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The Iron Lady’s affairs

by William Keegan

The Iron Lady’s affairs

Everything She Wants is the second part of Charles Mooreʹs Thatcher biography, which was originally destined to be in two parts ‒ the first ended with Thatcherʹs triumph in the Falklands War ‒ but the author has become so immersed in his subject that this second volume takes the story only to 1987. There are warning signs of her eventual demise, but the worst is yet to come in volume three.

Those of us who are less admiring of the Iron Lady than some were a little uneasy when she chose Charles Moore and gave him access to all her papers. Frankly, we feared a hagiography. We should have known better: Moore may been editor of the very Conservative Spectator and Daily Telegraph, but he is a first-class journalist.

Despite his tendency in the first volume to accept the view that the British economy was a basket case when Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 (it was not ‒ but her early monetarist policies nearly made it so), he has produced a very balanced account in this volume.

Increasingly fractious
There is ample evidence of the faults in her character which led to increasingly fractious dealings with her Cabinet colleagues. It is well known that, for the Iron Lady, the trade unions were regarded as ʻthe enemy withinʹ and the ups and downs of her dealings with the minersʹ strike of 1984 are covered in exhaustive detail, as is the ʻWestland affairʹ of early 1986.

There were nervous moments during the minersʹ strike, but in the end their leader, Arthur Scargill, was his own worst enemy, and Thatcherʹs victory over the miners caused great hardship to many ‒ even she worried about the impact on the wives and children of miners ‒ but went down as a triumph for her.

However, after this, her imperious behaviour produced a different set of enemies or at least dissidents, within her own Cabinet. To many people, the dispute over the future of a single helicopter company ‒ Westland ‒ has probably achieved the status of the Schleswig-Holstein question of the 19th century ‒ in other words, most people find it difficult to remember what it was about. But her duplicitous authorisation of a leaked confidential letter led to the resignation in anger of a senior ministerial colleague, Michael Heseltine, and almost brought down Thatcher.

Damning letter
The author seems to have talked to everybody involved and persuaded the civil servant who leaked the damning letter to break a long silence. To put it bluntly, there was a massive cover-up, and others carried the can to save the skin of a prime minister of whom, in classic Whitehall-speak, her Private Secretary Charles Powell said: ‘Her hands were not entirely clean.’ Nor were his! Powell’s role in this squalid affair, brought out in minute detail by Moore, suggests his own hands were even less clean. It is also revealed, in a direct quote, that Powell effectively sabotaged Opposition leader Neil Kinnock’s visit to Washington shortly before the 1987 election.
Most of the chapters are about domestic issues. The pressure of events is vividly described ‒ being prime minister is, in Dorothy Parker’s words, ‘one damn thing after another'. Yet the value of this volume lies mostly in the accounts of Thatcher’s relationship with President Ronald Reagan and Communist party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. There were difficult moments ‒ having helped her with the Falklands, Reagan deceived her over the US invasion of Grenada. There were obvious differences over Reagan’s starry-eyed plans for the Strategic Defence Initiative shield, too. But whatever one’s views about the harshness of Thatcherism on the UK itself ‒ about which even Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, has expressed regrets ‒ Reagan accepted the Iron Lady's view of Gorbachev’s importance. As US Secretary of State Colin Powell said: ʽThe feeling was, ‟Jesus, if dear old Margaret thinks there’s something here, we’d better take a look.” ’

Moore concludes that ‘her defeat of Arthur Scargill was arguably the most important single achievement of her premiership’. I like the ‘arguably’, because it can also be argued that the Iron Lady’s major contribution to the end of the cold war was more important.

It is also ‘arguable’ whether defeat of the unions and privatisation really transformed the British economy. The present chancellor of the exchequer, a political ‘Son of Thatcher’, has after all been kowtowing to Communist China for funds to finance the building of a nuclear power station by a French nationalised industry.

Moore confirms Thatcher’s belief in market forces was sorely tested in January 1985 when the pound almost sunk below $1. Reagan, her trusted ally, was duly called on to get the US to intervene in the foreign exchange market and the virility symbol was not breached.

The next volume will be dominated by the way Thatcher was brought down over her attitude to Europe. Departing from her normal antagonistic stance on European money, Thatcher actually asked Nigel Lawson, her second chancellor of the exchequer, why Britain wasn’t preparing to join the exchange rate mechanism – the monetary regime to which the UK eventually adhered  (with turbulent results) in 1990.

We will read about the ERM battles in the next volume.

William Keegan is Senior Economics Commentator at the Observer.