Margaret Thatcher: Retired, but Far from Retiring

Margaret Thatcher embarked on 1989 at the height of her political authority at home and abroad. She was the recipient of Ronald Reagan’s last message as president, as she had been his last official visitor in November 1988. That visit had been a nostalgic celebration of their joint stewardship of the Anglo-American special relationship. She was the guest of honour at dinners given by Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush and at a farewell lunch given by Secretary of State George Shultz. As a former Thatcher aide living in Washington, I was invited to the last of those occasions, which was bathed in an atmosphere of warm affection. She and Shultz had generally been on the same side in diplomatic rows and even inter-agency disputes within the administration—and to amused applause he gave her a large expensive handbag as a parting gift.

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Most observers assumed that the British Prime Minister would continue to enjoy the same warm personal and political alliance with the first President Bush. They had been friends during the previous eight years, liked each other, and were on the same broad ideological wavelength. But the expectation of another Anglo-American partnership unravelled quite quickly.

Bush spent early 1989 conducting a review of foreign policy. The first smoke signals from it suggested that the Bush administration would be tougher than Reagan on the Soviets. That might have helped Thatcher, who since Reykjavik had worried that US policy was dangerously flexible on nuclear weapons. Soon, however, a different mood music began to be heard: the Brits were too obstructive not only on NATO but also on European integration; Germany was the leading economic power in Europe and US policy should reflect that; and Thatcher, though admirably brave and principled, could sometimes be rigid and preachy; and not least, Kohl, a loyal ally, needed NATO’s help to stay in office on the issue of medium- and short-range nuclear weapons in Europe, which Germans feared might one day be landing on both sides of their East-West border.

As Charles Moore makes clear in the third volume of his superb biography of Thatcher, it also became clear by degrees that though Bush liked Thatcher, he wasn’t comfortable or easy with her. He was too much the gentleman to say so. But his aides were not averse to taking her down a peg.

In the usual crabwise diplomatic dance, therefore, the Bush administration gradually swerved to support Kohl over Thatcher. At the NATO summit it was decided that nuclear negotiations would cover medium-range missiles and not completely rule out covering short-range ones in time. It was seen in the media and elsewhere as an unambiguous defeat for Thatcher. That judgment is confirmed by Moore, who quotes Thatcher’s diplomatic alter ego, Charles Powell, as saying, “Once Bush turned to Germany, that was the end of it all.”

To that Moore adds: “He meant it was the end of the Anglo-American dominance in international affairs which she and Reagan had achieved and which, she believed, had brought victory in the Cold War.” There is a great deal of truth in that. The later drift of her premiership seemed to be downwards.

Her two main problems were “Europe” and the UK economy. In September 1988 Jacques Delors, the EU Commission’s energetic president, had urged British trade unions to challenge her economic and social reforms by using the regulatory mechanisms of the single market she had championed. She responded twelve days later in a speech in Bruges by declaring that she hadn’t brought market freedoms to Britain only to see them reversed by Brussels. The Bruges speech ignited a debate within the Tory party that won her strong support from ordinary party members but also pitted many of her most senior colleagues against her on the single biggest issue in UK politics.

The UK economy suffered a return of inflation that Chancellor Nigel Lawson sought to restrain by putting the pound into the EU’s Exchange Realignment Mechanism (a sort of anteroom to the euro). He was joined in his campaign by her Europhile Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, and for two years both men pressed hard on Thatcher to do so. She lost both of them—Lawson resigned in late 1989, Howe the next year—through her resistance. And the difficulties caused by the inflation, the measures to restrain it, and the dispute over joining the ERM all weakened the government. By late 1989 the seeds had been sown that would lead to her failure to win the 1990 Tory leadership election and her resignation.

Powell, who was both a great public servant and, together with his wife Carla, a devoted and attentive friend to Lady Thatcher to the day of her death, had written a prescient personal letter to her on the morrow of the 1987 election suggesting that she should retire while she was at the height of her success. The letter became public only years later. But it has shaped the conventional wisdom, namely that she stayed on too long and her reputation has suffered as a result.

It’s a more than arguable view, but does it do justice to the achievements of her final two years (in which Powell played a distinguished part) and of events beyond that? Her most unknown achievement was her shepherding of South Africa out of apartheid and into democracy without the bloodbath that many thought would inevitably accompany that transition. From the mid-1980s she had waged a vigorous diplomatic engagement with the South African government. But she lacked a South African Gorbachev until February 1989, when F.W. de Klerk became President. She helped him persuade the white electorate to accept freedom for Nelson Mandela and a multi-racial democracy. We now have all the details of that diplomacy thanks to Moore’s comprehensive biography, the book describing it by her ambassador to Pretoria, Robin Renwick, and the testimony of Mandela and de Klerk.

