The Unknown Maggie


In the more than seven hours set aside for parliamentary tributes to Margaret Thatcher in April this year, only one member of the House of Commons dared to speak unabashedly ill of the just dead. Glenda Jackson, the actress who won two Oscars and then traded Hollywood for the lesser theater of Westminster, delivered a scorching attack on the Conservative former prime minister who had led Britain from 1979 to 1990. This anti-eulogy, more memorable than any other act in Jackson’s less than stellar political career, culminated in her response to Labour colleagues who had felt they ought to pay tribute to Thatcher’s achievement in becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister. “A woman? Not on my terms.”

Chris Ware/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher studying a parliamentary reference book with a colleague during her first political campaign, for the seat of Dartford, Kent, January 1950

In this, the MP was picking up a thread familiar to those who lived through the turbulent Thatcher decade of the 1980s, a period that was, like Thatcher herself, both conservative and revolutionary. Veterans of that era remember the satirical TV show Spitting Image, which rendered the politicians of the moment as foam puppets. The baritone-voiced Thatcher was shown in a pinstripe suit, often barking instructions over her shoulder to quivering underlings as she stood, legs apart, at a urinal. She was seen as a man in all but name. In similar vein, Edward Heath, who never forgave Thatcher for ousting him as Tory party leader in 1975 and maintained a decades-long froideur that became known as “the incredible sulk,” once said, “It’s a matter of opinion whether you think she’s a woman or not.”

Charles Moore, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph handpicked by Thatcher to write her authorized biography—and given access to previously undisclosed papers, friends, colleagues, and, in many hours of interviews, the Lady herself—has no patience for such doubts. He insists throughout this fluent, forensically detailed first volume of what will surely become the definitive account that his subject’s “sex”—the word he prefers over the presumably too Guardian-ish “gender”—is the key to understanding her character and her career. After the Lady’s funeral he wrote:

In understanding another person, one must never neglect the obvious. Once, she took me aside and whispered, “You know what’s the matter with Helmut Kohl?” I didn’t. “He’s a German!” she revealed. I laughed at this absurdity. Yet as I review my biographical subject, I ask myself, “You know what is the key to Margaret Thatcher?” and I answer, “She was a woman.”1

He supplies ample evidence to show how Thatcher’s being a Mrs. rather than a Mr. altered the course of events. She was able to wrest the party leadership from Heath partly because he underestimated her. “He was so surprised at the idea of being challenged by a woman, and found it so distasteful and disloyal, that he could not quite face it or work out how to deal with it,” Moore writes. Later, cabinet colleagues, restless or disgruntled, found themselves similarly at sea. Officials likened Foreign Secretary Francis Pym to Lewis Carroll’s dormouse, overawed by the mighty Queen. He would become flustered and inarticulate in her presence. “Pym was probably one of those men, quite common in his generation, who hated arguing with a woman, and found Mrs. Thatcher intimidating.”

Moore speculates that even the Irish Republican Army lost its footing when confronting a female antagonist, initiating the 1981 hunger strikes by republican prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maze jail partly because it calculated, wrongly as it turned out, that Thatcher would eventually buckle, “perhaps because she was a woman.” In 1979, her advisers recommended she refuse presidential-style TV debates in her campaign against Labour incumbent James Callaghan because, “if she had won, that would have been a woman humiliating a man, and this would have been unsettling for many male voters.”

Moore makes a persuasive case that, whatever Jackson or Heath might say, plenty of those Thatcher encountered, overwhelmingly men, struggled to see her as anything but a woman. François Mitterrand famously declared that the British leader had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe,” while his predecessor, the high-born Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, could not shake the memory of his children’s English nanny:

She was very correct, very tidy, with a very neat hairdo. She was efficient, religious, always opening the windows, especially when the children were ill; rather tiresome. When I met Mrs. Thatcher, I thought “She is exactly the same, exactly the same!”

