Reinventing right-wing politics
Reviewed by Rumina Sethi

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography. Vol. I: Not for Turning
by Charles Moore
Allen Lane. Pages 859. £ 30

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

I WAS studying in England when the infamous Poll Tax was enacted and we students began to receive intimidating notices from the Home Office asking us to pay the required tax. Many of us ignored these notes till one day I received a hostile letter saying if I did not pay £480, a bailiff would shortly visit my residence. That worried me, but I still ignored it. However, nothing happened. The student demonstrations all over the country had sent out the message that such a tax was too feudal and autocratic and must be stopped.

None of us finally voted for Margaret Thatcher on election day. She lost. The end to a very severe political career would come soon after although she had the distinction of being the longest-serving post-war prime minister winning three elections in a row. Rising from her social status as a grocer’s daughter, she rose to the leadership of the Conservative Party through audacious courage and a dextrous use of language in her remarkably well-articulated speeches.

As her father would quote from Matthew Arnold that was to have a lasting imprint on the young girl: "Have something to say. Say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style." Standing as the Conservative parliamentary candidate at the age of 23, her commitment and ability to hit back put her firmly as the most promising leader of the party. It was true of her that "once she opened her mouth, the rest of (them) began to look rather second-rate." As Moore writes, "she was a worker and a fighter in a party which was slightly short of both." And, interestingly, in her hands the traditional conservative bastions along with an exacting class structure received a relentless beating. Though unemployment increased during her reign and trade unionism suffered enormously, she took bold steps to give her people the basic levels of economic and social comfort but with the rider that the state provides and the public pays, the Poll Tax being one such means. The final result was a government that had the overriding concern with money at the cost of social and civic values of community feeling and of the abiding faith in the state. ‘Thatcherism’ came to represent a non-conservative response characterised by an apprehensive stand against a system that was inherently feeble. In this she had her old friend and teammate, Ronald Reagan, across the Atlantic. Though sexist, it was not an exaggeration when Reagan remarked that she was "the only European leader with balls." This was apparent in her triumphant military blitzkrieg during the Falklands war.

Having her whiskey and ginger ale copiously and holding her drink well, she sometimes showed signs of fatigue which made her edgy, revealing to her colleagues that she had had one drink too many. However, she rarely lost her beaming skin texture and her stabbing stare till her last days. Working into the night, she rapidly disposed of the prodigious paperwork, not leaving anything pending. Indeed she was a hard task master and harshly kept everyone on their toes.

However, notwithstanding the fact that she "was an egotist, she was also almost always extremely considerate towards her staff and their families." It is for this reason that she strongly leaned towards the policy of the welfare state setting off a trend that saw more conservatives with an allegiance to the middle and lower orders joining the party than ever before.

In her letters written as a student at Oxford, there seems to be no hint of her interest in politics. The war came and so did Hitler and his hard-nosed march on Europe and the Soviet Union, but she remained preoccupied with her boyfriends and her love of fashion and Oxford liberalism. Little can be conjectured how this unabashed girl at college would one day turn into the ‘Iron Lady’, a label she carried to her grave. Meticulously analysing the archives containing her hand-written notes on government files along with her private papers and more than three hundred interviews with Thatcher, Moore has written an exceptionally gripping biography of one of the tallest leaders in post-war Europe. Thatcher transformed the very complexion of conservatism, moving it from the traditional belief in class system and authoritarianism to an ideology of competitive individualism and unbridled market economy that would push Great Britain into years of economic despair.