most despised politician on the planet., even more so than Pinochet! He reprints a letter from her: "I can think of no one better placed than you to tackle the subject … You know, better than anyone else, what I wanted our reforms to achieve."

More alas, both biographies begin with a reverent depiction of her Grantham childhood, all formative hard graft and smalltown English virtues, which in the retelling – not least by Thatcher as a rising politician – has long become sepia-tinted reto-smaltz. Thatcher’s father was an ambitious but demented, controlling British shopkeeper (funny a politician brought up by a nation of shop keepers, who goes on to destroy local business at every level through demented policies of privatization!). Daddy was "tall, with piercing blue eyes and wiry blond hair". As a young girl, writes Harris, Thatcher had "a sweet smile, beautiful hair, flashing blue eyes". Here, as in much of the rightwing writing about her since her death, Thatcher seems to be becoming a sort of Tory Evita. God help us! And done cry for me, either!

But then revelation? Harris abruptly remarks, Thatcher "would never be very interested in people's personalities … only in their actions – and specifically those of their actions that directly concerned her." Further ‘tart’ assertions about her personality and habits quickly follow. When she ate, food would be "hoovered up as quickly as possible". Now I’m laughing. He reveals the uselessness of her husband, Denis – who was more likely to head for a club than cook himself a meal!

Also when she worked on official papers as prime minister, she often sat "in her [Downing Street] study in a high-backed chair … Over the years her feet wore a hole in the carpet. She refused to have a new one and had a patch inserted." This was meant to point out her heritage of thriftiness, learnt from dear old dad. Instead it hints at the meanness, yet still to come!

In political conversation, "She had no real sense of place … adopting even in private discussion the same aggressive and self-justificatory stance as she would in a hostile television interview." As a thinker, although she carried a collection of excerpts from Winston Churchill's speeches and broadcasts in her handbag, Harris writes, she "did not have much historical sense, merely some rather romantic and fanciful historical notions".

After all the eulogies, it is refreshing to read about an odd, driven, believable person – rather than some abstract national savior or demon. In his confident generalizations about Thatcher, Harris is like a long-faithful courtier freed by a monarch's death to speak the truth about them. He is not that interested in piling up evidence for his assertions. Like an article in the Spectator, the writing can be lordly rather than logical, and the word "probably" appears more often than in most biographies. I wonder if this is a way of revealing, but still holding back. Much of the book is closer to his memoir – so you need to take it on trust.

The recounting of Thatcher's dark-horse dash through the Conservative party pack and tumultuous premiership is efficient rather than revelatory. But there are also slow stretches where Harris summarizes and justifies her policies, one by one; and equally relentless but more quotable attacks on Thatcher's many Tory enemies and allies-turned-nemeses, such as her chancellors Nigel Lawson ("too clever by half") and Geoffrey Howe ("raddled with bitterness"). Yawn!

Moore by comparison is more measured. His dense, intricate volume, the first of an intended two, follows Thatcher only up to the autumn of 1982, less than a third of the way into her premiership. For now at least, this cut-off date robs his version of her story of the always-compelling element of rise and fall – the latter vividly and emotionally depicted by Harris – and instead makes Moore's Thatcher narrative like one of the economic graphs in Thatcherism's boom years: jagged but generally upward.

There are some surprises, though. Thatcher's sister Muriel, barely mentioned by other biographers, is revealed as the recipient of frank letters from the teenage Margaret. Of an Oxford university boyfriend, pre-Denis, also previously undetected by biographers, she writes: "Tony hired a car and we drove out to Abingdon to the country inn 'Crown and Thistle'. I managed to borrow a glorious royal blue velvet cloak … I felt absolutely on top of the world as I walked through the lounge … and everyone looked up." That Thatcher had a bit of a life before parliamentary politics claimed her in the early 50s is a less sensational discovery than some of the publicity around this book has trumpeted; but Moore, with typical care and perceptiveness, produces a clever coda to his account of the Tony relationship. In 1974, long after it was over, Tony, now a stockbroker with a professional interest in the housing market, produced a scheme for council tenants to buy their homes. As the shadow minister responsible for housing, Thatcher invited him to the Commons. "She made only the most glancing acknowledgement of their old acquaintance and got straight down to the policy, towards which she was very receptive."

This is Moore's first book (Harris has written or ghostwritten half a dozen), and its prose is understated and less partisan than his journalism. Occasionally, the long, controlled paragraphs curl almost imperceptibly into dry wit. In the mid-60s, he writes, "At the highest levels of the [Tory] party … suspicions were aroused that the rise of Margaret Thatcher might represent some sort of threat to male peace and tranquility." Nor is Moore a total prisoner of his many sources. Their testimony is weighed, and sometimes contradicted. Even Muriel, who granted a rare interview, is corrected when she claims that Margaret was too busy to go to their father's funeral, with reference to Margaret's "two engagement diaries of the period" and a report in the Grantham Journal.

