To mark the first anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s death, which falls today, ConHome interviewed her biographer, Charles Moore, at his house in Sussex. He explained how the BBC found so much room for “maniacs” to denounce her after she died, and remarked on the one flaw at her funeral, namely the failure of Barack Obama to send high-level official representatives.
This omission was curious, for as Moore says: “Literally no non-American has done more for the United States in politics, or been a better friend, since the war.” Moore characterises Mrs Thatcher as “the most conservative and the most radical Prime Minister that we’ve ever had”. He describes how Thatcher passes his “guilty secret” test, while David Cameron does not. And he wonders why no prominent politician is now prepared to “kitchen-sink” problems in the way she did on becoming Tory leader.
ConHome: “Did you learn anything from the reaction when Thatcher died?”
Moore: “Well I think there was such a disconnect between wider opinions and the way it was reported. So while of course there are people who are so horrible that they want to spit on her grave, that’s not typical of the British people. It’s not even typical of anti-Thatcher people.
“And I think a mistake was made by Ed Miliband, or a problem was created by Ed Miliband, which I don’t blame him for, but what happened was they had the adjournment debate in the Commons when tributes were paid, and he was good, I thought. But apparently he gave out the message that in order not to have unseemly controversies between death and funeral his front bench should steer away from Thatcher for that period, which had the effect that there was a hole in coverage, and particularly on the BBC who always have to get you a Labour person, a Tory person etcetera.
“So that meant that it gave the BBC an opening which I think they liked anyway, because of their attitude towards her, to find maniacs. So actually one thing you didn’t have much of in the time between death and funeral was what you might call rational criticism of Mrs Thatcher, of which there is of course a great deal to be made. So you had very pro stuff and then you had sort of insanely hostile stuff, and you had a pretence particularly by the BBC that these were somehow equals. “And they weren’t, and that of course was demonstrated by the funeral, which was brilliant. Very very good, I thought. And this had all been quite carefully worked out. Lots of discussions had gone on over the years which I wasn’t part of but which I knew something about. And I think the right conclusions were drawn: I mean that it should not be political, a politician should not speak, obviously the Prime Minister read, but the Bishop of London would speak, and he was very good. He did almost a Mark Antony over the grave of Caesar.
“The presence of the Queen was extremely important and very significant. Not unique, but it had only happened once before, and it was right, I think. The only disappointment about who was there was who wasn’t there, which was the very poor representation of an official kind from the US government, which I thought was beneath the level of events from Obama.
“Obviously the President would not have been there, that doesn’t happen, but it would have been surely right that it should either have been the Vice-President or the Secretary of State or both, and/or a former President designated by the President. There were a lot of people of great importance from America, but they came in a personal capacity, like George Shultz. Obama probably should have sent Clinton, let’s say. And I thought that was bad. Literally no non-American has done more for the United States in politics, or been a better friend, since the war. Otherwise jolly good, and of course the marvellous behaviour of the crowd and the size of the crowd, and the attitude of the crowd.”
ConHome: “But why was there on this occasion this gulf between media opinion and wider opinion?”
Moore: “One of the things I keep coming back to – because often the most obvious thing is the most significant – is that she was the first and only woman. And I think people who are not inside the political game and are not very ideological perceive the importance of this more clearly than those who are. Such people are quicker to understand the mythological cum historical importance of her. And so they’re not clouded by was she right or wrong about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the poll tax or whatever it might be.
“The more you see someone as a historical figure, the more the ‘whose side are you on’ argument weakens. I don’t know whether I’m for or against Alexander the Great. It doesn’t matter. Was he stupid or not to attack India? It goes beyond all that. That’s the difference between political rows and history. And Mrs Thatcher is a figure of history, and already was a figure of history in her own lifetime.
“The strongest thing is that people are just very interested. What was she on about with the trade unions? Why did the Cold War matter? And what did she do for women, and how has it changed the role of women? People really want to think about it. And because she was someone who was so good at communicating, in her strange way, but she was very good at communicating, she was uniquely capable in modern times, though Blair was also good at it, at raising issues among people who don’t normally follow politics. Which is partly why she’s so ‘divisive’. Because there’s a view that comes smashing into your mind, that comes from her, and then you have to react to it.”
