Charles Moore is the British political commentator and former editor of the Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper and Spectator magazine that Margaret Thatcher appointed as her official biographer. The 800-page first volume was released shortly after her death on April 8, aged 87. This is a longer Q&A version of an interview you can read in this week’s print edition of the Listener.
Reading your biography, I was reminded of a story I once heard about how in the 1970s, in the period of economic crisis you cover in the book, British publishers encouraged their more prolix authors to try to write shorter books to help save paper. Were you alarmed when you realised how big this book was going to be? I was alarmed by the whole idea of the book, of course, partly because of length. When I was contracted to do it, the contract said three volumes, and after doing a bit of work on the subject I said I thought three volumes was wrong and two would be better. So it is actually, believe it or not, shorter than they intended. It’s always been a very big project, obviously first of all because she’s led an incredibly active life and was Prime Minister for so long. But also because I’m the first person to see all this paper and therefore it’s part of my job to set things out in a way that’s not been possible before.
What stage are you at with the second volume? Well, I like to keep that a little bit vague because I don’t want to raise a prospect I can’t fulfil. I’ve written a lot of it but it’s by no means finished.
What, with overseas editions and international interest in the book, have you discovered about Thatcher’s reach as a political figure? It’s huge. British people are not fully aware of that, I think. Since she died, I must have done between 50 and 100 interviews with non-British media outlets. Yesterday, for example, there was Spain – for some reason there was a rather Latin feeling yesterday – Chile, Colombia and Japan. I’ve done Eastern Europe, I’ve done Western Europe, actually all the continents, India – I’m doing you then I’m going to do an Indian one then I’m going to do an Australian one. It’s certainly not just the English-speaking world at all. In fact, I’d say the biggest fans broadly speaking are the US, Eastern Europe and the Far East.
I’ve heard the book was finished a few months ago and just waiting to have the button pushed on it. That’s not quite true, but nearly true. Mrs Thatcher had always stipulated it couldn’t appear in her lifetime and that she should not read it, because she wanted it to be established that she had no control over it. She abided by that and it was incredibly valuable for me. It made all the difference being able to write proper history instead of having to argue with her or people doubting whether I could really say what I thought. Therefore what it meant was we knew the deadline was her death. So we aimed that volume one should be ready and it more or less was. When she actually died, although we knew about her decline, her actual death was sudden, so we did have to move very quickly. For example, I hadn’t written the acknowledgements, which are a large undertaking in a book like this. About 400 people. There were a couple of days of that. But 99% of the text was finished and off we went.
You wrote in the Spectator about one of the most interesting parts of the book, that her selection for the safe seat of Finchley in North London was possibly rigged by the official counting the votes. “Possibly” is the correct word, because I only have one source for it. It’s a good source but it’s not something one’s able to corroborate. But I’m inclined to believe the story and I’ve repeated it on those terms, that the chairman of the local Finchley Tories who was in charge of counting the selection of the candidates favoured Mrs T and he discovered that in the final play-off her opponent was one ahead, so he “lost” two of her opponent’s votes [laughs]. I’m sure she never knew this.
When you read it in the book, you think, “My gosh, that’s just there and on we go.” But I believe you had to take 150 words out, put 150 words in, and there wasn’t really a lot of leeway. That’s right. I got the email about this the day after she died. Because I’d been in touch for some years with the son of the chairman and we talked on the phone but he hadn’t come back to me with the answers on further questions he’d promised and I think her death prompted this. So I got an email and I got on to him and we did it. But the only way you could change the proof at that stage was by not losing or adding a single line, so I had to do a bit of surgery.
Presumably, you would have made a bit more of it with more time to look at the matter. Yes. In one sense there’s no more to say unless one can get further corroborative evidence, but obviously it’s an amusing and important point and it shows, I think, how she had luck in life but she was good at making her luck. Because the reason he did this was because he had such a strong idea of how good she was. And he was also trying to help an outsider against what he saw as an establishment candidate.
