Thatcher: Anecdotes From a Biographer

Her greatness as a political leader aside, and her penetrating moral critique of socialism and communism (so closely intertwined with that greatness) also aside, Margaret Thatcher was almost infinitely quotable.  On the economic folly she fought so tenaciously: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”  On popularity: “If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.” On productiveness and the charitable instinct: “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” On the hostile press: “If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” And many others, some of the best collected at the U.K. Spectator

If you have time to read only one longer Thatcher article today, you could do worse than this terrific, anecdote-filled 2011 Vanity Fair piece by her biographer Charles Moore. Like so many others, Moore is fascinated by Thatcher’s force of personality, which so often drew adjectives like “steely” and “indomitable.” Thatcher, like Ronald Reagan, was entirely willing to reinvent herself on a personal level more than once, in the “self-made” manner that is often seen as particularly American. Thus as she approached the world stage, she studied how to dress and speak the part, taking lessons (at the suggestion of Sir Laurence Olivier) from the speech coach at the National Theater. 

Pro-intellectual, Thatcher was one of the first to spot the potential of think tanks: 

Her greatest political mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, was almost perfect in her eyes, being intellectual, good-looking, Jewish, and upper-class [four categories she approved of]. … He diagnosed — and blamed himself for — a British postwar disease of socialism, state intervention, debauched currency, weakened incentives, and overly powerful trade unions. The Tories, he declared, had been complicit in all of this… They must devise a new strategy, he said, and he set up a think tank, called the Centre for Policy Studies, to do so. Margaret Thatcher became its vice chairman and his disciple.

Thatcher made many mistakes, but often learned from them and eventually revised her views, as when she concluded that she had been too enthusiastic about the project of European integration: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

“I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end,” Thatcher memorably remarked. And mostly she did, to the benefit of Britain and the world.