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. 

Alan Rusbridger 
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’. Thatcher

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 PM Magaret Thatcher outside Somerville College, 1983
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. Computer instruction, TVE1, Cricket Road, Oxford, 1989
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.’Nobel prizewinning crystallographer Prof Dorothy Hodgkin
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

Comments

By Peter Graham La...
on

In my book Oxford was right to deny Thatcher an Honorary degree.
Her legacy in hindsight is reduced to breaking the unions and her part with Reagan ( and Gentscher/Kohl)
In dissolving the Soviet Union. the Falklands resulted rather from the failure if diplomacy, and in Hong Kong
Deng Xiaping brought her down to size. Can we be proud of the Cardboard boxes or even of letting
IRA terrorists starve to death for their convictions? I Think not? PGL

By Ian Seaton
on

I see no evidence of Rushbridger doing any "grilling", and particularly when the article describes his technique as 'avuncular prodding' (whatever that is). But be all that as it may, two facts remain. Oxford's treatment of Thatcher was mean and shabby. Moore's Telegraph and Spectator remain decent newspapers whereas under Rushbridger the Guardian sank into the gutter; let us hope he doesn't have the same effect at LMH, though inviting sundry 'luvvies' into the college doesn't bode well.

By Jeremy Wall
on

I agree with Charles Moore that Oxford was unbelievably petty in refusing her an honorary degree as she was at least the equal, and vastly superior to many, of her Oxford predecessors as PM. I don't deny that she had many failings but she undoubtedly left Britain in a much better state than she found it, as Tony Blair, who could hardly be described as a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, clearly acknowledged. In 1987 I put a map of the UK on the wall of my office in an international development institution in Rome; colleagues asked why? I replied that it was the next developing country; a couple of years later I took the map down, saying that UK was no longer going down the tube.
JGLW, Pembroke, 1956

By Peter Newell
on

The last commentator may perhaps forget the economic legacy inherited by Thatcher: the Winter of Discontent, and Denis Healey going cap in hand to borrow from the IMF. We were in hoc to the unions and bankrupt. Thatcher took radical steps to put the country onto a sound economic footing which she achieved, together with Geoffrey Howe as Chancellor, by the mid 80's. The way she did it was controversial, but the fact that Congregation chose to deny her an honorary degree was an act of pettiness of which this university should be forever ashamed.

By O. Ralph Raymond
on

As was the case as well with Ronald Reagan, her American ideological associate, Margaret Thatcher's political career lead to the coarsening of the quality of life in her country, and to an uncompassionate widening its socio-economic inequality. Whatever positive effects some of her policies may arguably have had on invigorating British economic competitiveness, that could surely have been accomplished in a less morally destructive manner.

I also don't see what credit either Reagan or Thatcher should get for the implosion of the Soviet Union other than chronological coincidence of their terms in office. The Soviet system was deeply flawed internally. Its ideological foundation had become a matter of almost universal disbelief and indifference at home, and its material basis, despite enormous natural wealth, had become sunk in a chronic structural crisis accompanied by productivity underperformance and economic irrationalities of every conceivable kind. By the 'eighties the USSR was like a clock winding down and beyond repair. Arguably Thatcher's one contribution to the peaceful passing of the Soviet Union was to persuade Reagan that Gorbachev could be talked to--and that may have helped make the inevitable collapse of the USSR merely an implosion, rather than an explosion with apocalyptic consequences for Europe and America, and the world generally.

By Colin Yarnley
on

History will, I feel, judge her far less important than she imagined herself. All she achieved was undesirable and unnecessary divisiveness.

By RH Findlay (SEH...
on

Margaret Thatcher's legacy in one word: POVERTY.

1979; 1 in 10 were living below the poverty line. 1993, 1 in 4 were living below the poverty line. Unemployment in 1982 had risen to around 3.2 million and subsequently the Thatcher government "managed" the unemployment figures to ensure that they didn't go higher, although around 5-6 million were out of productive work.

She set in chain the the post-1979 destruction of the modern social democracy that had improved living standards considerably since 1945.The persistent trickling upwards of wealth was her one and only achievement. Her followers, Blair et al. have continued the same destructive approach to society. I fnd it ironic that Jeremy Corbyn, whose policies about such organisations as the NHS remind me of theose supported under under Sir Anthony Eden and Sir Harlod MacMillan, is now called extreme left. How far to right have we moved since 1979; that is the Reagan-Thatcher legacy.