Would she have been surprised by the level of division in Britain after her death? No. But I think the level of division was exaggerated by the media, particularly by the BBC. And actually the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, made a mistake. I think it was an honourable mistake. He made a good speech about her in the House of Commons and he discouraged his senior colleagues from getting into Thatcher arguments on television and so forth. But this had the perverse effect that the space that was critical of Thatcher tended to be filled by the nutters and the nasties. Because there’s every reason why all sorts of people have perfectly respectable reasons for criticising her and actually you didn’t hear much of them in the time between the death and the funeral. But what you heard were the really revolting people who wanted to literally dance on her grave. And they do exist obviously but they really are untypical. And the BBC gave them much, much too much space. So there was a serious danger people wouldn’t attend the funeral in the streets because they feared violence and trouble. It was a sort of propaganda exercise to drive them away. And luckily that didn’t really happen and of course there were very few at all who tried any trouble at all on the day of the funeral. But the world was given the impression half the country was very pro and half the country was very anti. And the truth is nearer the mark that perhaps 40% are very pro, 30% have a lot of respect, 20% will be highly critical and 10% or less would be really nasty. I’d say less. Let’s say 5% would be really nasty. So I think the balance wasn’t right.
To what do you ascribe the animosity of those 5% or whatever it is? You said nutters there, but there’s more to it than that. I think there are nasty people and then there are innocent dupes. If you go on – and it happens a lot in schools – if you go on telling people again and again Margaret Thatcher tore the heart out of mining communities, for example, which is probably the biggest single issue that was coming up in that time between the death and the funeral, if you keep telling that you’ll get a lot of left-wing inclined young people who think it’s true. And it’s not their fault really. I didn’t hear the BBC explain at any point in the whole debate on the miners’ strike in this period that the key fact about the miners’ strike was Arthur Scargill wouldn’t ballot his members. So when they talked about miners being set against miners, that was by Arthur Scargill, because some miners wanted to work and some miners wanted to strike and neither was allowed to vote on the matter. Obviously, you can criticise Margaret Thatcher’s conduct in the whole issue of whether her coal policy was right, etc, but it’s absolutely wrong – factually wrong – to suggest she was trying to break all miners. She didn’t want the strike and what she did want was she did think there would be a strike because of Arthur Scargill’s attitude and therefore she wanted to be ready for it.
The strike isn’t in volume one, it’ll be in volume two, but did you manage to speak – did you want to speak – to Scargill? Scargill won’t speak to anybody. He has a sort of vicar on earth called Ken Capstick [chuckles to himself, as though the name Ken Capstick is inherently funny] and I think the only time you get a Scargill interview is once in a blue moon he does one via Capstick for a communist journal or something like that. He won’t even give it to normal left-wing papers.
I’m intrigued to know if you sought to interview the IRA or anyone in Argentina for those sections of the biography. I have a friend who was in the IRA and knows a great deal about it. He worked with the IRA and became an informer for British intelligence. I’ve talked to him. But I tended not to talk to people who had no personal dealings with Mrs Thatcher because it’s really a matter of the scope of the book. This is not the history of her governments; this is her biography. Naturally, it involves the history of her governments, but it’s not the same thing. If I were constantly to talk to people who actually had no direct dealings with her, it would just become completely unwieldy. So I tended therefore to interview people who actually worked with her, met her, rather than people who, like the Argentine junta, tried to defeat her. It would be interesting and in an ideal world I think I would like to do more of that, but it’s just how can you get all this into one space, really?
Thatcher was given a quasi state funeral and is the only Prime Minister since Winston Churchill to have been so. Do you think she should have? Yes, I do, because I think almost the very fact we’re having this conversation is evidence of the point that her impact on the country and the world is absolutely enormous, and will continue for, I think, centuries. Some of it’s to do with her personality, some of it’s to do with her individual policies, some of it’s to do with her ideologies, some of it’s to do with the whole narrative of her as the first woman [Prime Minister of Britain] and coming from nowhere and all that sort of thing. It’s of huge interest and importance. And she was Prime Minister for so long and did so much that for better or worse nobody could say it didn’t matter. It made an absolutely vast difference to Britain. I think you have to look at it the other way. Suppose we hadn’t had a funeral like this; suppose it had just been a private funeral. I think people would have felt the British establishment, which had always been rather against her, was against her even in death. And that would be discreditable to the British establishment. It’s a good thing the Queen was standing beside her coffin. It mattered.
For a Briton my age – I’m 48 and have no real memory of Thatcher prior to her coming to power in 1979 – and also for people overseas, it’s quite a surprise to read about what a presence she’d been – not a major figure but a significant presence in the media and within politics for a long time prior to 1979. Yes, although she didn’t really cut through to the top rank until after the defeat of the Heath government in February 1974. She was prominent before really because she was a woman, so that meant she was given disproportionate amounts of telly because they’re always looking for a woman. But her actual importance in Tory politics before February 1974 was not that great. But she was certainly a well-known figure. I’m a bit older than you. I’m 56. I do remember as a boy knowing who she was, certainly, from when she was Education Secretary, but I think from before actually. I think I have a vague memory of her even in the late 1960s.
