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Radical, egotistical, romantic, innocent - the real Margaret Thatcher

Saturday, 20 April 2013 - 9:19am IST Updated: Saturday, 20 April 2013 - 9:21am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Writing Thatcher's life uncovered extreme contradictions, as well as the key to my subject, writes Charles Moore from London.
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Inside the cover of the service sheet for Margaret Thatcher's funeral on Wednesday was a passage from TS Eliot's great poem Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets. One line says: "The end is where we start from."

Beautifully planned though the funeral was, it was the unplanned bit that, for us inside the cathedral, was the most striking. As the west doors opened to take the coffin out, the noise of the crowd cheering swept in upon us. Her end was extraordinary, in the passion of conflicting kinds, which it evoked, and in its global impact. It is difficult for all of us not to start from that end, and work backwards.

But for many years now, I have been writing Thatcher's life, the first volume of which is serialised in The Daily Telegraph today. I have been wrestling with the point, so obvious that people almost forget it, that when you live your life, you do not know what is going to happen next, let alone where it will end.

Lady Thatcher was 87 years old when she died. Perhaps the only person in St Paul's who could remember her beginnings was a woman called Shirley Ellis. Starting shortly before the war, she used to walk every day to school in Grantham with the future prime minister. She remembers Margaret informing her, on one of these walks in 1940, that the Germans had just parachuted into Holland. The young Margaret would arrive at Shirley's parents' house, always early (that was a habit which never left her), and then the two of them would continue together across the river Witham to their grammar school. "As the coffin passed me," Shirley told me on Thursday, "I quite suddenly could not stop crying. It was the feeling that so much had happened."

So much, indeed. My task has been not only to set it all out, but to bear in mind that sequence, to remember always that Margaret Roberts did not know that she would be Lady Thatcher, LG, OM, FRS, world statesman. Into the diary belonging to her then boyfriend (not Denis) in 1949, Margaret interpolated a note of their visit to Newmarket races. "I SAW PRINCESS ELIZABETH, AND SHE SAW ME!" she wrote excitedly. That was her first sighting of the woman whose eighth prime minister she would become. On Wednesday, that woman, our Queen, stood beside her coffin.

One of the difficulties of political biography is that the unbelievable pressure of public events which a senior politician experiences threatens to obscure that person's human nature. This could easily happen with Thatcher because, in her tumultuous 11 and a half years at No 10, events came thicker and faster than ever before. She fought the Cold War, a hot war (in the Falklands), inflation, and the trade union leadership; she narrowly avoided assassination. Though fascinated by the big picture, she also threw herself upon every detail of public policy that came her way. It would be easy to write a book about her which spent all its time merely reciting these events and these details, and, in doing so, lost sight of its subject.

Although I wrote this book at the invitation of Lady Thatcher, I sometimes felt that she rather hoped that this would happen. For someone who was, like all great leaders, egotistical, she was remarkably keen to efface the personal. She was not a good historian of herself. When I tried to pin her down about some event in her career, particularly anything that she could represent to herself as private, she was often evasive. If I had been forced to rely solely on her own witness, unassisted by family - most notably her sister Muriel - I would have had a very partial story to tell. If I had not studied tens of thousands of papers, hundreds of letters and talked to hundreds of friends, critics, colleagues, staff and family, I would have learnt from her little on which I could rely.

"Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts", says the Prayer Book funeral which was used on Wednesday. As a good, plain Christian, Lady Thatcher accepted this, but she permitted that knowledge to the Almighty on a "need to know" basis. For mere human beings, she preferred the material to remain what governments call "classified". She gave me access to herself and all her personal and political papers. It was her idea that I should be her authorised biographer. Yet, instinctively, she did not want her life examined. I sometimes think that one reason for her intense, religious dedication to work was that she did not want to examine it herself.

From the biographer's point of view, of course, this makes her an even more interesting subject, an even greater challenge. And although Thatcher was guarded, she was also instinctively truthful. All politicians often have to say things that conceal or avoid important facts. She certainly did this quite often; but she did it with a visible discomfort which often undermined her own subterfuge. Being someone who was never captured by a government machine, someone who always wanted to be out preaching a message in plain English, she could never quite avoid saying what she meant. "The truth will out" is an old saying, and it applied to her. In seeking it from her, I just had to try to acquire the knack of outing it.

Others will judge whether, so far - volume two will contain the greater part of her time in office - I am succeeding. All I want to say here is that, in Margaret Thatcher, one is dealing with such extreme apparent contradictions that the subject is much more difficult and much more interesting than any other politician since Churchill.

She was undoubtedly the most truly conservative person (though Jim Callaghan ran her close) ever to reach No 10 in the era of universal suffrage. You will not find, so far as I know, in any of her millions of words, any condemnation of anything ever done by the British empire (unless it be its premature retreat or its failure, as in parts of Hong Kong, to secure a freehold rather than a lease). She held in her imagination a romantic ideal of Britain as a benign Christian society in its Victorian high noon. In her personal style, she lived as if the Sixties had never happened. Her failure to understand jokes kept her beautifully innocent of her time. She asked her aides, who were forcing her to make play with the dead parrot sketch from Monty Python in one of her speeches, whether this Python was "one of us".

On the other hand, and equally undoubtedly, she was the most radical prime minister we have ever had. She was, in principle, ready to abandon every main economic policy which Britain had followed since the war. She was ready - happy, indeed - to subvert the East/West order of the world, and, of course, the male order of society. She lived her life in categories which men, particularly men in politics then, found baffling. Studying her early correspondence, I discovered that this most serious person wrote far more about clothes than about politics.

In understanding another person, one must never neglect the obvious. Once, she took me aside and whispered, "You know what's the matter with Helmut Kohl?" I didn't. "He's a German!" she revealed. I laughed at this absurdity. Yet as I review my biographical subject, I ask myself, "You know what is the key to Margaret Thatcher?" and I answer, "She was a woman."
 




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