ConHome: “She’s also not a defeatist. Most politicians are either defeatist or else so tactful that they sound defeatist.”
Moore: “Yes, and also a preacher. So she’s always trying to arouse your interest and your emotion – both your mind and your heart – about issues. So she did, not always in the way she intended, but she did. And she dominated the stage, completely dominated it, for 15 years, and with a longer afterburn. So arguments are framed to a great degree round things that she said. So that makes people interested too. That’s part of it all.”
ConHome: “Though from your book one could construct a case for her being a completely traditional Tory. She admired Alec Douglas-Home.”
Moore: “Yes, I think that’s a very interesting part of it. I’ve said it somewhere though I don’t think I say it in the book that she’s the most conservative and the most radical Prime Minister that we’ve ever had. Both of those things are true about her.”
ConHome: “You point out that by dressing in a traditional way, both she and Churchill made their radicalism more acceptable.”
Moore: “The importance of ultra-respectability. It’s like always being Mrs Thatcher. There’s no stuff about being Miss Roberts or anything like that.”
ConHome: “Could you comment on whether the present Prime Minister understands this principle? Because Boris Johnson, if he was a member of White’s, would be jolly pleased and would go there for lunch quite frequently, whereas Cameron resigned. Cameron doesn’t like the Bullingdon stuff, while Boris starts shouting ‘Buller, Buller, Buller,’ if the topic comes up, and pointing out that Dimbleby or someone was also a member of the Bullingdon, and causing general hilarity by confronting it and turning it into an exaggerated thing. Obviously Churchill was exaggerating. Thatcher was exaggerating: her attachment to a certain kind of respectability was absolutely inflexible. Never going out looking the slightest bit scruffy.”
Moore: “That’s partly the way she genuinely felt about things. And it’s partly the need of the woman to be clothed for battle, like a medieval knight in armour. So it must be completely right. This will give her confidence. And also looking her best for Britain, which itself is a respectable concept.
“On the Cameron point, this comes back to the theory I’ve sometimes put forward. In The Code of the Woosters, Bertie is told the way to get power over people is to go up to them and say ‘I know your guilty secret’, because everybody goes “Urghhh!” [Moore gave a pretend cry of alarm]. But if you want to test really top-rank politicians, if you go up to them and say ‘I know your guilty secret’, the top-rank ones basically say ‘fine – go away’. And of course we’re not talking about specific guilty secrets, we’re talking about a psychology.
“So among those who would pass that test would be Heseltine, Denis Healey, Callaghan, probably Roy Jenkins actually, Ken Clarke and Mrs Thatcher. And I think probably Blair actually. And then a lot of other people would fail that test, like Major for example, and it turned out he did have a guilty secret, but I don’t mean that. They’re warding off the blow that they think’s coming. And Cameron, though certainly a robust chap, I think does have the vulnerability to the guilty secret psychology.
“And in his case, it’s again not to do with the specific guilty secret, it’s his understanding that he basically is a ruling-class person, and he doesn’t wish to present himself like that. And that his attitudes are also basically ruling-class attitudes. And I don’t mean that as a terrible insult, and I don’t mean it in a very strict class sense. I mean that what he thinks is that people like me are good at running the country, and that’s why I’m going to do it. And the rest of it’s slightly made up afterwards, about radical change or modernisation. It’s not that his modernisation views are insincere, but they’re a bit of icing on the cake.”
ConHome: “He was always quite uneasy when he was asked about Thatcher.”
Moore: “Yes, though this is another thing where he’s extremely cool-headed. He dealt with the funeral stuff extremely well.”
ConHome: “Before that, if asked if he was a Thatcherite, his answers were slightly uncertain.”
Moore: “Yes, but I think that broadly speaking he’s worked his way through that to quite a good position, which is basically true, which is that he doesn’t want to be sort of labelled in the Thatcher camp, but he is a genuine big admirer. With actually a sort of affection. When I’ve talked to him about it I’ve always found there’s an amusement in a nice way, thinking wasn’t that amazing when she did something or other, you know. After all he grew up with her. His first really striking political memory was of the Falklands War. And obviously by then he was not that young.”
At this point we adjourned to watch the Grand National on a television set in the Moores’ kitchen. On returning, we struck out on a new tack.