Her greater achievement was her role in ending communism, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her reactions to the event, however, are more controversial. Her first response was simple delight that people across Central and Eastern Europe had recovered their freedom. Her second was a nervous anxiety that the reunification of Germany risked both making Germany too powerful and undermining Gorbachev’s position, perhaps even reversing his perestroika and glasnost reforms in the Soviet Union. Her third response was to reject the argument that the reunification of Germany should be accompanied by a rapid progress towards the political unity of Europe, since that would strengthen rather than restrain German power. She also questioned why the restoration of liberty and independence to Central and Eastern Europe was a problem that had to be remedied by the surrender of sovereignty to Brussels by all Europe’s democracies.

As she admits in her memoirs, her German policy met with unambiguous defeat. As with the earlier NATO decision on nuclear weapons, Bush gradually moved to support Kohl on German reunification. And when Bush moved, Thatcher’s allies in high places, notably Mitterrand, left her side one by one. But though her anxieties over German reunification were driven by a visceral dislike of Germany, her arguments were far-sighted. In particular there was a real possibility that Gorbachev might be overthrown if it seemed that the USSR’s strategic position was being undermined. The 1991 Soviet counter-coup demonstrated the reality of that, but significantly that occurred so late as to make its failure almost inevitable. And when it came, Thatcher helped ensure the survival of post-Soviet democracy.

She lost office in the dying days of 1990, having received the decisive blow at the Paris Conference that ratified the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War, and her own world-historical status. She then went into a deep depression. Friends and colleagues rallied round to help. They arranged a private office, a business manager and team of talented advisers, accommodation in Westminster, and a crowded social diary. But no one could provide her with what she really needed: the challenge of serious political activity that counted for something.

In August 1991 she got it. Soviet hardliners imprisoned Gorbachev in his Crimean villa, announced a state of emergency on television, sent tanks and troops into Moscow, made some arrests, and planned to attack the Russian Parliament, where Boris Yeltsin had repaired to lead the resistance. Western governments initially dithered, some assuming the coup would succeed. President Mitterrand referred to Yanaev as the “new leader” of the Soviet Union on television; Helmut Kohl said merely that he hoped the Soviet Union would respect the agreements made by Gorbachev; others disappeared into meetings. Thatcher happened to be meeting with Galina Starovoitova, a former spokesman for Yeltsin, and learning she had his mobile number, rang him up on the barricades. He answered the call, and asked her to help. She immediately stepped onto the street outside her office and told the world via television that “we shouldn’t necessarily assume the coup would succeed” because the “young people were no longer servile” and “people power could prevail”.

In short order the coup collapsed, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, Yeltsin took charge, the Soviet Union was constitutionally buried, and it was replaced by independent republics including a sovereign Russia governed by Yeltsin. Bush and John Major had been irritated by Thatcher’s intervention, but Yeltsin was “thrilled” by it; and Thatcher was reinvigorated, going on to write her memoirs and to remain a powerful presence in British politics for another decade.

Britain crashed out of the ERM a year later, effectively dooming any chance of Britain joining the euro, and justifying her earlier resistance to it. From the grave she won the internal British debate over EU membership when the country voted for Brexit in one referendum and two elections. And it’s becoming clearer daily—see the decision of the German constitutional court that challenges the EU’s legal supremacy—that Euro-integration is not solving the problem of German power but making it more problematic for both Germany and the EU.

Would those things have happened as they did if Thatcher had retired in 1987? Or would they rather have been tackled earlier if she had remained in office after November 1990? Over to the counter-factual historians.

7 thoughts on “Margaret Thatcher: Retired, but Far from Retiring

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    I was interested in foreign politics but not deeply yet I knew that what Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev achieved in the late eighties was what gave us the widespread peace that allowed the three decades of economic success since. No leadership since has come close to providing the security that was achieved by those three. It took Trump to regain American leadership after the wimpish attempts by the Bushes, Clinton and that completely useless Obama. For all his faults President Putin is a known quantity and is a strong leader. The UK is yet to see a new Thatcher although Boris has some of the right policies while implementation remains some distance off. Apart from Putin who apparently has his government firmly under control, both Trump and Johnson are bedevilled by termites within who are more interested in their own legacies rather than the betterment of their respective countries. We can only hope that Trump triumphs in November for a loss will return us to the uncertain days of the Cold War, a war won by Thatcher and Reagan with a lot of help from Gorbachev.

