Margaret Thatcher’s Fogeyism

Margaret Thatcher’s Fogeyism

Charles Moore, the prime minister’s authorized biographer, believes the successes of Thatcherism to be self-evident, and he frequently lets his biases show.


Britain’s ruling class handled the 20th century poorly. Following an era of unbroken political control stretching back to the English Civil War—and, in contrast to its European counterparts, never experiencing external invasion or revolution from below—power was visibly slipping from its grasp. Unable to quell unrest from Southern Ireland to the Indian subcontinent and the African colonies, British administrators were forced to abandon the Empire. At home, the nation’s governance would cease to be the preserve of the landed aristocracy, which, while surviving the parliamentary reforms and estate taxes of the previous century, had its domination threatened by the growth of a labor movement in the advent of universal suffrage. Political stability was paramount, but overseeing victories in the two world wars came at a cost. Britain would be supplanted as a global superpower by its allies (the United States, the Soviet Union) and find itself lagging behind the vanquished (Germany, France, Italy, Japan) in industrial dynamism.

The postwar years, though disorienting, saw a wave of nationalizations and commitments by the government to achieve full employment and provide universalized welfare, raising hopes among the enfranchised masses of an overthrow of old orthodoxies. The establishment, demoralized by its loss of prestige, saw even its friends swept along with the prevailing mood. By the late 1950s, the Conservative Party, traditionally a reliable parliamentary vehicle for the ruling class, was led by Harold Macmillan, who as prime minister unequivocally stated, “This country has got to be prepared for change.” Macmillan—­
a Keynesian, “One Nation” Tory, who advocated “Middle Way” politics—oversaw the highest level of council-house building in history and introduced “life peers” (including the first female members) into the House of Lords, where landowning barons, dukes, earls, marquesses, and viscounts had been accustomed to passing seats down the male line. In a speech in 1962, Macmillan argued that Britain had become “a nation too set in our ways, too apt to cling to old privileges, too apt to fear new methods, often too unwilling to abandon old practices that have outlived their usefulness.” That same year, Ian Gilmour, the proprietor and former editor of The Spectator (the irreverent and patrician conservative magazine beloved of the higher orders, and founded in 1828 simply “to convey intelligence”), was elected as a Conservative member of Parliament, where he would agitate to abolish the death penalty, caution against market-led government policy, and espouse closer ties with the European Economic Community.

These positions were anathema to one of his successors in the editor’s chair, Gilmour’s fellow old Etonian, Charles Moore. Like Margaret Thatcher, who took the Conservative Party’s reins in 1975, Moore was unmoved by progressive enthusiasms; he and Thatcher shared the belief that their country had become weak and complacent following World War II. Britain’s defects were more than operational: Its institutions (including Thatcher’s own party) were crumbling, its international standing was on a managed decline, and economic stagnation was setting in. As Thatcher recalled in her memoirs, “I had been worried to death that this country had taken so much socialism that I wondered if the spirit of enterprise had left us.” After her first term as prime minister, Moore joined The Spectator, the move coinciding with Thatcher’s successful campaign to recapture the Falkland Islands from the Argentine dictatorship. “The pigheadedness of General Galtieri has saved the Conservative Party,” Moore wrote under his first byline in 1982, since the British troops’ sojourn to the South Atlantic had become “the first really popular issue of [Thatcher’s] administration.” Fifteen years later, Thatcher asked him to be her official biographer.

Moore’s second volume of the authorized biography begins amid the wave of patriotic triumphalism following the Falklands victory in June of 1982, with Thatcher swiftly gaining in popularity and winning reelection the following year—the “first Conservative Prime Minister to win two elections in a row” in the 20th century. Having in the first volume covered Thatcher’s early life and career—the daughter of a middle-class Methodist shopkeeper from the East Midlands who became president of the Oxford University Conservative Association and, ultimately, Britain’s first female prime minister—Moore is able to devote more time to understanding “Thatcherism” (more of “a vision than a doctrine” in his view) and how it came to flourish after the frustrations of her first term. Greater than the work of one woman, Thatcherism was a “radical and transformative political phenomenon,” unleashing private initiative in order to “roll back public spending” and the labor movement’s gains. Instead of advocating progressive, consensus-seeking politics, Thatcherites preached moral populism and “popular capitalism” at home, and freedom and the free market abroad. Britain was to be a principled, entrepreneurial nation, a low-tax economy of shareholders and homeowners acting as a beacon to the rest of the world.