When did you first meet her? The first time I was in the room with her a lot, as it were, was in the 1983 general election, for which I covered the campaign. I’d just left the Telegraph and joined the Spectator and I was the political columnist and I went around. But the first time I had a personal conversation with her was at dinner in 1985 in the House of Commons.
And when was the last time you met her? Last year.
In the acknowledgements section, you describe your children growing up within the lifetime of you writing the book. It must have been distressing for you to watch her decline over those years. Yes, it was. It wasn’t all distressing. There were two things that made it slightly less bad. One was it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, so it didn’t always get worse; it sometimes got better. So, for example, she was terribly distressed and confused when Denis died in 2003 and she actually got better medication later and became happier and more active and on the ball for quite a long time. It certainly was downhill but it wasn’t downhill all the way. And the other thing was although it was terribly sad it did mean she calmed down, because one of the very sad aspects of the 1990s was her frenetic activity from somebody who couldn’t reconcile herself to not being Prime Minister because of the manner in which she was ejected. So although she made a lot of interesting contributions to world politics in the 1990s – for example on Bosnia – she wasn’t happy, she was very anxious and steamed up and not knowing quite what to do and how to feel about things. And when she became much less well and much older she calmed down and the rather sweet side of her personality came out. The rather motherly, gentle, home-loving person that was always a side to her. So in extreme old age she was always rather lovely to meet. She was beautifully dressed and enjoyed feeding her cats and having a cup of tea and having a bit of a chat.
One of the things that comes across in the book is that outside her collecting porcelain and having a great interest in clothes there wasn’t a great deal of intellectual hinterland there. Did she have interests she could go to after politics when she was in that more restful period? There is a sort of intellectual hinterland in the sense she was always thinking about things. You couldn’t exactly call her an intellectual but she was always reflecting on political-cum-historical issues and she was interested in religious questions and she loved certain types of art and literature. She didn’t like fiction but she liked poetry and she knew the Bible very well and so on. So there wasn’t exactly a vacuum but what was a problem was how to fill the time in a well-organised way. She’s never liked being alone and she’s never been good, despite her ability to apply herself to hard work, just quietly sitting down for ages and ages and getting on with something. She liked the buzz of political life. It was difficult for her to have therapeutic things. Although the exception to that is, I think, her being a home body. She loved being clean and tidy and the house being clean and tidy and bright beautiful objects and her clothes being just right and having her hair done and all that sort of thing. That’s actually very important for the morale of old ladies and it was good with her.
The letters to her sister, Muriel, are a key component of the early parts of the book. The endless talk about clothes there, as I read it I thought perhaps this is the one thing they have in common she feels she can write to her about. Or was she actually as obsessed by her clothes as that? I’m sure you’re right, she was writing to Muriel about the sort of things Muriel and she liked to talk about, which wouldn’t necessarily be the whole of her life. However, the letters do range quite widely and it’s clear that although politics does gets discussed what doesn’t get discussed is the content of politics. There’s virtually no letter that says what she thinks about a political issue. There’s a little mention to not liking the creation of the health service. Perhaps the odd jibe against socialists. But hardly anything. It’s politics as a way of advancing yourself in the world, as a social life, as an organisational question. Not issues. I think the clothes were a very genuine thing. And again it’s partly to do with a real pleasure in them and it’s partly to do with her ambition, I think, which is just like a medieval man had his suit of armour the modern woman trying to get on in the world had hers in the form of what she wore. It had to achieve necessary effects and win necessary battles.
After she died, there were a lot of arguments about whether or not she was a feminist. Leaving that aside, she was certainly someone who utilised the fact she was a woman, and did a lot of things for women – there were a lot of policies such as the family allowance that she looked at from a woman’s perspective. She’s very complex, in a way, as a woman and how she played that in politics. I know she preferred the company of men to that of women but she believed women were superior to men. She didn’t believe in the equality of the sexes, she believed in the superiority of the female sex. Because she thought women understood the truth about things better and were less self-deluded and were more practical. And this was absolutely vital in her whole exposition of economics, that the basic line is the men are trying to blind you with science but they’re wrong and you know better than they how to run a budget, how to look after a household, how to look after a family, etc. That’s a key component. It’s partly a populist way of talking but it’s a genuine belief on her part as well. The other thing was her attitude to women’s emancipation, which was that it’s a mistake for women to coral themselves into things called women’s issues because that’s what men want them to do. So men want them to go off and natter on all day about the issues that bore men, such as health, which men tend not to care about. What Mrs Thatcher thought was, “I want to conquer all those subjects which men really care about and think belong to them”, which are money, war and power. So she wanted always to do Chancellor of the Exchequer, defence, foreign policy and Prime Ministerial responsibilities. She wanted to capture the highest citadels, not to get shunted into a backwater.
