Ever since Margaret Thatcher died in April and the press set about heaping ordure on her still-warm corpse, I’ve been busily, sadly reading every notice, just as I did for Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and just as I’m sure I will for Mikhail Gorbachev. In Thatcher’s case, the sheer intensity of the vitriol surprised even me, and I was dismayed at all the editors on both sides of the Atlantic who just blandly green-lit such attacks in order to chase after some cheap controversy (the low point for me – and for plenty of other people – being The New York Review of Books’ decision to run Andrew O’Hagan’s maudlin little assassin’s-bullet of a sneer-piece in late May, the only such piece that actually decided me against reading anything else by its author).
Unconsciously, perhaps, I was waiting for better voices to enter the chorus.
I got my wish a dozen times over in last week’s TLS, and it came from perhaps a predictable source: Ferdinant Mount, the publication’s greatest, grandest dinosaur-eminence, author of the great historical novel Gem(& Sam), and one-time hack-for-hire in Thatcher’s government, fondly referred to in her great memoir The Downing Street Years as “Ferdy Mount.”
That volume of memoirs (and its companion) was ghost-written by Thatcher aide and faithful ‘sherpa’ Robin Harris, whose new biography of his former boss, Not For Turning, is one of the books Mount reviews. Harris, Mount says, “has Old Vitriolic as his permanent font setting,” but Mount gives him credit for “coaxing a full set of memoirs out of someone who was constitutionally averse to writing so much as a memo” – and he pays the books some handsome tribute:
Those two volumes of recollections are an indispensable resource, gracefully written, self-serving, of course, but with the arguments for and against her views fairly and accurately reported. They are as well worth reading as the biographical works under review and much better history than the previous biographies published.
And he likewise cedes Not For Turning top honors, despite his small but vested interest in its contents:
Almost all her choices of minister are denounced as “transparently unsuitable” (it would be unmanly not to mention here that this reviewer’s appointment to her staff is fingered in a footnote, no doubt rightly, as “another of her mistakes”). His account of the manoeuvres leading up to her fall is as savage an indictment of individual and collective treachery as I have ever read.
But the essay is satisfyingly long, and it often strays into Mount’s own summaries of the so-called Iron Lady, all of which are so richly, wistfully observed that they clear quite a bit of O’Haganesque detritus off the runway. Mount is as aware as anybody of the anger his subject could arouse. “In her obituaries, the word ‘divisive’ was much deployed,” he tells us. “This is pussy-footing. She was loathed, and usually despised as well.” Even for a spotlit public figure, she burned through enemies at a fantastic clip, and as Mount eloquently observes, it wasn’t just enemies:
Much more serious was the attrition rate among her allies, who were less easy to replace. One by one, they limped off the pitch, bruised and affronted: Geoffrey Howe, Keith Joseph, Leon Brittan, Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit, John Biffen – consoled only by their CHs, a recurring suffix which an uninformed observer might have mistaken for some obscure religious order, the Confraternity of Humiliation.
He perfectly captures the wariness that allowed her to seize power and hold it for over a decade:
Nor did she welcome even the most astonishing success at face value. When the Berlin Wall fell, she was quick to point out that the break-up of empires was always a time of danger. She really did act out Kipling’s “If” (her favourite poem, as it was the nation’s) and attempt to treat triumph and disaster as equivalent impostors.
Accurately – and almost certainly hopelessly, in the current Western political climate – he writes of his old boss, “She believed in strong but limited government and a strong individual, with nothing much in between,” with a puckish aside about her Methodist upbringing. The whole piece is like that, breathing a sane and slightly sardonic assessment of one of the towering figures of the late, great 1980s. It was worth the wait.