>Vernon Bogdanor reviews the first volume of Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher, Not for Turning

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning, Charles Moore (Allen Lane, 2013)

In death, as in life, Margaret Thatcher could not escape controversy. Ed Miliband was one of a very small number on the left who saw her reign in proportion, paying dignified tribute while distancing himself from her inheritance.

Yet not even Margaret Thatcher's most severe critic would ever claim that she lacked courage. She certainly showed courage in selecting Charles Moore as her authorised biographer. For Moore, though a brilliant commentator, was totally untried as an author, having never before written a book. As such, it was something of a risk to choose him. The sprinter is not an obvious candidate for the marathon.

Moreover, Moore, although a friend and admirer of Margaret Thatcher, was never, as he puts it, 'part of her '"gang"'. Indeed, he rather disdained the bourgeois triumphalism and philistinism characteristic of many who belonged to the inner circle. Perhaps Margaret Thatcher was far-sighted enough to appreciate that her memory would be better served by a critical appraisal than a hagiography. If so, she was right.

Not for Turning, the first volume of the biography, which takes the story to the end of the Falklands war in 1982, is an outstanding work, beautifully proportioned and highly readable. It makes full use not only of Margaret Thatcher's private papers, and other collections, but also of interviews with her contemporaries, many of whom are now deceased.

But it is very far from being a hagiography. Indeed, it might strike some as too critical, especially in regard to Margaret Thatcher's personal life - in particular, the way she treated her various suitors, including Denis. She is portrayed as self-centred, insensitive to others and manipulative. Perhaps Moore is unduly censorious. How many young women of that era could survive the exposure of letters to their confidante - in Margaret Thatcher's case, to her older sister - describing their romantic relationships? In any case, do we really need to know about her early boyfriends? Some things, surely, should remain private.

Already, however, in the early letters we can see that clarity and sense of realism which were to mark Margaret Thatcher's career. But, in her political life at least, realism did not preclude courtesy and sensitivity towards subordinates. I have never met an official, whether or not he or she shared her political views, who did not remark upon her concern for their wellbeing. She may have had suspicions of the civil service as an institution, but these did not extend to the civil servants who worked for her.

I met Margaret Thatcher only once, at a meeting of academics at Oxford. She is said to have summed up people very rapidly. I suspect that she summed me up immediately as an enemy - a supporter of devolution, a Bill of Rights, and other constitutional monstrosities. I assumed before the meeting that I would find her unpleasant but very able. After it, I thought that both of those judgments were mistaken. No one could have been more courteous amid what she must have sensed to be a hostile audience, but her views seemed commonplace and unsophisticated. It was difficult perhaps to appreciate the tremendous willpower which enabled her to wrench the Conservative party and in due course the country to her way of thinking.

Moore might not perhaps dissent from this judgment. Certainly, there is no nonsense in Not For Turning about Margaret Thatcher being an original thinker or even an intellectual. Moore quotes with approval the judgment of one of her advisers, Sir Alfred Sherman, that she was a person of 'beliefs, not of ideas'. She had powerful instincts - some would say prejudices - formed when young, which she never altered. 'All my ideas about [Britain] were formed before I was seventeen or eighteen,' she said when standing for the Conservative leadership in 1975.

The intellectual underpinning of what came to be called 'Thatcherism' was derived from Keith Joseph, from friendly thinktanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies - set up by Joseph - and Institute of Economic Affairs, and from free-market economists. But her policies owed more to a folk image of the thrifty shopkeeper, to the instincts of 'our people', than to the doctrines of Friedman or Hayek.

It is clear from this biography that, contrary to the view of many on the left - including, I have to say, myself at one time - Margaret Thatcher was not an ideological Conservative. Her strength came not from any worked-out political philosophy but from her understanding - perhaps an instinctive understanding - of British society. She particularly understood the simmering resentment of the self-employed, small businessmen, and those on fixed incomes, people who had no one to protect their interests in the post-war corporatist dispensation. They had looked to the Conservative party to protect them but, under Macmillan and Heath, it had failed to do so. Indeed, the patrician Conservative leaders of the 1950s seemed disdainful of them, even positively to dislike them - although, in a more courteous age, it would never have occurred to a patrician such as Harold Macmillan to call them 'swivel-eyed loons'. Here was a powerful constituency for the new Conservatism. As Nigel Lawson points out in his memoirs, Margaret Thatcher was remarkable among post-war Conservative leaders in that, unlike her predecessors, she positively seemed to like Conservative activists and was sure that they represented a much wider constituency of the disaffected.

But Margaret Thatcher also understood that a new electoral coalition was forming in Britain from elements which had previously formed a part of Labour's natural constituency. She appreciated that there was a new fluidity in British society, that affluence, higher educational standards and homeownership were creating an upwardly mobile society. She registered the growth of an aspirational working class, men and women resentful of the fact that, wherever they turned, the left seemed to want to limit their aspirations.

If they sought to purchase their council house, a local Labour council would forbid it. If they sought better schooling for their children, a local Labour council would direct them to their neighbourhood comprehensive - all too often, in Alastair Campbell's words, 'a bog-standard comprehensive'. If they sought to work longer hours or to improve their efficiency, their trade union would stand in the way. The Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s, in their desperate attempts to preserve a 'social contract' with the trade union leaders, were losing touch with those whom they were supposed to represent. Until Tony Blair, Labour seemed to believe that the working class could only be emancipated collectively, not through individual aspiration. There was, therefore, a gap in the electoral market which Margaret Thatcher skilfully exploited.

What is remarkable is that Margaret Thatcher, who had so little contact with the working class - and indeed, as Moore shows, little contact, once she had left Grantham, even with the self-employed or small shopkeepers - nevertheless understood the problems of the powerless so much better than those on the left, who ought, in theory, to have been their champion.

It was because Labour had forgotten what real people were like that the 1980s turned out to be a third great historic defeat for the British left. The first had been in 1914 when, contrary to the hopes of Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, the working class found a stronger emotional resonance in patriotism than in an abstract internationalism. The second had been in 1931 when voters, responding to the cry of a nation in danger of financial collapse, returned - with the largest majority in British electoral history - a Conservative-dominated National government, dedicated to austerity in the middle of a slump. War and depression were pushing voters to the right, not to the left. In the 1980s, once more, recession put the left on the defensive. Austerity strengthened national feeling while at the same time weakening social solidarity.

The lesson for the left is painfully clear. It will not regain the support of the British people unless it shows that it understands their real needs. In 1914, it failed grievously to grasp the realities of German militarism. In 1931, its internationalism prevented it from seeing that the gold standard was crippling British industry. In the 21st century, some on the left give a greater priority to the European Union than to social democracy, even though the eurozone is pushing member states away from social democracy, not towards it; while the provisions of the Treaty of Rome, signed 56 years ago by six member states, in quite different conditions, make it impossible to control immigration from EU member states, providing a graphic illustration of what the surrender of sovereignty means in practice. Immigration is a cause of concern among many natural Labour voters not because they are 'racist' but because it is a socially disturbing phenomenon for conservative-minded people, and they find it difficult to cope with.

The left will not be successful unless it learns the lesson that Margaret Thatcher imbibed so well, that only the fullest understanding of popular feelings - of society as it is rather than as we would wish it to be - can provide the firm basis for a creative and radical government.

This review first appeared in issue 20.1 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal for rethinking the centre-left.