This vision was certainly attractive to those gathered around Moore’s Spectator. “Hayek was the high priest,” according to the writer Ian Buruma, newly arrived in London to write about foreign affairs for the magazine in 1990, the year both Moore and Thatcher stepped down from their positions. What struck Buruma most was the “resilience of the British class system,” which married “new money and old style,” subsuming Thatcher’s “go-for-it spirit” into the “fogeyish world of the Spectator…all about privilege, old money, old schools, old families, old silver and old gentlemanly wit.” “The British upper class,” Buruma concluded, “acts as a sponge for talent and ambition,” and during the Thatcher years the magazine loaned “aristocratic airs to middle-class striving.”

Moore certainly exhibits the mannerisms of a fogey, reminding the reader at regular intervals that his book is about an “era before mobiles and emails,” when one need not have worried about “being hacked or going viral.” His subject much preferred “serious government business to be done on paper,” and Moore has been given unprecedented access to her personal archives, from which he quotes generously—everything from the minutes of high-level international negotiations to personally “scribbled” notes replete with “cross wiggly lines” and “squiggly lines” (“I have made a firm decision”; “This paper is pathetic”). Official and unofficial documents from the period are intercut with snippets from hundreds of the author’s interviewees, the vast majority of whom, like Moore himself, are the products of Britain’s elite schools and universities, and have spent their adult lives hobnobbing in the higher echelons of power. The senior Thatcher-era civil servants whose contributions were, Moore says, “vital for this book,” all now sit in the House of Lords and have preserved certain born-to-rule airs and graces. As the narrative moves from quotation to quotation at a bewildering pace, it’s hard to know whether the words on the page emanate from a footnoted apparatchik or are the author’s subjective opinions.

* * *

Moore believes the successes of the Thatcher project to be self-evident, and he frequently lets his biases show. Discussing the widespread “denationalization” of industry that took place in the Thatcher years, he finds it impossible to remain objective: “Privatisation became, and remains, the greatest policy export ever invented in Britain.” (The prime minister herself did not care for the term, calling it “a dreadful bit of jargon to inflict on the language of Shakespeare.”) Moore employs euphemisms to describe the sell-offs: Either the “government gave up control” of a public utility or it was “brought to market”; proposed pit closures were “designed to put the coal industry on an economic footing”; council-house sales spread “popular ownership” and removed “the state out of a large area of life.” To Moore, the process of privatization that Macmillan (by then safely ensconced in the Upper House as Lord Stockton) described as “selling the family silver” is more akin to “selling the family silver back to the family,” only “better polished and better used.”

The privateers of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite tendency, emboldened by a second general-election victory, entrenched themselves in the British cabinet as “custodians of a general strategy” rather than “22 miscellaneous heads of department.” Dissenting opinions would no longer be tolerated, leading to the marginalization of “the wets”—a strain of compassionate conservative who, in the words of a previous Thatcher biographer, Hugo Young, espoused “moderation, caution and a middle-minded approach to politics.” As ideological naysayers toward the Thatcher project and a reminder of conservatism’s postwar centrist delusions, leading wets receive little coverage in Moore’s account of the era: The author includes only brusque dismissals of the “left-leaning” Chris Patten, who thought the party went “completely off the rails under Margaret”; Jim Prior, “clearly in the autumn of his career”; and Francis Pym (Thatcher had “a low opinion of Pym, and made little effort to conceal it”). Moore seems pleased with himself for valiantly fighting old battles on behalf of the prime minister, subtly undermining former rivals whose leadership hopes were dashed decades ago: Cecil Parkinson could not be promoted “owing to the expected birth of his extramarital baby”; Michael Heseltine, who had a “flair for the dramatic,” was said “to dislike working for a woman” and is shown going to the lavatory to “comb his hair” before informing a “solitary waiting cameraman” that he had resigned.