For quite a few men, not all of them predictable, their most immediate response to Thatcher was sexual. After a party arranged so that the prime minister might meet a dozen leading British writers, the novelist Anthony Powell reported: “I did some market research as to whether people find her as attractive as I do and all, including Vidia [Naipaul], were in complete agreement.” Moore adds that Philip Larkin was similarly smitten, the poet remarking that “very few people are both right and beautiful.” Kingsley Amis was another admirer, while David Owen, the rather dashing doctor who had served as Callaghan’s foreign secretary, is quoted telling the journalist Brian Walden, “The whiff of that perfume, the sweet smell of whisky. By God, she’s appealing beyond belief.”

The incorrigible Tory MP, sometime government minister, and diarist Alan Clark told Moore, “I don’t want actual penetration—just a massive snog.” The author concludes that “a significant factor in Mrs. Thatcher’s political success was that quite large numbers of men fell for her.” If so, it suggests that Henry Kissinger’s oft-cited declaration that power is the greatest aphrodisiac applies equally to both men and women.

It also undermines the Glenda Jackson view of Thatcher as essentially sexless. So too does the find that probably counts as Moore’s freshest discovery, a cache of letters from the young Margaret to her older sister Muriel. These flesh out the earliest chapters, in which the bright, ambitious daughter of a provincial grocer simultaneously chafes against and learns at the feet of her strict, devoutly Methodist father. Established early is the complex and contradictory relationship Thatcher would come to have with British tradition, at once zealously deferential to it and desperate to shake off (some of) its stifling weight and usher in the new.

Still, the letters to Muriel are remarkably free of politics. Instead, even when the epic events of wartime rage around her, Margaret Roberts is usually most exercised by the pressing matter of what to wear. “Mrs. Prole has made me a smaller black velvet hat with a white ostrich feather on it and it looks very charming. Not so dressy as the green cock feathers—much more a hat for any occasion.” Moore quotes dozens of letters in this vein, also dwelling at length on his subject’s first romantic involvements, usually with men substantially older than her. Partly his motive is the understandable one of any biographer given first access to new material: he’s got it, so he wants to use it. But it’s clear he is also out to explode the Spitting Image once and for all, to confirm how very feminine was the first female prime minister.

Plenty of feminist readers will readily cede this point, insisting that what matters more is Thatcher’s record on what might loosely be called women’s rights. Here the mountain the Thatcher defender has to climb is steep. In all the cabinets she formed, scores of appointments over eleven and a half years, Thatcher only ever selected one woman to sit at the top table. That single, low-profile exception apart, Thatcher surrounded herself with men. She was regularly accused of pulling the ladder up behind her, of being unsisterly. In Thatcher’s Britain, Richard Vinen’s crisp primer on the period, we learn that the Lady was adamant that she was no feminist and once told a TV studio audience of children:

I think most of us got to our own position in life without Women’s Lib…[which], I think, has been rather strident, concentrated on things which don’t really matter and, dare I say it, being rather unfeminine. Don’t you think that? What do the girls think, don’t you think Women’s Lib is sometimes like that?2

But Moore has some unexpected, countervailing evidence. In the first stages of her career, as a candidate in the 1950s, an MP in the 1960s, and a minister in the 1970s, Thatcher repeatedly spoke as a woman, voicing what would now be deemed at least a version of feminism, albeit of the high-flying, having-it-all variety. In 1960 she wrote a newspaper article under the headline “I Say a Wife Can Do Two Jobs.” In 1952, in an article titled “Wake Up, Women,” she made the case for the “career woman,” insisting that such a person need not be “hard” or unfeminine, but would “be a much better companion at home.” She called for the removal of “the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places,” asking her readers, “Why not a woman Chancellor—or Foreign Secretary?” In the Commons and as a junior minister she spoke up against aspects of tax or benefit policy that discriminated against women. When she made her first extended trip to the US, she specifically asked to meet “some women members of the Congress.” Against type, Moore writes of this period that “Mrs. Thatcher was working to what would now be called an agenda, and it was a feminist one.”

