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.