Moore takes us behind the closed doors of Thatcher’s court, where grown men “terribly keen to curry favor with the Prime Minister” jostled for attention and formed cliques with names like the “Magnificent Seven,” the “Disciples,” and the “A-Team.” (Norman Tebbit, once mooted as Thatcher’s possible successor, says that during this period, he “began to understand Tudor history better.”) Thatcher was occasionally shrewd as an individual—she did not want to call an election during Royal Ascot Week because it wouldn’t reflect well on her administration to have “people in grey suits and toppers heading the news pages at a time when three million were unemployed”—but she was never one to consult her cabinet, increasingly relying on unelected advisers like the “bright young brains” of her Policy Unit, working “flat out” to “help Thatcherize the government.” Theirs was a “world in which clever people bathed difficult problems in the light of reason and ate good lunches,” which caused considerable envy among cabinet colleagues constrained by their departmental briefs. The unit’s erudite head, Ferdinand Mount, another Eton-Oxbridge-Spectator alumnus who once wrote that a “strong theatrical element” runs through “all political activity,” recalls discussing policy matters with the prime minister, after which she would “haul in the relevant minister and carpet him. He would glare at us.”

Summoning assorted wise men to make decisions about the country’s future is a distinctly predemocratic style of conducting politics, and yet across the Thatcher years, advice was proffered by everyone from snuff-chewing novelists to cocaine-snorting ad men, even on occasion her husband, Denis. (“I’d sometimes see Denis’s writing on a submission,” reports one aide. “She would have rubbed it out inadequately.”) Whereas Moore is desperate to depict Thatcher as an outsider taking on the establishment—a radical newcomer “kicking against the pricks of bureaucracy and inertia”—it’s clear that rather than challenging the ruling class, she recalibrated and revived it. Under Thatcher, “vested interests” still had a key role to play in Britain’s governance. As John Redwood, Mount’s successor at the Policy Unit, suggests, in many cases these were Thatcherism’s “essential supporters.” The continuing vagaries of the Westminster system are laid out for all to see. Unelected lords were placed in charge of vast government departments. There was even an attempt to fix the House of Commons’ speakership for a former foreign secretary, in part because a long-dead ancestor had once “resisted the power of King Charles I.”

* * *

Moore writes wistfully of “those less rule-governed days” when the chairman of British Airways could influence members of Parliament by giving them “free flights,” or the prime minister, by implying that a knighthood was on the way, might secure “a large sum of money to the National Gallery” from oil heir Paul Getty—described here by Thatcher’s arts minister, Lord Gowrie, as “an A-grade smack addict” who drank “eighteen cans of lager a day.” Whether it was “staying with the Queen at Balmoral” or enjoying a private family lunch at the sultan of Oman’s “perfume-filled Salalah summer palace on the beach,” Thatcher, it becomes clear—whatever her intentions to take on the establishment—was successfully incorporated into it.

Nevertheless, her successive election victories were enough to convince Moore that Thatcherite values could stand in for popular attitudes. While he concedes that she was “highly unpopular in some areas,” the motives and views of her extra-parliamentary opposition, which provided Thatcher’s tenure with many of its flash points, are considered unintelligible by Moore, who does little to distinguish among those dismayed at her ascendancy. The “enemy within”—striking miners, left-wing local councils, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—suffers guilt by association, all depicted as unwitting agents of the Soviet Union, while everyone from students to “left-wing police authorities,” the BBC, and even the Church of England comes under Moore’s suspicious eye.