ConHome: “Can you explain what kitchen-sinking is?” In Saturday’s Telegraph, Moore had wondered why – although from August 2007, when the interbank markets froze up, a new crisis began from which we have not yet emerged – “no new leader has ‘kitchen-sinked’ the problem, boldly analysing what is wrong and forthrightly expounding what to do about it.”
Moore: “It’s an expression much used in the City. If you’ve got a problem you should kitchen-sink it, i.e. don’t hold back something, chuck it all in, otherwise you get trouble later, because you haven’t dealt with the whole problem.”
ConHome: “And you said there’s no one doing this at the moment in British politics.”
Moore: “That’s right, isn’t it?”
ConHome: “There were people long before Thatcher, like Enoch Powell, thinking with a determined independence.”
Moore: “Right now there doesn’t seem to be anyone very prominent in politics who’s thinking independently. And particularly not in the Labour Party which you would think would be the one because they’re not in office. They’re very stuck in the same problem the Tories had about ten years earlier, which is how do you deal with your past. So they’re not really saying anything, are they. And if you compare it with Mrs Thatcher in 1975, that’s what I mean by kitchen-sinking. She said: ‘A. We’ve got it wrong. B. This is the whole thing that is wrong. And C. Here’s something that can be done, here’s a different way of looking at it. And she did do an analysis of what the party had done wrong, but she didn’t get stuck on it. I feel that both Labour and the Tories are absolutely obsessed with themselves as parties, and give much less analysis to what’s wrong with the country. Blair did that and Cameron’s done that as well. When they come in to government and realise X and Y is wrong with the country, they wrestle with it from a position of not having really quite thought about it before.”
ConHome: “It worked so well for Blair, annoying the Labour Party.”
Moore: “Yes, and by the way it had to be done. He had to be not beholden to those people.”
ConHome: “When Thatcher adopted the sale of council houses as a policy, she was doing something which Michael Heseltine and Peter Walker were already very keen on, and whose intellectual roots went back to 1923.”
Moore: “Yes, most of her ideas are not strictly speaking original. However, I think it is fair to say that politically she’s very original.”
ConHome: “Can you enlarge on that?”
Moore: “Because of the boldness and the readiness to rethink against what seems to be the tide. She wasn’t an intellectual, nor was she a policy person really, so she didn’t have the capacity or inclination to build up a great body of new ideas. But she had beliefs about what was wrong and a sort of burning desire to get them right, and a great capacity to expound this.
“And an astonishing persistence. This never left her, this persistence. In office, prime ministers say they want the greenest country ever or whatever it might be. The Big Society’s a good example. Quite an interesting thought, but it’s basically petered out, hasn’t it, and in fact Cameron doesn’t talk about it. I wouldn’t say he’s gone against it, but he just doesn’t think it’s worth pursuing. Mrs T had that thing, which is why she was so infuriating to colleagues, but it’s very necessary, of pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing.
“Blair would always say ‘Oh we’ve done that, we’ve done a law about it’ or something. But she would say, ‘I know we passed this trade union bill last year, but I hear from X… This is why she was so keen on having irregulars, people from outside the system who would tell her what was going on.”
ConHome: “Brian Walden said the journalists in 1979 should have asked her whether she believed in inequality. What would she have said, had she felt able to give an honest answer about that?”
Moore: “Well she spoke fairly directly about that. In the speech in New York in Opposition about let our children grow tall. It sounds like a banality, that quote, let our children grow tall, but the next half of the sentence is “and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so”, and she said a similar thing in her first party conference speech as leader, and I think it’s in one of those two speeches, though I may be wrong about this, that she says the pursuit of equality is a mirage, which is not the same as saying all concepts of equality are wrong. It’s to do with what politics can and should do. Obviously she believed in concepts such as equality before the law.
“The obsession of the egalitarian is about gaps, while the obsession of the Thatcherite is that what you need to see is where are things moving rather than what the gap is. She does a brilliant thing, it’s her last day as Prime Minister, and both Simon Hughes and Jim Sillars ask a question about the gap between rich and poor, and she does it all with her fingers. Do watch [it can be seen on YouTube, with the key gesture starting at 2.03 minutes]. Basically she says, all he cares about is the gap, so he’s happy if it’s like this down there, whereas for us, for me, it’s up for everybody, and it doesn’t matter if the gap is wider.