There is a downside to all this neat dovetailing of material and elegantly murmuring, High Tory style. Thatcherism was in many ways an unsubtle, unstable political project, exhilarating or brutal depending on where you stood; yet only the exhilaration feels fully present in Moore's narrative, for all his conscientious detailing of Thatcherism's 70s and 80s ups and downs. Part of the problem may be the slightly sketchy way he deals with the world beyond. There is not quite enough sense of the social texture of Britain, and how that changed, as Thatcher rose, and how that change helped her. Similarly, events outside Westminster that proved pivotal for her – the 1978-9 winter of discontent that probably won her the 1979 election; the 1981 urban riots that so undermined her early premiership – are recorded too briefly and cursorily. Meanwhile, Moore's politics surface unhelpfully when he caricatures postwar Britain as in "steep decline", the economy under Labour in the 60s as a "car crash", and the IMF that eagerly helped do away with British social democracy in the 70s as "impartial".

As much of the debate since her death has shown, there are still plenty of takers for this doomy, simplistic view of pre-Thatcherite Britain. But present-day historians are becoming steadily less keen on it, and the struggles of our Thatcherised economy since 2007 don't augur too well for the long-term reputation of books that present her rule as having solved all our problems. Moore is more nuanced than that; unlike Harris, he offers a few quiet but stinging criticisms of her policies, for example on council house sales, which led to "the gradual build-up of a housing shortage which, in 1979, had not existed, and the stoking, for the future, of a housing bubble".

The other long-term value of this book is likely to be its sheer quantity of new or rarely deployed material. Alfred Sherman, the fiercest of Thatcher's many thinkers, told Moore before he died: "She was a woman of beliefs, and beliefs are better than ideas." As the Falklands taskforce set off, the then French president François Mitterrand, in theory Thatcher's ideological opposite, mused aloud, according to the diary of one of his advisors, "Do I admire her … or envy her?" Journalists and academics will be combing these pages for quotes and details for years, as they did the previous big Thatcher biographies, John Campbell's two volumes from 2000 and 2003 and Hugo Young's early version from 1989. Compared with Young's compelling mix of admiration and castigation, and Campbell's panoramic, even-handed treatment, Moore's effort lacks originality sometimes, but he has more facts. They do not profoundly change the picture of Thatcher we already have, but facts about mythologised figures are valuable.

Few parts of her life are as hazy as her final years. In the best section of his book, Harris gives an extended, intimate account of the empty, sad quarter of a century that unfurled for her after the abrupt termination of her premiership and Tory leadership in 1990. The House of Lords "she found soporific" and "ponderous". The continuing hold of her ideas over the Conservative and Labour governments that followed hers did not compensate for the loss of office and the cross-party rejection of her governing style as too feverish and shrill. She looked for causes, not always wisely. When the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 for crimes against humanity, Thatcher campaigned for his release. Harris was one of the campaign's organisers, and reprises here his and Thatcher's rather chilling justifications for Pinochet's "beneficial" rule. Yet Harris also claims – in novelistic, unsparing detail – that when Thatcher visited Pinochet during his British confinement, he had recently suffered "a series of small strokes – as, indeed, had she, though she did not yet know it".

Another scene describes her working around this time in her office in wealthy, sterile Belgravia, in a "high-backed chair" as in Downing Street, "looking at papers with the help of a huge magnifying glass … underlining, marking marginalia, gathering odds and ends together in files, and then forgetting where she had put them". It will be interesting to see what Moore's second volume makes of her decline. It had fewer witnesses than her rise. Like the little-reported thinness of her funeral crowds once you got a few hundred yards away from St Paul's Cathedral, some sides of the Thatcher story are melancholy rather than inspiring, even for right-wingers. Now she's gone, perhaps biographers can be more honest about her limits.

On the whole, this is a fine book. If you are a fan of the Woma. Me, I was not! I hated her, from afar, through the Muldoon and Reagan years, through the refrlect pig-shit that splattered across every part of the pink tinted British empire. So to read Harris’ book with eyes open and views firmly in my locked box of optimism and fair play was a real struggle. But, on balance I have to admire two things: If you didn’t know the woman (because you were, say living on mars for the last 30 years) then this is a good place to start. And two, if you want the opposing more liberal interpretation of her and her life then look up videos of the Spitting Image, Johnny’s Rotten’s memoirs and anything by Roddy Doyle and Will Self. The cold gray, oppression of the Thatcher years is concreted all over their pages.

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