If that was indeed the case, Thatcher’s feminist impulse seems to have faded as her career advanced and as she proved that she at least could succeed in a man’s world. The volume ends with a victory dinner following the Falklands conflict of 1982. There had been no room for spouses, who were invited only to after-dinner drinks in the drawing room. This meant Thatcher was the sole woman present at the main event. After her speech and the subsequent toasts, the prime minister rose in her seat and said, “Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?” Moore thinks this “may well have been the happiest moment of her life.”

Even so, the larger point stands: Thatcher’s gender is central to her story, central to what we might call her myth. Strong female leadership exerts quite a hold on the British, and especially English, folk memory. From Boudicca to Elizabeth I to Victoria, those few women who have sat at the apex have earned a lasting place in the national consciousness, one achieved by few of their male counterparts. This myth-making habit is in full swing again now with the current queen: witness the West End hit The Audience, which projects Elizabeth II as a paragon of preternatural wisdom and constancy.

This, it seems, is what the British do to their female leaders, making it plausible that the Thatcher legend—which this book certainly does its best to foster, explicitly ranking her alongside Henry VIII, Admiral Nelson, and Winston Churchill—will endure. As Moore points out, Thatcher became, with the Falklands, “the first female war leader with executive power in the British Isles since Elizabeth I.” The all-but-state funeral granted to her, an honor accorded to no prime minister since Churchill, was an attempt to put aside the fact that she had been one of the most divisive figures in recent British history and to seal her place in the pantheon of the greatest Britons. If that effort succeeds, it will in no small part be owing to the fact that Thatcher was a woman.


Less obviously, Margaret Thatcher’s story was also about class. In this, she broke no new barrier: Heath had come from stock similar to her own, the grocer displaced by the grocer’s daughter. But both her appeal and her impact were always bound up with class. Of course, that was most obvious when she unleashed what felt at the time like a class war, setting out to crush the trade union movement that had represented Britain’s industrial working class for more than a century. That battle, however, is beyond the reach of this volume, which ends in 1982—before the fateful, year-long strike by coal miners that would become the defining contest of Thatcherism.

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, London, December 1987

Also glimpsed rather than fully realized in this first volume is the extent to which Thatcher would become the champion of the middle class, the English (as opposed to British) middle class in particular. Her later privatizations of state-owned industries, in which shares in British Gas or British Telecom were sold to individual citizens who had never owned shares before, and her granting to tenants of public housing the right to buy their homes—all this was aimed squarely at the middle class. She called it a “crusade” to spread “popular capitalism” and it was derided by both the Labour Party and trade unions, at one end of the class spectrum, and by the aristocratic, landowning Tory old guard at the other. Speaking for the latter group, the patrician former PM Harold Macmillan would later come to the defense of the striking miners—whom he called “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies”—and condemn the program of denationalization as akin to selling off the family silver.

All this is yet to come, but the ground is laid in this first book. Moore evokes well Thatcher’s upbringing, her councilman father instilling in his daughter his shopkeeper’s ethos of hard work, frugality, and patriotism alongside regular doses of provincial, pursed-lip disapproval for those considered outside the norm. Years later she would regularly present herself as a prudent housewife, claiming to apply the same principles of middle-class common sense to the national economy as she would to a domestic budget. In this, she was not only drawing on her childhood but implicitly drawing a contrast with the cushioned, and therefore out-of-touch, landed elite that had dominated Tory politics for centuries.

The result is that class is a constant undertone in Moore’s book. Every new character is introduced with a footnote, each of these beginning with a reference to where that person went to school: not university, but the school he or she attended as a child. This is doubly telling. First, that such information is included at all speaks volumes about the place of class in British life and schooling’s role as a measure of it. (Biographers of US presidents would not even think to mention such a thing about their story’s minor players.) Second, the pattern is striking. We soon see that the overwhelming majority of the diplomats, mandarins, and Conservative politicians Thatcher encountered were educated at exclusive, fee-paying schools: Eton, Harrow, Sherborne, Rugby, Winchester. Usually it was only her Labour enemies who went to lower-status, state-funded schools. Accordingly, the second chapter of the book is entitled “Scholarship Girl,” putting Margaret Roberts exactly in her place: talented enough to break through on her merits, but needing subsidy to compensate for her lowly origins.