“And also she’d have the further theory which again would be very unsayable now, which is sort of against this ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric, which is that the number of people who make major improvements to the state of the nation is quite small, in economic terms, so though she’s always very keen to expand all human opportunity, she also had a particular tenderness for those who were enterprising, and her politics was a politics of strong identification with if you like the rising class in society, rather than a sort of attempt which I think is the Cameronian idea of an equal identification with all parts of society.
“It’s a question of where you place yourself in relation to everyone. And it would be a typical paternalist thing to affect almost a personal neutrality about things. The subtext is, ‘I’m all right, so count me out of this, and I’m going to make sure that people who are less fortunate than I all have a fair crack of the whip.’ And she’s saying something very different, I think, which is certainly everybody matters, but I need to make sure we do everything we can to encourage the people who can really make the difference to be able to make the difference.”
ConHome: “We mustn’t lose those people, or crush them.”
Moore: “Yes, crush them.”
ConHome: “This doesn’t come through strongly from Cameron.”
Moore: “I think Cameron now believes it. One of the interesting things about experience of office is it’s making them more Thatcherite than when they were in Opposition. There’s much more talk about, you know, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker in their speeches than there used to be, isn’t there.”
ConHome: “Robert Halfon.”
Moore: “There’s a recognition, though I think they’re not very good at it rhetorically, all this language about strivers, that sort of thing, trying to think what it’s like for such people. There’s endless hard-working families, isn’t there.”
ConHome: “That’s a ghastly expression. They haven’t quite got the language. But perhaps that’s a rather dilettante objection.”
Moore: “No, Mrs Thatcher was always worried about the language. I remember her specifically saying to me when she was in office, ‘What are the words? What are the words?’ She came up with ‘enterprise culture’, which she used quite a lot, but she wasn’t perfectly satisfied with that, and I’m not sure she ever quite found the phrase that she wanted. She was very happy with the slogan ‘every earner an owner’.”
ConHome. “In your book, you bring out the self-parodying element in her.”
Moore: “Yes, very much. People don’t seem to see that but it’s a very big thing with her. I mean if you look at that thing in old age, that very, very famous thing of her putting a handkerchief over the tailfins of British Airways planes at some party conference. It’s quite a long time after she’s left office, it must be something like ’97, the tailfins are a very Blairy thing so I imagine it’s somewhere around then. That is classic Thatcher self-parody. But also real, if you see what I mean. She’s brilliantly making a point best made by the physical. But you can see she’s acting it up for the cameras and enjoying the ‘This is me, this is the way Margaret Thatcher does things’ sort of thing.”
ConHome: “You also make the point that she was very seldom dull.”
Moore: “Yes, dull was never the right word, because she was always animated. She could be boring in the sense of going on and on saying the same thing. She wasn’t shy of repetition, which actually is a useful gift in politics. Also she was always wanting to preach the message, so she would always tell soldiers how important it was to fight, and spies how bad communists were, and economists about free markets. In that way she treated everyone the same, really.
“Again it’s this archetypal thing. She’s very like someone in a novel of English provincial life, isn’t she. She could be a figure from a novel. Not sure whether it’s Arnold Bennett or H.G.Wells. And some of the atmosphere of her upbringing, there’s an element of George Eliot in it too. It’s very fascinating, that, actually. To be so like a woman in fiction, a particular kind of Englishwoman. She’s incredibly much an English character, isn’t she. You can’t imagine her being anything else. I mean sometimes she seems a bit like an American but not really. She has something which is more common in Americans now but was more common in England because it came from England, which is that sort of evangelical way of thinking of the world. She’s very serious-minded in that evangelical way, in that protestant way, and the need to preach the truth all the time. I’m sure that’s one reason why Americans identify with her.”
The paperback edition of the first volume of Moore’s Margaret Thatcher is published today (Penguin, £12.99). It comes garlanded with the kind of praise a West End hit might evoke: “Awe-inspiring”, “Outstandingly good”, “Unsurpassable”, “Very, very funny”. A first interview with Moore about his book appeared on ConHome a year ago. The second and concluding volume is expected within the next two years.