Margaret Thatcher was denied the honorary degree that tradition dictated - all of her Oxford-educated predecessors, from Clement Attlee to Edward Heath had been awarded one. Alan Rusbridger talks to her biographer Charles Moore about reappraising her legacy.
LMH Principal Alan Rusbridger grills Charles Moore, former Telegraph editor
By Olivia Gordon
In his Conversations series at Lady Margaret Hall, the new Principal Alan Rusbridger is using his journalistic expertise to interview some intriguing guests. Most recently, the journalist Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, came to discuss his three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher (Somerville, 1943). Moore read English and History at Cambridge but has a personal connection with LMH – his cousin, grandmother and great-grandmother all attended.
As Rusbridger noted right away, Moore and he were ‘rivals’ when each edited The Telegraph and The Guardian respectively and, with the newspapers’ diametrically opposed political stances, ‘there was not much we agreed about’.
Rusbridger gently prodded Moore about Thatcher’s unpopular legacy. Moore acknowledged that she has been accused of ‘disastrous policies’ – the forthcoming final volume of his biography, he said, will sift through the social changes that she made – and he agreed: ‘there were things that were seriously wrong’. However, Moore defended Thatcherite unemployment (‘an inevitable consequence of an ailing industrial society’) and the poll tax (‘she wanted a fairer system of local government finance’ though it turned out ‘absolutely disastrous’). Moore asked, ‘Would people go back to any of the things they attack her for getting rid of?’
‘Yes! Yes!’ heckled a few in the audience. Really?, queried Moore. Were nationalisation, not being allowed to buy council houses, and enormous trade union power that good? ‘It’s not for me to write about communities in Yorkshire,’ he added – his role as her biographer is to focus on Thatcher’s perspective. He reflected: ‘Very profound feelings were stirred up about dividing the country – personally I’d maintain she had no choice’ because Scargill was so ‘all or nothing’.
Dapper in a red tie, and a succinct interviewee as only a journalist knows how to be, Moore defended Thatcher graciously, and Rusbridger shone as an interviewer, managing the audience’s questions with avuncular authority.
A protest over a visit by Thatcher outside Somerville College, 1983
Moore is Thatcher’s authorised biographer and her conditions were that the books would be published after she died, and that Moore is exempt from the usual 30-year rule restricting access to a public figure’s papers, so long as he submits his drafts to the Cabinet Office, who are reasonable, Moore said, only taking out the odd secret affecting national security.
Moore described Thatcher as a ‘very unusual woman’ who insisted on touring Pearl Harbour in the night using a torch she kept in her handbag, and who once took him aside at a party and said: 'You know what the trouble with Helmut Kohl is? He’s a German!' Although she knew Gorbachev was secretly funding the miners’ strike, ‘they enjoyed each other’s company’, Moore said.
Schoolchildren learning computer skills in Oxford, 1989
Today, he added, ‘everything is different because of her.’ Privatisation, for example – ‘she was the first one to do it – then almost every country in the world took it up’. She also got rid of the 1970s prices and incomes policy which, Moore said, ‘now no-one does except North Korea’. What would she have thought about leaving the EU? ‘I don’t know,’ Moore said, ‘but her views changed from being a supporter of the European Economic Community to becoming alarmed at the danger of creating the Euro and privately in favour of leaving’.
‘Why did her colleagues hate her?’ asks one audience member. Some thought her pretty, and called her a ‘brave girl’, Moore explained, but many Tories did not like being ordered by a woman. Also, ‘she had no sense of hierarchy and treated the message boy better than the Chancellor of the Exchequer’ - much to the embarrassment of senior officials.
Rusbridger wondered how hurt Thatcher was when Oxford, her alma mater, refused her an honorary degree. ‘It was one of the most unbelievably petty acts in human history,’ said Moore. When it was debated at The Sheldonian, he said, no one spoke up for her. ‘She loved Oxford and felt a great gratitude. She’d made it – and still these people wouldn’t honour her.’
Thatcher with her tutor at Somerville, Nobel prizewinning crystallographer Prof Dorothy Hodgkin
Thatcher’s biggest regret, Moore feels, was the fear that she had ‘failed as a mother’. Like many working mothers, he said, she beat herself up more than anyone else.
Was she a drunkard? No, said Moore, though ‘she did drink too much whisky in the evening’ after being thrown out of office, and suffering with toothache. Her husband Denis, ‘though not a drunkard, was often a bit drunk and slumped over a table’.
Interestingly, Thatcher ‘couldn’t care less’ about the biography Moore was researching about her. Unlike male politicians, Moore reasoned, ‘who want to tell you anecdotes all day about how they’ve screwed their colleagues’, Thatcher, although egotistical, had no such vanity. ‘She thought: “I’ve done it, and someone else can write about it”.’ As a result, Charles Moore has been fortunate to have a free run – and could entertain the audience with his frank but sympathetic take on this most famous of Oxford alumnae.
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All images © Oxford University Images, Olivia Gordon