An entire chapter is devoted to the “unique scorn and vitriol” that Moore says was meted out by “British writers and intellectuals” against this “snubbed woman, so suburban, harsh and philistine in many literary and academic minds.” His repository of negative comments includes the director Jonathan Miller calling Thatcher “loathsome, repulsive in almost every way,” and the writer Dennis Potter saying that she was “the most obviously repellent manifestation of the most obviously arrogant, dishonest, divisive, and dangerous government since the war.” Moore prefers to focus his attention on the myriad attacks on Thatcher the individual, rather than on diligent criticisms of her policy initiatives. His predecessor at The Spectator, Ian Gilmour—by far the most enlightened wet, whose Dancing With Dogma provides a devastating Conservative critique of the Thatcher years—gets a solitary mention in the book. Far easier instead for Moore to, say, recall a play, partly subsidized by the government, that depicted the prime minster forcing her employment secretary “to drink the sperm of the free-market economist Milton Friedman from a Coca-Cola bottle.” (The production subsequently garnered a parliamentary apology for its use of public funding.) Although Thatcher paid “little attention to her cultural depictions,” her biographer feels the need to quote lyrics from Billy Bragg, Billy Elliot, the punk band the Exploited (“Maggie, Maggie, you cunt / Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, you fucking cunt”), and a No. 1 single by Renaud—“the French Bob Dylan,” apparently—that concludes: “I will change into a dog so that I can use Madame Thatcher daily as a lamp-post.”

During the last years of the Cold War, Thatcher emerges as the “doyenne” of international politics, the “senior elected leader in the Western world.” An effective intermediary in East-West relations, she embarks on frenetic shuttle diplomacy, “circling the earth” in a single week to meet Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, Mikhail Gorbachev at Chequers, and Reagan at Camp David. Her Atlanticism was no secret, and by continuing Britain’s pivot toward the richest and most powerful nation on earth—“generous with its bounty, willing to share its strength, seeking to protect the weak”—she helped carry out its strategic policy objectives, such as allowing American cruise missiles to be deployed on British soil and offering up UK air bases for US missions to bomb Libya. Moore reports that Thatcher’s White House counterpart and fellow free-marketeer gave her presidential pep talks (“Go get ’em. Eat ’em alive”) and offered to do “everything he could to be helpful politically” in the run-up to the 1983 general election.

Moore reduces the Reagan-Thatcher dynamic to an “old fashioned view of the relations between the sexes”—his “gentlemanly charm” and “courtesy to her as a woman”; her susceptibility “to charming, well-dressed men who flattered her.” This unreconstructed view of Thatcher’s femininity pervades the entire book. We are told that Thatcher showed “a thoughtfulness and attention to detail which is hard to imagine in a male prime minister.” In her discussions with Gorbachev, people believed she had developed “a schoolgirl crush on The Russian With A Smile.” Add to this her discomfort with Deng “expectorating into a spittoon” (“It threw her”), or her reaction to Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand standing together in a field at Verdun “to symbolize the reconciliation of France and Germany” (“Two grown men holding hands!”), and the impression is of a prime minister resolutely unfit for international diplomacy.

Postimperial prestige marked the nation’s foreign policy during the Thatcher years, when its “global influence rivalled anything Britain had enjoyed in the post-Suez era.” But the Empire had a habit of striking back. Britain was strong-armed into signing Hong Kong over to the Chinese. British hostages were murdered in Libya. The IRA came close to wiping out Thatcher’s entire cabinet in a terrorist attack as Conservative Party delegates gathered in Brighton. (“Today we were unlucky,” the IRA statement read, “but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”)

The Commonwealth, a uniquely British arrangement whereby once-subjugated countries join a cross-national members’ club over which the queen remains in charge, overwhelmingly supported economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime. But Thatcher belligerently stood her ground in opposing them: Britain was “the largest single investor” in South Africa (“God’s own country,” as her husband Denis called it); yet Moore believes she was “perfectly genuine in her principled opposition to sanctions” in the face of Commonwealth anger. Though admitting that Thatcher “had personal sympathies with the tribe who dominated South Africa: the whites,” Moore suggests that her wish “to assert Britain’s right to its own trade” and a belief that sanctions “would impoverish blacks” ultimately led her hand.

