Sunday, June 23, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore

Margaret Thatcher was an amazing political leader. In her own lifetime she was both admired and reviled by many. Even on the occasion of her death the responses could be quite loud. Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands is the first volume in a two volume biography of the Iron Lady by author Charles Moore. Moore spent many years working on this project. Lady Thatcher gave him access to her own material and encouraged others to talk to him. The only stipulation was that the book be published after her death. Moore is quite thorough in his work. He covers Thatcher’s life in great detail. He also covers her personality. This is not an attempt to canonize the subject. Thatcher is shown to be stubborn, difficult, and at times even a bit abusive of her colleagues. Moore points out her many weaknesses as well as her strengths. The overall image is not flattering, but it does show a very human Thatcher, something that we do not see very often when she is portrayed.

Thatcher’s father made a great impression on her early life. He was a storekeeper and a lay Methodist minister. Many of her strongest beliefs were instilled by her father at a early age. This included a strong work ethic and a strong desire to help those in need. For all of her critics claim to the contrary her greatest desire was always to look after the working men and women in England. Whenever she looked at a bill she tended to look at it like a housewife examining an item on the family budget. She disliked inflation because she felt that it wiped out the hard earned savings of industrious workers. She fought hard to sell off government owned housing to the people who lived in the housing. 

Moore tells us a lot about her early life. Thatcher was always very closed about her personal life, always referring to discuss policy more than her own past. Moore shows that Denis was not the first man that she dated, something that she always claimed. We see that she was often so focused on her own life and career that she at times neglected other members of her family like her sister and her parents. We also see Margaret the snappy dresser. It is sometimes hard to remember that great people that we see in middle age were once teenagers. Thatcher loved to shop for clothes and had a particular passion for hats. From the time she was young she seemed to be destined to break down barrier. In the “old boy” world of education and politics she took second place to no one. Moore recounts the story of a headmaster congratulating the young Margaret on her luck at winning a prize in school. She responded that it wasn’t luck, she had worked hard for the award.

Early on in politics she was added to the Shadow Cabinet in a traditional “woman’s position.” She worked through that and soon showed the boys how to run a government. Neither the Labour leadership nor the Conservative leadership ever knew what to do with this upstart middle class woman who didn’t seem to know her place in the system.

Readers not familiar with the British system of government (where the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are all elected members of Parliament) it will seem amazing that from the beginning Thatcher had to fight not only with the opposing Labour party, but with members of her own cabinet. Many in her cabinet considered her as nothing more than a fluke and wanted to remove her from power so that they would be able to resume the game of politics as normal. That was not to happen. At least not for a long time.

This book is very detailed and has extensive notes and sources. In fact if there is any criticism it would be that it is too detailed. For a person who loves the minutiae of policy making this book would be wonderful. For those looking for a general biography they may find it to be a little cumbersome in the shear amount of detail given. One other observation. Most Americans know very little about the English education system or the English system of government. This book is written by an English author who assumes that everyone understands these topics. Perhaps a glossary or an appendix explaining these systems would have been useful in the American edition.

These slight criticisms aside the book is well written and fascinating. If you want to learn about one of the most important and fascinating political figures of the twentieth century then pick up this book.

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