Given her belief in the superiority of women, why do you think she didn’t have more women in her Cabinet? Partly there was a genuine problem about the talent within the Tory Party at that time – it was not great. But I think also she did suffer, as her critics say, from what they call the queen bee syndrome: she thought, “I can do it, why can’t others? It’s not for me to fish around to find the right women, I’m just going to get the nearest good person to hand” … All her comments, even as a young woman about other women in letters to Muriel, tend to be competitive and sometimes quite critical. She didn’t have much personal solidarity with women if they were also ambitious. She was very close to some women who were in subsidiary positions, such as her diary secretaries – she’s extremely fond of them and very nice to them – but I don’t think you’ll find much closeness to any female equal.
The other way in which she was defined for so long was by class. There are a shocking number of references to where people place her class-wise. Class was a very important question in terms of how people viewed her. Not uniquely so, of course, because Ted Heath, her predecessor, had come from a similar class and so forth. But it was a combination of the woman and the class. However, she would never have become Tory leader were it not for the support of a lot of what are sometimes called the petty gentry – or the knights of the shires, they call them in the Conservative Party – who were squires and public schoolboys and things who were a different class from her but liked her courage and often found her quite attractive physically and were fed up with Ted Heath and thought she stood for simple basic patriotism which had been forgotten. So I think it’s quite a complicated question.
The reviews for the book have been good from both the left and the right. Was that something that was important to you? You’re known as a Conservative columnist, but writing this you were a historian; you had to strip away presumably some of your personal views of the matters and be more objective. Clearly, my book is sympathetic – I think all biography is better if it is sympathetic, in that you are trying to feel with your subject, what were your subjects problems, what was she trying to do, how did she feel about things? You try to see it from her point of view. But this is history, not journalism, and indeed there’s a sense in which it’s the first history, because I’m the first person with the opportunity really to look at all this stuff. And so it’s very important I do treat it historically not polemically. And therefore it’s lovely when people do recognise that. I am very pleased with most of the reviews and clearly a lot of them have engaged with that point and they accept it.
You would have seen a lot of her while you were reporting and writing as a columnist in the 1980s. Did your view of her evolve, change, while writing the book? It didn’t turn upside down, because she’s quite a genuine person, both in her virtues and her vices. So in that sense everybody in the world knows her, if you see what I mean. But what came out to me very clearly, I think, but the most clear things were greatly magnified by my studies, were one, how incredibly difficult it was for her. The struggle, it was just astonishing. One knew all this anyway but it was really, really emphasised by everything I found out. And the other thing was that although she certainly was a conviction politician and she liked to say that, what she didn’t like to say was that she was a highly cunning, cautious and pragmatic politician as well. And you don’t just survive by having convictions; you survive by knowing when to do something, when not to do something, when to shut up, when to speak, how to outwit your rivals and so on. And because she didn’t examine her own behaviour and her own motives, she would never really think about this, but she was an extremely wily operator and it’s fascinating to see that happen.
In the preface to the book, you write about the notes she scribbled on papers being “full of her urgent, often angry style, punctuated more by exclamation marks than by full stops, and emphasised by heavy underlining”. Can you imagine her up there somewhere heavily underlining passages of your book and scattering exclamation marks around? As I try to explain in the preface, there’s a curious sense in which she wasn’t interested in herself. She was very egotistical because she had this great sense of her own destiny and achievement, but she didn’t actually want to study herself. She genuinely didn’t. She didn’t have that sort of vanity. She wanted to get on with things. And do the next thing. Her life was always expressed in work and activity. She very, very rarely finished a book. She would dip into a book and very rarely finish it. And I suspect she might not get to the end of my biography [laughs].
MARGARET THATCHER: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY – VOLUME ONE: NOT FOR TURNING, by Charles Moore (Allen Lane, $60).