This matters beyond its value as social anthropology. It partly explains Thatcher’s success. She had a drive lacking in the languid, complacent Tory men she sought to overtake. She surpassed all rivals in 1975 partly because she, unlike them, did not believe she was born to rule: she knew she had to earn it, through effort and force of personality. If many professional women believe they must be twice as good as any man to advance, then the scholarship girl knew she had to be twice as good again.

Class added an extra layer of tension to her dealings with her own party. The battle of Wets versus Dries loomed large in her first term, pitting those who sought government intervention and spending to combat recession against the fiscal hawks. It ran partly on class lines. Wets looked to the aristocratic Macmillan or the gentleman farmer Jim Prior; Dries included the new breed of Conservative, self-made men from the suburbs. (Viewers of Downton Abbey will be familiar with the difference: Lord Grantham is a classic Tory Wet, the super-rich newspaper proprietor Richard Carlisle is an archetypally Dry Thatcherite.) High Tory resentment at taking orders from a Grantham shopkeeper’s daughter bubbled up at intervals, rarely expressed more eloquently than by the minister (and son-in-law of Winston Churchill) Lord Soames, who complained after his dismissal “that he would have sacked his gamekeeper with more courtesy than Mrs. Thatcher had shown him.”

Intriguingly, Moore tells us, for some it was Thatcher’s class, rather than simple anticommunism, that explained her attachment to the United States. Shortly after Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands, Alan Clark told Tory backbench colleagues he was sure the PM would be robust in the islands’ defense. “Don’t bet on that, Alan,” one replied. “She is governed only by what the Americans want. At heart she is just a vulgar, middle-class Reaganite.”


If her gender and her class, both potential liabilities, were crucial factors in her ascent, they do not tell the whole story. It helped that she had a spouse in Denis Thatcher who was both compliant and rich, but it was the nature and power of her personality that did much to propel her to the top. The defining traits in Moore’s portrait are a relentlessness that made her both formidable and unbearable and, more unexpectedly, a pragmatism that runs counter to the Iron Lady persona she did so much to cultivate.

On the first count, her stamina became the stuff of legend, starting with her famous need to sleep no more than three or four hours a night. Her work rate was prodigious, exemplified by her ability to plow through box after box of state papers—putting a wiggly line under proposals she disliked, scrawling fierce rebuttals in the margin beside those she despised. Often powered by whisky, she could keep going into the small hours, better briefed than her interlocutors on almost every topic. (Part of her success running the Falklands war, Moore suggests, is that, lacking military experience or knowledge, Thatcher was forced, for once, to defer to the wisdom of others.)

But this ferocious determination could shade easily into outright aggression, directed most often at those around her. She once burst into a late-night meeting of her chancellor and his officials and proceeded to berate him, the most senior man in her government, as his aides looked on. She was, a witness recalls, “quite full of whisky.” In 1981, the head of her policy unit, John Hoskyns, sent her a memorandum whose candor was so unforgiving that surely no prime minister, or president for that matter, has ever received one to match it. Entitled “Your Political Survival,” it read:

You break every rule of good man-management. You bully your weaker colleagues. You criticise colleagues in front of each other and in front of their officials. They can’t answer back without appearing disrespectful, in front of others, to a woman and to a Prime Minister. You abuse that situation…. This demoralisation is hidden only from you. People are beginning to feel that everything is a waste of time…. You have an absolute duty to change the way you operate.

