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Margaret Thatcher

The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants
Charles Moore
Allen Lane


From 1 Liberal Imperialist

'I'm leader of this great nation, and I haven't made up my mind'

In October 1982, Margaret Thatcher became the senior elected leader in the Western world. Her three years and five months as prime minister meant that she had led her country continuously for longer than any of her counterparts among the major Western powers. It was a position she was to retain for more than eight years, until her fall in November 1990. Since her arrival in office in May 1979, Ronald Reagan had replaced Jimmy Carter as president of the United States, and Francois Mitterrand had defeated Valery Giscard d'Estaing in France. On 1 October 1982, Helmut Schmidt, who had been chancellor of West Germany since 1974, lost a vote of confidence in the Bundestag and resigned, to be replaced -initially without an election - by the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl.* In little more than three years, therefore, Mrs Thatcher had moved from being the ingenue of international politics to being the doyenne. And because of the huge change in her international standing brought about by victory in the Falklands, the transformation was swift and dramatic. Although she was not a great one for noticing dates and ticking off anni­versaries, she was undoubtedly conscious of her new status, and pleased with it. She felt that her beliefs were being vindicated, and that she was more than ever entitled to expound and export them to the whole world.

Within ten days of her Falklands victory on 14 June 1982, Mrs Thatcher was addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, expounding her doctrine of 'peace with freedom and justice', rather than 'peace at any price'.1 She boldly described the nuclear deterrent as a 'priceless achievement', because it made such peace possible globally.2 In her speech to her party's conference on 8 October, she made it clear that freedom and justice were not just the guarantors of the carve-up between West and East, but dynamic forces opposed by 'political systems evil enough to seek to enslave the whole world'. She declared that the Communists had attempted to crush Solidarity in Poland because the Soviets 'knew that the beginning of freedom spelt the beginning of the end for Communism'.3 Her message was that freedom everywhere was on the march. Back at home, 370,000 fam­ilies had now bought their council houses since the Conservatives came into office ('There is no prouder word in our history than "freeholder"'). Citing her government's privatizations, Mrs Thatcher claimed that 'already we have done more to roll back the frontiers of socialism than any previous Conservative Government.'4 In short, her battles, both at home and abroad, had the same purpose, and she was winning them.

Mrs Thatcher's dealings with her ministers reflected her new dominance. One official witnessed this first-hand during the summer of 1982:

In Cabinet, Mrs Thatcher's authority seemed absolute, and her manner that of a headmistress dealing with recalcitrant staff. Willie Whitelaw,* massive, bushy eyebrows raised, was allowed something of a moderating role. But Peter Carrington had by that time resigned, and her other male colleagues... seemed uncertain how to disagree with her without provoking rebuke: as someone said, she came across as though she were 'everyone's mother in a bad temper'. 'WHO authorised this memorandum?' she demanded at one of my first Cabinet meetings, waving a paper indignantly before her. Silence. 'WHO authorised it?' Eventually, the Secretary of State for Wales, who sat at an awkward angle from her, poked his head cautiously round the Cabinet Secretary (Robert Armstrongf) and said, 'I did, Prime Minister.' Pause. 'But I cleared it with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.' Geoffrey Howe:): simply studied his papers. 'And with the Foreign Secretary.' Francis Pym§ remained similarly silent. 'Well, it should NEVER have been issued.'5

It had always been Mrs Thatcher's way to hector her colleagues, but in the past this tendency had been somewhat restrained by her inexperience and the weakness of her own political position. Now these restraints were lessened. An official himself, Goodall noted how the situation was less irksome for his breed than for her fellow politicians: 'Often outspokenly rude to Ministers (especially, as time went on, to Geoffrey Howe) and invariably acerbic in argument, she was never, in my experience, actually rude to officials.'6 He described her thus:

Although equally assertive both at the meeting table and in informal con­versation away from it, Mrs Thatcher's personality is in other respects dramatically different; at a meeting there is something actually repellent about the poisoned smile and didactic way in which she reiterates her points. In informal conversation, she sheds her scaly covering, her smile becomes normal, her femininity apparent and one can argue with her in a friendly, even bantering way. But it is still extraordinarily difficult to find a point of entry to put a case counter to the one she is making.7

Mrs Thatcher's refusal to provide that easy 'point of entry' was essential to her way of working. Given that she was radical, always kicking against the pricks of bureaucracy and inertia, she would not have been able to maintain momentum if she had made life easy for nay-sayers. But it is also true that her way of working - though usually invoking huge loyalty and admiration from her own staff - stored up resentment from Cabinet col­leagues, even those who were her political allies. In the latter part of 1982, however, this did not seem to matter much. She took advantage of her new situation to preach and to prevail.