Margaret Thatcher’s last stand

Elaine Showalter

THE WASHINGTON POST – When the second volume of Charles Moore’s monumental biography of Margaret Thatcher came out in 2015, she had two indisputable claims to preeminence: She was the only woman to have been prime minister of the United Kingdom (UK) and the most reviled political figure of modern British history.

Now Theresa May has joined Thatcher on that short list of female PMs, and Tony Blair, David Cameron and a fast-moving Boris Johnson have knocked her off the top of the hate list. It seems long ago that she was wielding her symbolic handbag of power in Parliament and bestriding the world stage as the Iron Lady of a still-great peacetime Britain.

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 trans-Atlantic 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 him 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 centralised 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 civilisation” 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.