Q&A with Charles Moore, Author of Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands

Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, left his job to complete the authorized biography of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

Moore had access to her papers and her family, and conducted multiple interviews with Thatcher herself in order to write his two-volume series of her life. 

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Part I, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands, goes on sale in the United States on Tuesday. Part II will come out sometime in the next few years.

Moore will be at Politics & Prose from 4 to 5 p.m. on Tuesday to sign copies of the book. He spoke to The Hill about his work.

Q: You were selected to write Thatcher’s authorized biography. What was the process behind that and why were you interested in the job?

In 1997, Lady Thatcher decided to give all her papers to Churchill College, Cambridge, for the nation. She refused a big financial offer from a U.S. university to buy them and gave them to the British nation. At this time, she was advised that obviously somebody was going to try and write a biography.  Someone suggested to her — and she thought it was a good idea — that she let someone she got on with well to see the papers, and he could get on the work and write the authorized biography. She very kindly picked me. … I couldn’t refuse it. It was a great honor.

Q: As I understand it, you gave up your job as editor of the Telegraph in 2003, presumably there were concerns about Thatcher’s health, to work solely on this book.  Can you talk about the kind of access you got?

Why it was unique is that I had complete access thanks to her kindness. I had access to her, her husband Dennis, her family and her close associates who hadn’t spoke before — and she encouraged everyone who ever had any dealings with her to speak to me. I could see all her papers, personal and political. … She also said — Lady Thatcher — that the book should not appear in her lifetime, and she should not be allowed to read it. That’s really important because that meant people could trust it was the real thing rather than her trying to control it. And I must say that I thought, even with this, she would try to control it, and I’d have some trouble. But, it was amazing, she literally not once tried to keep me from saying anything or get me to say anything. 

In the later years, her mental powers declined, so I was glad I took that chance in the ’90s to do those interviews because in the last 10 years or more, she wasn’t able to give proper interviews.

Q: What were the things that most surprised you or that you didn’t know given that you covered her for most of your career as a journalist?

There were two big things. … One of the most important was the capacity to talk to her sister Muriel. … Muriel was, of course, the best witness to her childhood. And she also had more than 150 letters that Margaret had written her from about 1939 to about 1964, so this is absolutely unparalleled material about her private life. It included all sorts of things like Margaret’s boyfriends before she married Dennis that she had stoutly denied having any. … Her letters are very funny and interesting, and they’re lots about clothes, and they’re not about politics very much. You get this strong impression of this ambitious but quite lonely young woman making her way in the world. 

The other thing was by going through all the papers and talking to so many people I found … was that when she was prime minister, the key to her success wasn’t only her convictions — although they were genuine and were very important — it was also her cunning. You don’t survive at the top politics by just having good ideas. You have to be a tough person, and you have to know when to do something and when not to do something. She was very careful and cautious about making a decision. Once she made a decision, nothing would deflect her from it, but she [was] often indecisive until she had made it.

Q: Although she was very English, there was almost something American about her in her principles and outlook. 

That’s quite right. I think what that is has to do with her religion and background. Her father was a Methodist lay preacher, and she was brought up very strongly with that idea — which I think is stronger in modern American culture than British — which is, if you have a message, you preach it. 

Q: Her personal story — growing up not as part of the upper class but becoming successful — is very American.

It’s rather marvelous that she was born over the grocery shop and died in the Ritz hotel.

The fact that she was the first and only woman is a large theme in my book. We take it for granted now that a woman could do these things, but the odds were really stacked against her. 

Q: Americans think of Thatcher in terms of her relationship with Ronald Reagan. How much does your book go into that?

This is Volume I, so the bulk of this will be in Volume II but there is a lot in Volume I because it’s very important how they met. They met when they were both in opposition, or in the wilderness. She had just become leader of the conservative party in 1975, and he had stopped being governor of California and was trying to get the Republican nomination in 1976, which he failed to get. And they immediately had this rapport based on their shared beliefs. … It shows how times are different, because when he rang her up in 1979, when she won and he was still in the wilderness, the Number 10 Downing Street switchboard wouldn’t put him through because they didn’t think he was important. Luckily she got his message a couple of days later and was thrilled. He won in and became president in 1981. In their first conversation, he said to her, ‘We’ll give strength to one another.’ And she said ‘Yes, we will.’ She was the first Western leader he had to see him in the White House after winning.

Q: Republicans consider Margaret Thatcher one of their heroes.  Did she feel a kinship with the Republican Party? What tied them together?

She did feel a kinship with the Republican Party, but she didn’t feel intensely partisan about that. She felt a kinship with America, basically, rather than just one party and, of course, the Republican Party links are much closer than the Democrats. She was an extremely partisan lady in British politics, but less so in exterior politics.

Q: You talked about the kinship she felt with America and point out in your book that one of her first foreign visits was to the U.S. Can you talk about her relationship with America?

Her relationship with America was fundamentally a romance. What I mean by that is, that I don’t think she knew the United States that well. … She didn’t live there. She didn’t work there. … I think she was in love with the whole idea of it. … When she was a young girl in Grantham when [World War II] broke out … there were a lot of American servicemen stationed there. She had a large sense of the American contribution to the victory, and she used to go to dances with airmen. … She loved American films. … She claimed to love films with Ronald Reagan in them, but I can’t find any evidence that she saw one at the time.

Q: Did you end the book with the victory in the Falklands because that was the peak of her career?

You might not say it was the peak, but it was the breakthrough moment because the odds were so high and against her. If she hadn’t won that, she would have been out.


ABOUT THE BOOK

Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands

By Charles Moore 

Knopf; May 21, 2013

896 pages, $35.00