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‘Margaret Thatcher was most female female’

The biographer of Britain’s first woman prime minister, Charles Moore answers the questions that others haven’t dared to ask

  • By Charles Moore
  • Published: 11:32 June 10, 2014
  • Tabloid

  • Image Credit: Reuters
  • Reuters Margaret Thatcher

Since the first volume of my biography of Margaret Thatcher appeared a little more than a year ago, I have given about 100 speeches on it and her. Some questions come up almost every time. “Was she a role model for women?”, “How did she get on with the Queen?”, “Was she a good mother?” A few of the questions are political, which is amusing, since Lady Thatcher was one of the most intensely political people who ever lived. To me, this shows how people fasten on to her remarkable character and unique position as the first woman prime minister. They are not wrong to do so: these matters will endure long after most of the policy arguments with which she engaged will have ceased to be important. But if I interviewed myself, I might add a few questions to the mix. I do not know all the answers. As I press on with volume two, I keep asking some of them.

Was she happy?

I would say probably not. No one who feels the need to work so hard for so long is happy. If she had been, she would have relaxed. She was fleeing something, what her daughter Carol called “the experience of nothingness”. She greatly enjoyed some things, some occasions, some moments, but she was always, in some sense, dissatisfied.

Did she have any real friends?

Definitely, yes. She was very warm towards and admiring of those she trusted. And because she trusted them, she confided in them. Oddly for someone with so much self-belief, she did not like to be alone. She thrived on company and human interaction. However, her female presence in a male world, her devotion to work and her inability to “waste” time meant that friendship was rare for her, and had to be rationed. She was always isolated in a way, lonely even. Friends were a luxury — but then, secretly, for all her puritanism, she liked luxury.

How did she get so much done?

By the pure exertion of the will. Contrary to what many think, Mrs Thatcher was not efficient at transacting business. Strictly speaking, she was a poor executive. She was much too passionate, talkative, illogical, even indecisive. She had no strategy in any sense that would be recognised in the commercial world, and she had eccentric ideas about delegation. But she knew what mattered, could communicate it, and would never be satisfied by second best. She knew what, so she inspired everyone else to run around working out how.

How cunning was she?

Very. But part of her cunning was never to tell me (or anyone) when she was using that particular skill, so I have to keep looking for it, hidden beneath the rhetoric.

Was she really a radical or a conservative?

Truly, deeply, both. It is a powerful combination, the most powerful in politics.

How much did she succeed, and how much fail?

Peregrine Worsthorne once said that Mrs Thatcher strove to create a country in the image of her father but succeeded in creating one in the image of her son. By the time I have finished my book, I shall need to decide where the balance lies. The fact that this debate is still so hot proves what a difference she made (who wastes time arguing whether, say, Harold Wilson succeeded or failed?), but the answers about what turned out well and what badly may prove surprising.

How tall was she?

Sometimes 5-foot-4 and sometimes 5-foot-5, when prime minister. I do not know why she gave different measurements at different times. She always wore high heels. Her weight fluctuated a lot, too, and she worried about being fat. When Denis first met her, in 1948, his first impression, he told me, was “a nice-looking young woman, a bit overweight”. (She wrote to her sister at the time and said he was “not a frightfully attractive creature” but “a perfect gentleman”).

Was she really a man in a skirt?

This is quite the stupidest question ever, advanced only by obtuse, clever men. She was the most female female you could imagine and, therefore, as she loved to say, quoting from her beloved Kipling, “deadlier than the male”.

Did she say “Rejoice, rejoice”, “There is no alternative” and “We are a grandmother”?

The answer, I believe, is “No. No. No” (which is something she did say).

— The Daily Telegraph

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