Margaret Thatcher : Harris’s biography sheds light on what made her tick

Friends were surprised when they heard I was reading a Margaret Thatcher biography. But for readers of my generation, Margaret Thatcher is an iconic figure. Selected as the Conservative candidate for Finchley in 1958, the next twenty years saw her stature grow. In 1979 following the Conservatives’ election victory she became the first woman British Prime Minister.

In common with many women who break through the glass ceiling, Thatcher believed in succeeding through merit. She thought other women could achieve what she had through hard work, persistence and sheer determination.

Her life story — particularly her public life — is well known and there are few surprises in Robin Harris’s well-researched and documented Margaret Thatcher biography.

Harris works through Thatcher’s early life in Grantham explaining the influence of her father, the role religion played in the household, her early years in the Conservative party.

Period as Prime Minister

The events of her period as Prime Minister are then covered in detail with some illuminating insights into her leadership and thinking for example, her views on war as evidenced during the Falklands crisis.

Harris worked closely with Thatcher from 1985. He drafted speeches and advised on policy.  Consequently, he brings insider insights to this biography. His research is meticulous and the chapters in Not for Turning are richly annotated. He provides an extensive bibliography with interesting observations on the sources referenced.

Sympathetic but not blind to Thatcher’s faults, it is Harris’s insights into her personal traits that I found most interesting. For example, women readers particularly may be struck by her preoccupation with the ordinary challenges of managing family relationships — including the financial troubles of her adult children — general financial worries, health issues, concerns about her husband and so on. Likewise her struggle to keep her weight under control which saw her choose to drink whiskey and soda because it has fewer calories than her preferred gin and tonic.

Late career

However, it Harris’s insights into the latter part of Thatcher’s career that are perhaps the most interesting. The facts from the period are perhaps less well known. He discusses the years after she left office and her subsequent declining health. I was particularly interested in his take on Thatcher’s regard for Tony Blair and her apparent sympathy for the controversial General Pinochet.

Harris’s treatment of Thatcher’s decline — her health issues and the indignities of age — is sensitive and empathetic.

At the outset of the book, Harris explains that his objective in writing Not for Turning was to describe what Margaret Thatcher was like. He sought to explain what she was trying to do and why and to assess the consequences. In my view, he has achieved this.

Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher by Robin Harris is published by St Martin’s Press. ISBN 9781250047151. [Disclosure: An Advance Reader’s Copy was provided by Netgalley].