- - Thursday, August 1, 2013

MARGARET THATCHER: FROM GRANTHAM TO THE FALKLANDS
By Charles Moore
Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 859 pages

Before the Reagan Revolution came the rise of Margaret Thatcher. The improbable story is well told by journalist Charles Moore in “Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands.”

The book is a fine read, though the extraordinary detail, while always illuminating, is sometimes excruciating. This, the first of two volumes, alone comes in at 859 pages.

Margaret Roberts was the younger of two daughters of a middle-class grocer. Her most important personal decision was to marry Denis Thatcher, an older businessman, with whom she had two children.

She became active in politics while attending Oxford University. Politically ambitious women were rare, but she demonstrated intelligence and tenacity. So the Conservative Party used her as speaker and then sacrificial candidate in a solid Labor Party constituency. In 1958, she overcame skepticism from traditionalists to win the Conservative Party nod in Finchley, a Tory stronghold.

After the next election, she received a minor government job — part of what was viewed as a woman’s portfolio in welfare services. She lost that when Labor won a narrow majority in 1964. However, writes Mr. Moore, “in her analysis of the reasons for the Tory defeat, which she developed gradually through the 1960s, she would find the germ of the views which came to full flower ten years later.”

She became education minister when the Tories came back into power in 1970. Thatcher learned the issues and proved formidable in debate. Observes Mr. Moore: “Money and economics, about which women were traditionally held to be ignorant, were her strong suits. Always well briefed, she talked seriously and intelligently, if not always originally, on serious subjects.”

The Conservative government under Prime Minister Edward Heath was battered by turbulent times. Indeed, I lived through much of his premiership, since my Air Force father was stationed in Britain from 1970 to 1973. Unfortunately, Heath lacked the principled beliefs and firm character necessary to challenge the expansive welfare state.

He went to the polls early and lost. The majority of Tory MPs then wanted to defenestrate him, but the obvious challengers hung back. So the lady from Finchley challenged Heath. On Feb. 11, 1975, she piled up an overwhelming majority on the second ballot to become opposition leader.

The weak Labor government limped on for more than four years, but on May 3, 1979, the British electorate demonstrated a desire for change that was similarly exhibited by American voters the following year. The Conservative Party won a solid 43-seat majority, making Thatcher prime minister.

The economic challenges facing Britain were immense, and Thatcher was not yet master of her own party. Her Cabinet included several moderates in the mold of Heath. In the face of persistent unemployment, they counseled retreat and a return to the failed policies of the past. She famously responded: “The lady’s not for turning.” As her government approached its third year, many doubted her survival as party leader and prime minister. Mr. Moore documents well the political struggles that filled London at this time.

Then came war. On April 2, 1982, Argentina’s military junta invaded the Falkland Islands, a distant remnant of Britain’s colonial empire. London’s military power was declining, but Thatcher risked all by launching a naval task force. Against high odds, including pressure from the Reagan administration, which worried about its relationships with Latin American governments, Britain successfully recaptured the islands.

The prime minister’s pain at the loss of life, combined with her resolute determination to proceed, is noteworthy. Mr. Moore observes, “The Falklands War brought out Mrs. Thatcher’s best qualities — not only the well-known ones of courage, conviction and resolution, but also her less advertised ones of caution and careful study.”

She, like Winston Churchill, really mattered. Mr. Moore explains, “It was not mere flattery to say that only she could have done it — it was widely believed, and it is probably true.” The fighting men seemed to agree. At an October luncheon honoring representatives of the task force, she rose to speak, and “[s]uddenly, before she could say anything, there was a standing ovation from the floor, started by the boys. The other politicians couldn’t believe what was happening.”

The Falklands victory resonated well beyond the South Atlantic. Mr. Moore notes, “The Falklands War established Mrs. Thatcher’s personal mastery of the political scene, and convinced people of her special gifts of leadership. The loneliness of command in those eleven weeks made her all the more unassailable in the time to come.”

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