Her commitment to economic freedom extended to the Middle East states, which were “often good customers for British defence equipment.” Thatcher took the view that “if countries wanted to be armed, better that they should be armed by the British.” The customers included Iran, Iraq, and Syria, but her “preferred interlocutors” were “moderate Arab leaders,” including “the rulers of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Oman, and above all King Hussein.” Thatcher was “impressed by the energetic and handsome young prince” Bandar, the Saudi Arabian defense minister, who had “perfected his flying skills at RAF Cranwell.” So great were Bandar’s “abilities and drive” that he helped secure Britain its largest-ever trade contract, signed in the Saudi capital in 1985. Moore is astounded that Thatcher’s memoirs are “silent about her visit to Riyadh,” for she was “the most tireless saleswoman for British companies,” and the deal named “Al Yamamah,” or “Arabic for the dove (of peace),” resulted in £42 billion worth of “defence equipment”—including RAF fighter jets—being delivered to the regime over two decades. Whether saleswoman or stateswoman, Thatcher proved to be Saudi Arabia’s “loyal ally,” penning “personal letters to King Fahd, often more than once a month, commenting on world events,” even “reporting to him her conversations with world leaders” should he ever have felt left out of the diplomatic rounds.

History is constantly being written; therefore, the battle for historical memory is ongoing. The Thatcher era sparked a political polarization between those who benefited from its opportunities and those who lost out. Some people will remember, in the wake of Thatcher’s death in April 2013, mourning the loss of the greatest British prime minister since Winston Churchill, the towering figure who oversaw a return to Victorian values. Others will recall the impromptu street parties and the campaign to propel the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” to No. 1 on the UK singles chart. Thatcher either reversed the state capture of industry or unraveled the postwar settlement; created new millionaires or the newly unemployed; unleashed private enterprise or neoliberal economics.

A positive public image was paramount to the Thatcher project. According to Moore, the prime minister always sought “to be seen in a good light” or “photographed from favourable angles in pleasant places.” As she gained momentum, full-throated support was granted by the right-wing press: Ian Gilmour believed that it “could scarcely have been more fawning if it had been state-controlled.” Moore would rightly think of himself as more independently minded than many of his journalistic contemporaries, even though he spent the Thatcher years and beyond preaching her virtues in print. He didn’t compromise himself, as certain media men had for former Tory premiers (newspaper barons Beaverbrook and Bracken ran wartime ministries for their friend Winston Churchill) or future ones (former News of the World editor Andy Coulson served as director of communications for David Cameron). Nevertheless, rather than choosing to write an objective survey of the mid-Thatcher period, Moore has produced a sentimentalized and partisan hagiography, chiseling down his subject’s rougher edges. The economic and social consequences of her policies are left unexplored in favor of occasionally acknowledging Thatcher’s personal foibles—and even then her irritations or lack of humor are shown in the best possible light. (She had a “congenital anxiety to understand the detail of everything”; “she was as tough as anyone in politics, but not a good Machiavellian.”)

Moore’s refusal to update his more contentious positions from the Spectator days may jar with 21st-century readers: his sympathy for de Klerk over Mandela during the struggle against apartheid; his description of capital punishment (“the rope”) as being “suspended,” not abolished; his dismissal of “black alienation” and his denigration of the Irish peace process; and his efforts to rehabilitate the poll tax, the vastly unpopular policy that ultimately caused Thatcher to fall on her sword (in Moore’s view, a “serious, long-considered attempt to get to grips with several genuine problems,” including “lack of local accountability, left-wing profligacy and extremism”).

Moore understands that Thatcherism is an unfinished project, and that a new generation of Conservative politicians, headed by a fellow Old Etonian, is in place to address the issues left unresolved. (Cameron proclaimed on the morning of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral that “in a way we are all Thatcherites now.”) In Britain, governments have managed to continue the privatization drive (including denationalizing the railways and the postal service), but the National Health Service and the BBC remain in public hands, and “popular capitalism” has never fully taken root. The Conservative Party has been able to stabilize its support base with a new class of homeowners and shareholders, though all that most citizens have experienced is a consumer boom fueled by the rapid expansion of credit. The views of the general public are barely given any credence in Moore’s book, with the author instead choosing to shine the spotlight on establishment insiders dining out on stories of past prime-ministerial associations. Conservatism has always argued that hard work should be rewarded, and just as members of the so-called Cambridge Mafia of the early 1960s served as cabinet ministers in the 1980s before finally receiving their peerages, so too have former Thatcher-era underlings become “big beasts” under a successor government tasked with maintaining order, stability, and tradition. All understand that their political legacies depend on the continuous championing of Mrs. Thatcher and her program, lest they be left—like the wets or those advocating “Middle Way” politics—­on the scrap heap of history.

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