Thatcher and Benn were both born in 1925 into separate strata of the class system, and ended up on opposite sides of post-war politics. On the right and the left, they each achieved an enduring political legacy, which ensures these contrasting volumes should avoid the remainder shop of doom, where most politicians end up. Charles Moore’s official guide to the grocer’s daughter from Grantham is a masterpiece of biography; sympathetic yet revealing about her failures, foibles and triumphs. His account of the Falklands War is like a labyrinthine thriller: the US diplomatic manoeuvring, the hapless chicanery of the Argentinian junta and the internal cabinet divisions, all going on while British troops wanted to prosecute a war before winter arrived in the South Atlantic.
Her failings included a lack of strategic vision and abysmal man-management – it was always men – that ultimately led to her downfall. She also had no discernible sense of humour and needed the jokes in her speeches to be explained. Thatcher cut a lonely figure early on, surrounded by patrician Tory Wets, but was sustained by a coterie of admirers and the blimpish, boozy Denis Thatcher. This curious cast of true believers makes for a surprisingly funny biography, especially the footnote revealing the amorous efforts of one of the PM’s fans.
Following Thatcher’s death, Tony Benn writes with admiration from across the political divide in The Last Diaries, describing her as a “signpost not a weather vane”. The former Viscount Stansgate comes across as a steadfast figure himself: marching against war in his eighties, attending picket lines and railing against Tony Blair. As his health fails, his powers as a diarist wane a little: Hazel Blears didn’t actually go on TV with “a large mock-up of a cheque” to announce she was paying back her expenses, although it’s a pleasingly surreal image. Amidst the name-dropping (Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Natasha Kaplinsky) his curiosity about ordinary lives shines through. And while his arguments may have been defeated at the ballot box, Benn’s career is not the forgettable failure of so many politicians. His volumes of diaries will be read, studied and enjoyed for many years to come.