Authors: Charles Moore
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Biography, #Politics
To my father, Richard Moore, and my mother, Ann,
my first history teachers
and in memory of Peter Utley and Shirley Letwin
I belong to the middle class, and to the strongest part of it …
H. Hensley Henson,
Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, vol. i
At his trial, Socrates famously said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. He had not, of course, met Margaret Thatcher. From childhood, through the whole of her life until the infirmities of old age prevented her, Mrs Thatcher worked without cease. For her, work had a semi-religious significance, and it was the only way of life she knew. Even after she had left politics, she would always say ‘There’s so much to do!’ She hated the fact that she no longer had the chance to do it.
Such people do not look back. Even as they act, they do not pause to observe how they are acting. They focus always on their goals, and have a horror of wasting time. Almost the only sense in which Margaret Thatcher examined her own life was to criticize her conduct on a particular occasion – such-and-such a speech had not been good enough, she had not prepared herself properly for such-and-such a meeting. She did this out of a puritanical desire for self-improvement, to make sure that she performed better next time. She hardly ever sat down to reflect upon the past. It is true that, when she became the leader of the Conservative Party, she ransacked her memory for the small-town stories and paternal precepts which were the foundations of her beliefs, but she did so in order to advance her cause, not in any spirit of autobiographical inquiry. Much of her astonishing energy derived from this lack of detachment: if she had spent time looking back, she would have had less time to press forward. Just by watching Mrs Thatcher in action, noting what the novelist Alan Hollinghurst (in
The Line of Beauty
) called her ‘gracious scuttle’, her hurrying gait as she moved from meeting to meeting, you could see that hers was a life with no space for self-examination.
Once she had left office in November 1990, however, Lady Thatcher (as she then became) was forced to think about her own story. Publishers were knocking on her door, clamouring for her memoirs. She did not really want to write them, because she always disliked personal disclosure. Indeed, she had no real idea how to set about such a task. She was utterly unlike, for example, Winston Churchill, for whom the books he wrote about what he
had done were almost as important as the deeds themselves. But, furious at the way she had been forced from office, she did want to set out the accomplishments of her eleven and a half years as prime minister. She wanted to produce a book which vindicated her beliefs. Her publishers, of course, were more interested in her intimate memories and juicy revelations, so it was a mighty task for her loyal and able team of literary assistants to square this circle. Members of the team recall how difficult it was to persuade Lady Thatcher to come up with the telling anecdotes, personal touches and clear narrative on which good memoirs depend. She found it hard to concentrate on the past, and she disliked the whole idea of revealing anything which had taken place privately. And although her memoirs were written well before the decline in her mental powers which became apparent by the end of the twentieth century, she was not naturally accurate in the account she gave of her own life. Her memory, so amazingly retentive when it came to mastering the facts and figures of government, failed when asked to pin down the details of her own history. She had been too busy living it to have recorded it in her own mind. The two volumes of memoirs which emerged,
The Downing Street Years
The Path to Power
, were highly professional accounts. They skilfully replicated on the printed page the tartness which Mrs Thatcher often used in oral expression but which tended to desert her when she wrote things down formally. They coaxed out of her much more than she would ever have produced if she had worked alone. They represented her thoughts and attitudes authentically. But they could never quite overcome the problem that they were the autobiography of someone who did not think autobiographically.
Once the memoirs were out of the way, the question arose of what should happen to the Thatcher papers – the huge number of records accumulated over her political career. Although offered a very large sum of money by an American university, Lady Thatcher declined it, and gave an undertaking to the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, that her papers would not be disposed of without her first offering them to the nation. Given that her own university, Oxford, had refused her an honorary degree when she was prime minister, she turned instead to Cambridge. In 1997, with the agreement of her family, she offered the papers, on permanent loan, to Churchill College, which has the best archive of modern British political documents. Once this was accomplished, her advisers then raised the matter of a biography. After some discussion, Lady Thatcher reached the view that, since her biography would undoubtedly be written, it would be best not to stand aside from the process, but to choose an author who, in her judgment, could be trusted with paper that had not yet been seen by the public and with the testimony from colleagues and family which
the public had not yet heard. In 1997, the choice fell upon me. My impression was that I was chosen mainly for two reasons. As an editor, political journalist and commentator who had followed the period closely, I knew the dramatis personae. And, although my writing had generally been sympathetic to Mrs Thatcher, I was never part of her ‘gang’.
The arrangement that Lady Thatcher offered me was that I would have full access to herself, for interview, and to her papers. She would assist all my requests for interviews with others, including access to members of her family. Her writ also extended beyond Britain’s shores, particularly across the Atlantic, where numerous friends, acquaintances and former officials agreed to share memories, diaries and documents, many of which had never before seen the light of day. As a result of her support for the book, the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, gave permission for all existing and former civil servants to speak freely to me about the Thatcher years, and allowed me to inspect government papers, held back from public view under the thirty-year rule. The permission to study government paper was granted on the understanding that all quotations from them used in my manuscript should be submitted to the relevant departments before publication to make sure that they did not compromise national security. A few minor changes were made, but nothing of substantial importance to the book was removed. The book is not an official history, and so the Cabinet Office had no remit (and no inclination) to influence or suppress any of its views. It is described as the ‘authorized’ biography, because Mrs Thatcher asked me to write it, but our agreement also stipulated that Lady Thatcher was not permitted to read my manuscript and the book could not appear in her lifetime. This was partly to spare her, in old age, any controversy which might result from publication, but mainly to reassure readers that she had not been able to exert any control over what was said. It was helpful to some of the people I interviewed to know that she would never read what they told me. I was paid not by Lady Thatcher, but by my publishers, Penguin.