Skip to main content

Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone: The Authorized Biography


Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone: The Authorized Biography

For openers, I freely admit to having been thoroughly daunted by the sheer physical presence of Charles Moore’s MARGARET THATCHER: HERSELF ALONE, the third and final volume in his definitive biography of one of the Western world’s most noteworthy leaders.

Its 1,006 pages weigh in at an imposing 3 lbs. 5 oz. The family cat, who normally enjoys extended lap-time when recruited as a warm bookrest, was having none of it. I settled for a big pillow instead and dug in while the volume was still cold from the doorstep, calculating how many pages I’d have to read every day to complete what looked like a literary marathon, a veritable black hole of dry textbook prose.

But if it had been such an awful ordeal, you probably wouldn’t be reading this now. And if you’re one of the enlightened folks who’ve traveled through Moore’s previous two (equally weighty and illuminating) volumes about Britain’s most celebrated and notorious 20th-century Prime Minister, then you’ll already know how compelling and comprehensive that prose really is. I’m not among that group, but now wish I was; I will have my catch-up work cut out for me.

After the first few chapters, beginning with Thatcher’s turbulent third term in office (1987), Moore’s intellectual, emotional, philosophical and literary mastery of the subject broke down all my resistance and fear.

"[O]ne of the most rewarding perks of this intense journey through the last period of Margaret Thatcher’s life is that Moore...captures her rare but genuine moments of warmth, empathy, reflection and intuition."

Dense with primary text, copious numbered endnotes, and clusters of oddly interesting footnotes, the pages of MARGARET THATCHER: HERSELF ALONE did not turn quickly --- but turn they did, with the rhythmic fascination and promised (but sometimes withheld) revelations of a fully-staged Wagnerian opera. And on this scale, politics can be none other than a vast and convoluted operatic tableau!

Having lived through “the Thatcher years” as a young adult, I’m still surprised at how much I can remember from news headlines of the day --- names, places, personalities, events, crises --- despite not being very politically aware at the time, even about Canadian issues.

Through domestic monetary controversies, the birth pangs of European economic union, irreconcilable differences over Ireland, tempestuous national health and education reform, taxation and labor riots, the fall of the Berlin Wall, tantalizing hopes for glasnost and perestroika in the USSR, the dawn of the Mandela era in South Africa, the high-wire dance of nuclear deterrence with the US, and myriad other issues enveloping the globe, Margaret Thatcher boldly steered her no-compromise vision of grassroots conservatism through every obstacle that arose.

And there were plenty of them in a world still dominated by male privilege and class-connected elitism. Moore’s style of footnoting every new name that appears (and there are hundreds) identifies birth and death dates, schools and universities attended, offices held, and knighthoods or other honors bestowed. With few exceptions (usually women), this class formula is rigidly followed.

Ironically, Margaret Thatcher herself hardly fitted the mould of those who looked to her for strong leadership, decisive policy-making and party unity during more than a decade of fractious government. She did indeed personify her unofficial title as “the Iron Lady.”

A grocer’s daughter who earned admission to Oxford by sheer academic slog, she entered politics armed with chemistry and law degrees, succeeding Ted Heath in 1975 as Conservative Party Leader, and in 1979 becoming the country’s first (and to date only) female Prime Minister, a tenure that would last, against many odds, for three terms.

Unlike the vast majority of her upper-class “old boys club” colleagues in British politics, she could authentically claim to be the only one among them to apply rigorous scientific methodology to the resolution of complex diplomatic, economic and social problems. While her conclusions often led to heated disagreement, her preparedness for substantive parliamentary debate on key issues was almost never in question. That sometimes incongruous ability to blend iron will and spontaneous charm were almost certainly traits that endeared her to American president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom became personal friends.

In this exhaustive and astonishingly detailed account of Thatcher’s third term in office until her death (1987 through 2013), Moore interweaves numerous overlapping and interdependent political issues with consummate ease, harking back at just the right moment for an average reader’s memory to earlier volumes or chapters in which the same or similar issues are previously discussed. This literary courtesy alone is enough to remove much of the intimidation one might feel in navigating through such a complex account without losing track of time and place.

In fact, Moore takes such pains in contextualizing the relevant personal and professional details of Thatcher’s career that the book almost seems to unfold in real time. Just trying to imagine a dated timeline of events in MARGARET THATCHER: HERSELF ALONE is mind-boggling; I can safely say that not a single week of that entire quarter century would have escaped his diligent research and brilliant analysis.

When all is said and done, however, one of the most rewarding perks of this intense journey through the last period of Margaret Thatcher’s life is that Moore (the only writer she personally authorized to have access to all of her records and correspondence) captures her rare but genuine moments of warmth, empathy, reflection and intuition.

Love her or hate her, she was a real person doing real work, dedicated (as she herself put it) to the service of her country. One can say no less of Charles Moore, who took what many researchers would call an almost impossible task and gathered its countless frayed ends into a work of enduring value for generations to come.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on February 7, 2020

Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone: The Authorized Biography
by Charles Moore

  • Publication Date: November 12, 2019
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 1056 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1101947209
  • ISBN-13: 9781101947203