Mrs Thatcher at the 1977 party conference: Her respect for liberty won her intellectual admirers
The death of a statesman is also the birth of an afterlife. By this I mean that the absent leader takes up residence both in our collective memory and in the individual imagination, a spectral presence in the attic of the mind. For those now in middle age, to read a life of Margaret Thatcher is to relive one's own past under her aegis. Her posthumous myth imposes certain constraints on the biographer, because there is an unavoidable tension between the life and the afterlife in the reader's mind. In Charles Moore and Robin Harris, Mrs Thatcher has been fortunate to find two very different but equally remarkable biographers, both shrewd and sympathetic enough to do full justice to her as a politician and as a person, while acknowledging the tenacious hold that her unquiet shade still exerts over our remembrance of things not yet long past.
Both authors cover Mrs Thatcher's political ascent, but Moore's "authorised" life, the first of two volumes, concludes in 1982. His book is based on all the accessible sources, written and oral, including her private papers and declassified official ones too. Though Moore did not know Mrs Thatcher during the period he covers here, he was already an admiring, if not uncritical, commentator at the Spectator. He makes numerous significant discoveries about the early years, thanks in particular to her private correspondence with her sister Muriel, but also countless other new documents and interviews with witnesses, many of whom have died since he began work in 1997. Harris's portrait is necessarily sketchier, but also more personal and partisan. Since we must await Moore's second volume for his account of her later career, it is left to Harris alone to trace Mrs Thatcher's glory years, followed by her tragic downward trajectory to defeat and dotage. It is in this latter part of her premiership, from 1985-90, that Harris excels: these were the years when he worked at her side as a speechwriter and confidante. His role continued after she left Downing Street; he makes no apology for chronicling her physical and mental decline, nor for settling accounts with those who betrayed her.
We have here, despite the similarity in title, two quite distinct points of view. Harris was unambiguously a member of Mrs Thatcher's inner circle, in and out of office. Moore was, as he puts it, "never part of her ‘gang'". So her choice of Moore as her "authorised" biographer indicates that she preferred to give privileged access to her archive to a writer who had kept his distance. On the other hand, she wrote encouragingly to Harris in 2005 that she could "think of no one better placed . . . to tackle the subject". In some respects, therefore, these two books are complementary. Moore is the impartial spectator, seeking to reconstruct what actually happened and why it mattered. Harris is the Thatcherite insider, whose aim is to show how she was able to do as much as she did, but also how she was prevented by others from completing her revolution. Both authors can be quite waspish about their subject, but whereas Moore judges her conscientiously, just as he would any other public figure, Harris is merely frustrated by her occasional failure to live up to the ideals they shared. Both find her colleagues and rivals wanting, but where Moore is generous even to those he dislikes and is ironical in tone, Harris is unforgiving and caustic.
The story that emerges from Moore's evocation and Harris's vindication is much less familiar than one might expect. Margaret Roberts had a stern, almost Spartan upbringing, but she also had a lot of fun: she liked dressing up, she liked going out, and she liked men. Moore shows that she had at least three significant boyfriends before she settled on Denis Thatcher; she knew her own worth and she knew how to play the field. Her father sometimes disapproved of her catholic (and Catholic) tastes but she knew how to handle him too. Yet her family life always took second place: her Methodism was sublimated into a ferocious work ethic that catapulted her into Parliament in her early thirties and the Cabinet in her mid-forties.