In June 1983 Margaret Thatcher won the biggest increase in a government’s parliamentary majority in British electoral history and proceeded to transform relations with Europe, prioritize British industry, and reinvigorate the economy. For the only time since Churchill, Britain had a central place in dealings between the superpowers. But even at her zenith, Thatcher was best by difficulties. She regularly faced calls for resignation, grew isolated in her own government, butted heads with the Queen, bullied her senior colleagues, and was deceived by her closest ally, Ronald Reagan, during the U.S. invasion of Grenada.
Boasting unprecedented access to Thatcher colleagues, friends, family, and all her government and private papers, Moore offers a groudbreaking and essential portrait of a titanic figure, with all her capabilities and flaw, during the years of her greatest power. Thatcher storms from these pages as from no other book.
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CHARLES MOORE was born in 1956 and educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read history. He joined the staff of The Daily Telegraph in 1979, and as a political columnist in the 1980s covered several years of Mrs. Thatcher’s first and second governments. He was editor of The Spectator from 1984 to 1990; editor of The Sunday Telegraph from 1992 to1995; and editor of The Daily Telegraph from 1995 to 2003, for which he is still a regular columnist. The first volume of his biography of Margaret Thatcher, published in 2013, has won multiple awards for distinguished achievement in biography and history.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The woman Prime Minister who flew into what The Times called a ‘lavish, colourful ceremony of the kind not seen in the American capital for the past four years’ had a packed schedule, but was also careful to make the right impression.* Her office set aside forty minutes each day for hairdressing (with rollers), and submitted her personal details in preparation for receiving an honorary degree at Georgetown University: ‘Height 5'4";** Weight 10.5 stone; Coat 14 English; Hat size 7’. In the White House, Reagan welcomed her, declaring, ‘we share laws and literature, blood, and moral fibre’, and she responded, ‘The message I have brought across the Atlantic is that we, in Britain, stand with you. America’s successes will be our successes. Your problems will be our problems, and when you look for friends we will be there.’ The private reception was equally warm, which encouraged Mrs Thatcher to be frank. In his diary, Reagan recorded: ‘We had a private meeting in Oval office. she [sic] is as firm as ever re the Soviets and for reduction of govt. Expressed regret that she tried to reduce govt. spending a step at a time & was defeated in each attempt. Said she should have done it our way – an entire package – all or nothing.’
But not everyone in the Reagan administration was willing to be as supportive as the President. On the same day, Don Regan testified before a Congressional committee. Mrs Thatcher, Regan said, had failed to control the money supply, produced ‘an explosive inflationary surge’ by her pay increases to public employees and kept taxes too high, which ‘provides little incentive to get the economy started again’. ‘She failed’, he added, ‘in the effort to control the foreign exchange market and the pound is so high in value that it ruined their export trade.’ Here was a clear effort to distance the administration’s policy from the perceived mistakes associated with Margaret Thatcher. Such perceptions were commonplace in US media reports throughout the visit.*** Regan then left Capitol Hill to hurry over to the British Embassy for lunch with Mrs Thatcher.
She did not react unfavourably, but publicly praised President Reagan, giving a sanitized version of what she had told him privately: his attack on expenditure was ‘the one thing which I could have wished that we had been even more successful at’. Reagan recorded in his diary that Mrs Thatcher ‘Went up to the hill [Capitol Hill] and was literally an advocate for our ec. program. Some of the Sen’s. tried to give her a bad time. She put them down firmly & with typical British courtesy.’
As far as issues of substance went, the visit was fairly thin. Mrs Thatcher was a little worried by the administration’s obsession with Central America, when she felt more attention should be paid to the East-West relationship. She and Reagan did, however, discuss the Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev’s speech of 23 February in which he had called for an international summit and a moratorium on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) in Europe, and they agreed on a cautious response. More important, for both sides, was the need for éclat, for the dramatization of the ‘meeting of minds’ of which Dick Allen had written. The state dinner for Mrs Thatcher at the White House gave Reagan’s people the chance to show the difference their President made:
“The Reaganauts were determined to throw off the grungy, downtrodden look of the Carter Administration . . . Some of the Carter people used to walk about the White House in bare feet. As soon as Reagan came in, out went the memos banning jeans, banning sandals and requiring everyone to wear a suit. ‘Glamour’ was a word often used, and ‘class’ too. The Reagan people thus planned the Thatcher dinner as a white tie affair. It was going to be infused with Hollywood glamour and would show the world how classy the Reagan people were.”
Mrs Thatcher, however, asked the White House if the dinner could be black tie, since ‘some of her people would not have the requisite clothing’. She had another concern too: ‘she was the grocer’s daughter. She didn’t want to come over here dressed up like that. It was an impoverished time in Britain after all.’ Black tie was agreed, but the dinner was still grand enough in all conscience.
