Yet Thatcher is one of a tiny number of women in history to deserve and receive the accolade of a three-volume biography. Moore’s massively researched, elegantly written and admirably balanced book, covering the years from her triumphant reelection in June 1987 to her fall, decline and death in 2013, does justice to her courage and complexity. True, his minutely detailed account of Tory politics, with its Jacobean skirmishes and fraught cabinet reshuffles, will probably mean little to most American readers. And Moore, a former editor of conservative media outlets from the Spectator to the Daily Telegraph (nicknamed the Torygraph), introduces every British man (and woman) he names by noting their education, often Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, but including a few outliers like John Major, educated only at a school called Rutlish. Like Thatcher, it can seem a bit stuffy and remote.
But Thatcher’s final term encompassed many events of transatlantic and global significance. Despite her reputation as rigid and unfeeling, she took progressive, empathetic stands on many issues, often ahead of her party. Trained as a scientist, she took an early interest in discussions about AIDS and talked about the need for international conferences on climate change and global warming.
She supported free speech. Although Salman Rushdie belonged to a group of British writers ferociously opposed to Thatcher and had created a character in his novel “The Satanic Verses” called “Mrs. Torture,” when the Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on Rushdie for blasphemy, her government gave him full police protection, moving him among 57 safe houses in five months. After Khomeini’s death in June 1989, they helped Rushdie negotiate with the Iranian government to get the fatwa lifted, although Harold Pinter opposed any concessions and “wanted to fight to the last drop of Salman’s blood.” (Although never resolved, the threat became dormant, and after Thatcher’s death Rushdie expressed some gratitude that she had offered him unquestioning support.)
She worked with white South African leaders to end apartheid, and Nelson Mandela’s release was a high point of her term. In his first official visit to Downing Street on July 4, 1990, they talked for so long that the press waiting outside started to chant “Free Nelson Mandela!” Although the Brexiteers claim her as their Euroskeptic patron, it’s unclear how she would have voted. She was concerned about a centralized bureaucracy run out of Brussels and a European single currency, and she was strongly opposed to German reunification, but she also believed that “Britain was part of European civilization” and that its destiny was “in Europe, as part of the Community.”
But Thatcher’s extraordinary run came to an end with a series of disasters and misjudgments at home, especially the hugely unpopular poll tax. On Nov. 22, 1990, she stood down. She was a vigorous 65, and the loss of status was an abrupt transition, Moore writes, for which she was “unprepared emotionally, domestically, financially and practically.” She had no permanent home, office or staff, and a meager income from government pensions. Her husband, Denis, had plenty of money but hadn’t paid a bill himself since they moved to Downing Street. Out of sync with modern technology, fuming about those who had forced her out, she had to make money, set up a household and find a new role. She made lucrative speaking tours, wrote her memoirs and soon entered the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher. In her public role, she annoyed John Major with unwanted advice and criticism and went to 116 funerals.
In 2001, she had a few small strokes, and some people noticed a mental decline, although some enemies would later say that like all women, she was always irrational. Denis died suddenly in 2003; her dearest ally, Ronald Reagan, died of Alzheimer’s in 2004, and, suffering from early dementia herself but superbly dressed and coifed by her devoted household team, she attended the funeral, where her prerecorded eulogy protected her from making embarrassing slips of the tongue. Moore presents these last years as particularly sad, calling her “The Lioness in Winter.” Her adult children, Mark and Carol, gave her more worry than help, and she could never get the hang of country-house weekends. “She played no games or sports,” notes Moore, and “dressed with intimidating formality.” In her retirement, she was like a woman “unwillingly divorced” and “isolated in a man’s world.” These feminizing metaphors trivialize her strength and disregard comparisons to her male peers, including Reagan and French President François Mitterrand, massively protected in retirement and decline by their wives and even mistresses. Thatcher had no model for being a lioness at leisure.
To be sure, Moore is aware of the sexism and overt misogyny Thatcher suffered throughout her career. He frequently points out that her ability to establish solid relationships with world leaders was often described as feminine flirtatiousness and infatuation, rather than thorough preparation. When she judiciously hosted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in April 1989, for example, the Soviets said she looked at him with “sheer rapture and adoration.” Yet Moore himself too often casts her in a stereotypically feminine, besotted role, calling her “girlishly effusive about Reagan” and as awkward when she met with his successor, George H.W. Bush, as “a girl on a new date after many happy years with her previous boyfriend.” He tends to underestimate her self-confidence and exaggerate her dependence on her male courtiers. In his epilogue, he calls her “an icon, without rival, of female leadership” but not, despite the controversies, a model of political leadership in general.
Thatcher died in April 2013 and chose not to have a state funeral to which heads of state were invited, although the queen and many statesmen came to the solemn ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. President Barack Obama sent a message saluting her as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty” and a true friend to the United States. But with her passing, an era of dignity and decorum was falling away. Donald Trump, then just a New York real estate developer, was not invited to the funeral either, but he seized the opportunity to insult his perceived rivals, tweeting that it was terrible that Obama, Joe Biden and John Kerry did not attend.
In the brawling pandemonium of Washington and Brexit, I hope Thatcher’s gifts of discipline, intelligence and dedication may finally be recognized beyond the bounds of gender.
Herself Alone: The Authorized Biography