By Robert Horwood
on

As always, discussion of Thatcher morphs into trumpeting of protagonists' own diametrically-opposed ideological positions, with a caricature of Thatcher being used merely as a convenient "-ism". Such dumbing-down is a mockery of serious debate. More importantly, this evanascent posturing - including Oxford's petty-minded and vindictive refusal to confer on her the honorary doctorate her political achievements properly merited - will play no part at all in the evaluation of Thatcher's contribution which comes to be made by future historians.

By Anthony Coleby ...
on

All she achieved was undesirable and unnecessary divisiveness? Goodness knows where we should be today without her. The old union stranglehold had to go, Europe had to be stood up to as well. But she did engender in the 80's an excessive obsession in the young of the time with the amassing of financial wealth, however gained, and we are today still living with the fall out from that. I think she stayed too long and was probably some way past her best by 1987.

By Tom Brown
on

In my last term at Oxford, I got up early on that election day in May 1979 and queued to vote Conservative before heading for lectures at the Taylorian. Apart from the disgrace of seeing trade union pickets attempting to stop deliveries to the Radcliffe Infirmary during the 'Winter of Discontent', what weighed heavily with me in those days was that the Conservative Party was unequivocally pro-Europe while Labour was lukewarm and withdrawalists were gaining the upper hand (leading to Labour promising withdrawal from the EU in the 1983 election). How times have changed! Looking back, I now recognise that 'Thatcherite' economic policies were less politically daring than her fawning admirers now claim; it was Denis Healey as Chancellor who pioneered state sell-offs by disposing of the first tranche of government's BP shareholding in 1978; and Healey introduced cash limits on public spending; the overwhelmingly dominant new factor of UK economic policy was North Sea Oil - this transformed the external position from chronic deficit, balance of payments and currency crises to near balance, turbo-charged the Pound in the second oil price shock, bankrupting many manufacturing companies in the process, and flooded the Treasury with PRT tax revenue, enabling public spending to be more broadly maintained than under Osborne. The privatisation of utilities was made possible by new IT - computer software made it possible to create an electricity trading market and break up/sell off the power sector, and in fact when ideology rather than technological change or genuine international open markets (as in steel) drove privatisations, results were dubious to disastrous (water, Railtrack!). As the 1980s wore on, the nasty, slightly racist and exclusionary tinge of Thatcher's Conservatism with its covert support of apartheid and labelling of Mandela a terrorist, stigmatisation of single mothers, the infamous Clause 28 etc bringing out the unpalatable side. The fall of the Berlin Wall finally exposed the humbug of Thatcher the 'Iron Lady' - and incidentally the siting of Cruise missiles in the UK was agreed by Callaghan with Carter in 1978 - she was against communism, as long as it did not lead to Germany reuniting. Her pathetic attempt to prevent the inevitable, slapped down by Bush Senior, prefigures the ongoing Conservative inability to come to terms with the end of the Cold War: eastern Europeans can be free, as long as they don't move to the UK. I therefore think the long view of her in history will be as a mythical figure, whose actual economic legacy can be largely dismissed but whose social legacy is a deeo fissure in British society which may yet completely destroy the UK as a political state.

By Bill Woods
on

I never cease to be surprised at the vitriolic & indeed adolescent nature of many of the criticisms which are regularly brought up whenever the name of Thatcher comes up and from people who should be capable of more sensible argument. Sadly this is typical of the simplistic nature of most of the debate about major political issues.
The fact is that her governments achieved far more radical changes than others since the Attlee era & there are perfectly credible arguments that on balance they were extremely beneficial. The fact that we had a woman Prime Minister was in itself a very good thing for Britain.
The fact that she was denied the recognition she deserved said far more about Oxford's failings than hers.

By Michael Noakes
on

The range of views so far represented here at least attempts to recognise some of Margaret Thatcher's signal achievements rather than merely parrot the prevailing left wing luvvie diatribe. However, have her detractors really forgotten just how dire conditions were in this country as the 1970's wore on? Do critics truly imagine that the then "Sick Man of Europe" would have been cured by more trade union meddling, more weak and inept government which accepted constant striking and shutdowns and a strident chorus demanding the legal protection of so called "rights". The country was fast becoming a basket case and most people knew it at the time which is why at the 1979 election the choice was so stark and the innate good sense of the British people chose a course of real change. Seismic upheaval inevitably causes some distress and so it was to be into the 1980's in order to achieve an economic revival the benefits of which are still to be seen today. None of the social programmes much beloved of the left would have been possible without a sound economy and this foundation was the result of Margaret Thatcher's single mindedness.We owe her a great deal.
Oxford's petty refusal to grant her an honorary doctorate was infantile and reflected badly on a world class university.

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