Then there was the return match. Taking advantage of the Reagan team’s inexperience, Nicko Henderson had got Dick Allen to promise that the President would come to the customary reciprocal dinner at the British Embassy the following night. This was in violation of the existing convention that only the Vice-President attended these return dinners, but the Reagan team did not know this. By the time they had realized their mistake and tried to get out of it, Henderson had sent out the invitations. Reagan came with a good grace.**** In her speech that night, Mrs Thatcher added her own passage to Henderson’s draft, words about the ‘two o’clock in the morning courage’ which leaders have to have when faced with lonely decisions. This greatly pleased Reagan, who replied that she herself had already shown such courage ‘on too many occasions to name’. ‘Truly a warm & beautiful occasion,’ Reagan wrote in his diary. The only disappointment for Mrs Thatcher was that the Reagans left without dancing to the band. After they had departed, Henderson invited her on to the floor: ‘Mrs T accepted my offer without complication or inhibition, and, once we were well launched on the floor, confessed to me that that was what she had been wanting to do all evening. She loved dancing, something, so I found out, she did extremely well.’129 She was most reluctant to go to bed, threatening a different sort of ‘two o’clock courage’ by going off to see the floodlit Washington monuments, ‘but Denis put his foot down, crying, “bed”.’ On her last night in America, after a rapturous reception for a speech in New York, Mrs Thatcher gathered with Denis, Henderson and aides in her suite in the Waldorf before taking the plane home. ‘Mrs T was still in a state of euphoria from the applause she had received which was indeed very loud and genuine and burst out: “You know we all ought to go dancing again” . . . Denis’ foot came down heavily.’
Both sides rejoiced at the visit. ‘It was a great success,’ Henderson remembered. ‘They saw completely eye to eye.’ ‘We needed a crowbar to pull them apart,’ remarked Reagan’s press secretary, Jim Brady. ‘I believe a real friendship exists between the P.M. her family & us,’ Reagan commented. The essence of this friendship was simple and effective. They believed the same things, and they both wanted to work actively to bring them about. ‘I have full confidence in the President,’ Mrs Thatcher scribbled at the bottom of a thank-you note to Henderson. ‘I believe he will do things he wants to do – and he won’t give up.’ They also had compatible, though utterly different, temperaments – he the relaxed, almost lazy generalist who charmed everyone with his easygoing ways, she the hyperactive, zealous, intensely knowledgeable leader, who injected energy into all her doings but also displayed what Reagan considered to be the elegance of a typical, gracious English lady. They shared a moral outlook on the world and also, in their emphasis on formality, dressing smartly and being what Americans call classy, a sort of aesthetic. The personal chemistry was undeniable. ‘He treated her in a very courteous and sort of slightly flirtatious way, to which she responded,’ recalled Robin Butler. It turned out that they would often disagree about tactics, and that his more optimistic and her less sunny view of the possibilities of a non-nuclear future would lead to problems, but their basic personal trust and sense of common purpose never failed.
Yet, for all her enthusiasm and affection for the leader of the free world, Mrs Thatcher was not blind to his limitations. Lord Carrington recalled their meeting on the first day:
“After the arrival ceremony we went into the Oval Office and I remember Reagan saying: ‘Well of course, the South Africans are whites and they fought for us during the war. The blacks are black and are Communists.’ I think even Margaret thought this was rather a simplification . . . She came out and she turned to me and, pointing at her head, she said, ‘Peter, there’s nothing there.’ That wasn’t exactly true, because there was something there and she no doubt didn’t really mean that.”
Mrs Thatcher came to realize that Reagan’s strengths and mental abilities were very different from her own, but she never lost her underlying admiration for him. To the typed letter of thanks she sent him, she added, in her own hand: ‘We shall never have a happier visit.’138 She felt she had a powerful friend. She knew that he would help in the economic and political struggles ahead. Her pleasure and gratitude were genuine.
* Mrs Thatcher’s nervousness before the ceremony is indicated by the row she began at Blair House, the official guest house where she and her party were staying. She fiercely attacked Lord Carrington for what she called ‘your policy in the Middle East’, which she considered dangerous in its attempt at a rapprochement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, adding, ‘I’ll lose my seat at Finchley.’ By his own account, her Foreign Secretary said, ‘And I’ll lose my temper,’ and went out, slamming the door (interview with Lord Carrington). Clive Whitmore hurriedly scribbled a note to Mrs Thatcher which said, ‘This place is bugged.’ She then drew a circle in the air with her finger to indicate bugging. (Interview with Sir Clive Whitmore.)
** Mrs Thatcher sometimes gave her height as 5 foot 4 inches, and sometimes as 5 foot 5 inches.
*** ‘A new verb has entered the Washington lexicon,’ declared the New York Times. ‘It is said to be possible to “Thatcherize” an economy. The verb is not precisely defined, but many see it as a bad thing to do. Since “Thatcherization” bears a conservative label, some people fear that our new conservative President will lead us down the same disagreeable path.’ (New York Times, 1 Mar. 1981.)
**** Although Henderson’s manoeuvring annoyed the sticklers for protocol, Allen and others realized that the President’s attendance at this return dinner (and others) could have its advantages. This would be one way, suggested an NSC memo, to ‘underscore the substantive importance’ Reagan placed on US relations with key allies, and signal a break with the discord in the transatlantic alliance seen in the recent past. (Rentschler to Tyson, ‘Thatcher Visit and Related Thoughts’, 26 Jan. 1981, 5. Official Working Visit of Prime Minister Thatcher of United Kingdom 02/26/1981 (1 of 8), Box 4, Charles Tyson Files, Reagan Library.)
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