Thatcher From The Inside

Artist Joe Black Large Scale Murals Of World Leaders Past And Present

Reviewing Jonathan Aitken’s new posthumous biography, Margaret Thatcher: Power And Personality, Glen Newey is surprised to read such a scathing account of the woman the author calls a close friend:

Over 700-plus pages she is described as ‘abnormal’, ‘petty’, ‘overindulgent’ (to [son] Mark), ‘deplorable’, ‘hubristic’, ‘hysterical’, ‘embarrassing’ and ‘ursine’, which is a bit hard on bears. Thatcher’s astounding amour-propre is a constant. Aged nine, she tells a teacher who congratulates her on winning a poetry recital competition that ‘I deserved it’; at her father’s funeral in Grantham, she moans to Muriel, ‘They don’t know how to treat a cabinet minister, do they?’ and is told: ‘This service isn’t about you’. As Aitken says, ‘the few knew perfectly well’ that Thatcher ‘showed remarkably little interest or sympathy for the deprived.’ One for whom Thatcher does show sympathy is the ex-con who comes to pay court on his release from Ford open prison.

She was certainly not one to worry about pleasing people. And power corrupted her to higher and higher levels of self-regard. But perhaps that kind of personal immunity to empathy also helped her make decisions – many necessary – that hurt many at the time but helped countless in later ears. Simon Hoggart echoes the sentiment, but points out that Aitken is “overall, a huge admirer”. And yet Aitken’s judgment of Thatcher’s domestic policies is pretty damning:

He believes she was sound and brave on most foreign affairs: the Falklands, the ending of the cold war, the liberation of Kuwait, and the euro (though he suggests that she rewrote history when declaring she was always against our membership of the ERM).

Her judgment was less reliable in domestic affairs. Aitken points out that she could not distinguish between the striking miners and Arthur Scargill, regarding them all as members of the enemy within. That contempt for the working-class people of the north and the Midlands brought a cost that the Conservative party is still paying. The poll tax: surely the product of a disordered mind? She began to treat the people closest to her with evident contempt, most of all Geoffrey Howe who received a bollocking in cabinet that no schoolteacher would be allowed to administer today.

When the “stalking donkey”, Anthony Meyer, stood against her in 1989, she had a good campaign team in place, but the whips warned her that on top of the handful of votes Meyer got, there were all the abstentions, spoiled ballots and dozens of MPs who had to be arm-twisted into supporting her. The situation was therefore far more dangerous than it appeared. She brushed their fears aside as the hobgoblins of lesser minds, and a year later insouciantly cleared off to Paris for a ceremonial summit, which she could easily have skipped. But she loved mingling with world leaders, and telling them where they were wrong.

(Photo: A woman admires an artwork by Joe Black of Margaret Thatcher entitled, ‘Broken Britain’, which is made from thousands of hand-painted nuts and bolts, in the Opera Gallery on October 14, 2013 in London, England. By Oli Scarff/Getty Images.)