It is to Thatcher’s credit that Hoskyns survived in his post, if only for another year. But the impression his memo conveys is buttressed by other examples of what one would charitably call a lack of emotional intelligence on Thatcher’s part. It’s not only that, as Moore writes, she could be “intensely annoying,” inconsiderate, excessively demanding, and too focused on the short term. There was something else missing. Thatcher was famously deficient in humor, needing the jokes in her own speeches explained, and Moore sketches a few strokes in a similar direction even if he does not stand back and explicitly assess the picture he has painted. He describes Thatcher’s “literal-mindedness,” how she was perplexed by metaphorical expressions such as “look before you leap” and confused by the play of children, remarking on one occasion: “What a funny gesture. I wonder what it means.”

Some of Thatcher’s contemporary devotees would doubtless find such observations easier to stomach than the copious evidence that their heroine was—whisper it—a pragmatist. Revered now as an unswerving ideologue, iron in the defense of freedom and markets and against totalitarianism and terror, she was in fact a highly flexible politician if the situation so demanded. She could not have stayed at the top for so long if she had been anything else.

So, for all the bluster about never talking to terrorists, she did negotiate with the IRA. Even in death she remains the poster girl for Tories hostile to the European Union, yet her early pro-Europeanism is undeniable and documented. She was, at various stages, open to diplomatic solutions to the Falklands crisis. Most unexpectedly of all, she was a pioneer on climate change, making what is regarded as the first major speech on the topic by any world leader.

Such pragmatism informed her relationship with Ronald Reagan. That there was a rapport between them, there is no doubt: not yet president or even the Republican nominee, he was the first foreign politician to call to congratulate Thatcher on her victory in May 1979. (The Downing Street switchboard did not put him through.) But when support for him ran counter to her own interests, she resisted. They nearly fell out over Reagan’s desire to impose sanctions on a Soviet gas pipeline in which British companies had a direct stake: for her the financial well-being of British business trumped any principled stand against communism. During the stand-off she became, reported an aide, “dismayed at how little understanding Reagan seemed to have of the issues…. He was a bear of very little brain. It was disappointing for her.”

In this way, an image that existed in two dimensions acquires a third. We learn that Thatcher could behave like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in front of a camera, yet was uninterested in how the media portrayed her. She could be vicious to her subordinates when faced with their weakness, yet felt a “motherly” tenderness to one minister on account of his past history of depression. She had time only for work, yet continued to do the cooking for husband Denis, even in Number Ten. She was a modernizer, yet harbored distinctly unmodern attitudes toward those who were decidedly not “one of us,” to recall a pet Thatcher phrase. “You don’t expect anything decent to come from an Irishman,” she said privately.

Moore is gentle toward and admiring of his subject, accepting that “she was never drunk,” for example, but he admits too much evidence for the prosecution ever to lapse into hagiography. He has chased down every last detail of her life, correcting Thatcher’s memoirs when she got the facts wrong. This book is a testament to the value of thoroughness, a virtue the Lady would have appreciated. The footnotes alone are a source of constant interest and insight and Moore has an eye for the telling detail:

At Denis’s funeral in July 2003, when her anguish and mental confusion were such that she was not sure whether it was her husband’s or her father’s coffin in front of her, she was seen to sing all the hymns, word-perfect, without looking at the service sheet.

What is missing is that part of her record that had some Britons—not many admittedly—sipping champagne on news of her death. We hear of the inner-city riots of 1981 and her first skirmishes against the trade unions, but these are mere overture to the crashing symphony of discord yet to come. In this volume, we do not see the consequences of her campaign to rid Britain of socialism—including its mild, Labour variety—a whirlwind that left the country’s manufacturing base hollowed out and whole towns and cities broken, many of them still in pieces to this day. All of that should come in the second volume of this work, which if it matches the first will be admirable indeed. Besides, there is no particular hurry to tell that next part of the story. In Britain it is well known—for we live with its consequences every day.

  1. 1

    Charles Moore, “Radical, Egotistical, Romantic, Innocent—the Real Margaret Thatcher,” The Daily Telegraph, April 19, 2013. 

  2. 2

    Thatcher’s Britain: The Political and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era (London: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 26.