Maggie, Now and Forever

Review: Charles Moore: ‘Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith in London, Washington and Moscow’

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher / AP
January 17, 2016

As Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer, naturally Charles Moore was able to secure access to people and papers that other writers could not, and has achieved in this, his second volume devoted to the Iron Lady, a truly intimate portrait. Beginning with an account of Thatcher’s high spirits in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands War, Moore describes how Thatcher was determined that Britain’s victory provide momentum for her broader foreign policy. Towards that end, she launched tough negotiations with China over the future of Britain’s then foreign possession, Hong Kong.

But while China sought an uncomplicated British concession of the territory, Thatcher was determined that Hong Kong retain self-determination. As negotiations soured, Thatcher even consulted the British military on possible resistance options. Learning that such an option was not exactly viable, Thatcher instead sought to buy time by granting China recognition of its sovereign claims. This placated the Chinese and eventually allowed Thatcher to compromise with Deng with the ‘one-nation two-system’ to Hong Kong’s future.

While the British government is far less committed to Hong Kong’s self-determination in 2015, Thatcher’s achievement remains worthy of praise. As Moore notes, "By a paradox, Mrs. Thatcher’s ‘unreasonableness’ made real negotiation possible in a way that conventional diplomatic behavior would not have done."

Considering Thatcher’s early career, it’s surprising that she was not an early convert to privatization. Instead, Thatcher accepted privatization—the selling off of industrial entities controlled by the British government—as a means of revenue generation. These early years were hard ones for the Thatcher government. The economy remained weak and unemployment was stubbornly high. Still, because of political momentum from the Falklands success and a weak opposition Labour Party, Thatcher was able to secure an increased majority in Britain’s 1983 general election. That new mandate gave her the energy to push aggressively toward major reforms.

Then, of course, came Britain’s 1984 miners strike. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Britain faced immensely powerful unions that used control over critical national resources to extract concessions from politicians. But Thatcher was determined to challenge union aggression and their systemic inefficiencies. So when coal miners began a major strike, Thatcher was ready. The Prime Minister had stockpiled coal reserves and enhanced the capability of police to respond to what the British still call "industrial action."

Thatcher’s idealistic determination here, as in other situations, was remarkable. In confronting striking mobs who were attacking miners who sought to work, Thatcher saw herself as a vanguard for parliamentary democracy. Determined to maintain the rule of law, Thatcher refused to yield to union demands, and instead brought out Britain’s security forces. Moore notes that Thatcher regarded defeating the unions with the same degree of seriousness with which she approached fighting the IRA terrorists who had tried to assassinate her. Privately for Thatcher, the union leader Arthur Scargill counted in the same category of militant.

Another Thatcher monument was her shake up of London’s crony banking sector. Here, while criticizing some of Thatcher’s reforms, Moore notes that, "… it is nevertheless unimaginable that a Stock Exchange playing by the old rules could have survived.’’ In a decisive sense, Thatcher’s reforms laid the groundwork for London’s position today as a leading international banking center and repository for massive capital investment. Still, we read of how Thatcher’s relentlessness and stubbornness sometimes led her down politically disastrous paths, which eventually lost her the confidence of her party.

Moore’s remarkable access especially pays off when it comes to his examination of Thatcher’s foreign policy, strikingly so on questions of Thatcher’s policy towards Mikhail Gorbachev’s government. Here, we see Thatcher’s support for openings with the Soviet regime, but also her hesitation towards President Reagan’s early- preference for restricting nuclear weapons. Thatcher was able to build trust both with Reagan and Gorbachev, and to provide a bulwark in the face of French and German weakness over Soviet issues. Moore also takes us inside Thatcher’s negotiations with the European Union. Optimistic about the opportunities of free trade the EU provided, we read of how Thatcher was deeply skeptical about the idea of an ever closer political union for European countries.

Moore’s flaws-and-all volume makes a compelling case for identifying Thatcher’s as Britain’s a savior, in many respects, and more, as the one who returned Britain to prominence on the global stage.

Published under: Book reviews