  • Warty says:

    Considered as a whole, Margaret Thatcher was one of those once in a generation figures that Britain keeps on producing at times of greatest need, and for that I had the deepest admiration for the woman who was ‘not for turning’. My heart ached for her when she was betrayed by so many in her own cabinet, and there was that about her that caused me to regard her, perhaps naively, as more than just a politician.
    Yet she lived at a time when much of Europe, America and indeed Australia, knew little beyond the accepted narrative about South Africa. Britain has form when it comes to using blunt instruments with regards to Southern Africa, South Africa in particular. For Thatcher to be expected to go beyond firstly, the accepted anti colonial narrative, and secondly the equally limited understanding of her relevant advisors, can perhaps be excused.
    Can one really be overly critical when white South Africans themselves were, and still are deeply divided about what may have been, and what may be best for their country as a whole. A good many of these whites were persuaded to accept de Klerk’s push for a 1994 General Election, on the promise that they’d be accepted back into the international sporting community if they did; in a country where rugby and cricket were pretty much considered a religion.
    Avoiding a blood bath at the time made a lot of sense, as it cannot have furthered national interest; but I’d argue that it only delayed the blood bath more than like to break out, in the not too distant future, through corruption, mismanagement of the economy and growing starvation resulting from a hard corona virus lockdown (added to, you can guess: corruption, mismanagement of the economy . . . ).
    Cape Coloureds, many in the Indian community, Afrikaners and even a small minority of white liberals are either working towards self-determination (actually constitutionally permissible in the pre-election constitution drawn up in 1992) when there is majority of any particular ethnic group in a given area (the Western Cape for instance). Yet a significant number of civil defence groups have been training for the worst, this not only because of the rapid deterioration of the economy, but on the back of an appalling number of farm murders, which the Marxist ANC government refuses to acknowledge.

  • PT says:

    Warty, at the time Thatcher was heavily criticised by the left for being “pro-South Africa”! It was said this was due to her husband having extensive business links there (true), and doubtless as she was “racist”!

    I find a lot of Africaaners are still making the “Great Trek” or fighting the Boer War (these are their foundational myths, so I suppose it makes sense), and are obsessed with Britain, and imagine their fate is some sinister British plot! The truth is that the establishment of independent black states in Africa, which the Superpowers courted, and the general reaction against any form of racism in the wake of Nazi Germany, coupled with the forced end of the Jim Crow laws in the US meant Apartheid was on borrowed time. Whilst the Cold War lasted there were pragmatic reasons to tacitly back Pretoria: SA was the source of some strategic materials vital to advanced US weaponry; as well as the ANCs communist links and communist regimes in Angola and Mozambique. But with the end of the Cold War (starting with the INF Treaty) policy makers in Washington no longer had to think on this, or at least imagined they didn’t. The intelligentsia wanted Apartheid ended (although were much more sanguine about brutal dictatorships elsewhere in Africa); Asian as well as African states would throw the place in the faces of European Governments. And the country had been in a state of Emergency since 1985!

    And that’s the point. SA was under stress; the West didn’t really want to know anything other than the “accepted narrative”, in part to “prove” to states (particularly in Asia) that they saw them as equals, and to not be seen as racist at home! Thatcher used to argue against economic sanctions against SA saying it would “hurt the people they’re trying to help”, which was widely sneered at. Without geopolitical necessity to source rare minerals and face down communist expansion in Southern Africa, it was untenable politically to oppose actions that put unbearable pressure on the regime.

  • Warty says:

    I agree with most of your argument, particularly the indication that the times were against the pre 1994 regime in SA. In this day and age such a regime could not exist (unless it were black, which is why nobody makes much a fuss about Ramaphosa and the ANC.
    As pointed out above, I don’t for a moment point any finger of blame at Margaret Thatcher herself, though there were those amongst the Conservatives, including Edward Heath, who detested the Afrikaners with almost the degree of vehemence it was reciprocated.
    The problem with the history of the Boer War is that it was written by the victors, much in the same way the Ancient Greeks vilified the Persians. Being brought up in Rhodesia, I was considered a Rooinek, i.e. one so lily white I might easily be burnt by the sun (despite being brought up under the same sun as my Afrikaner fellow country men). Both sides remembered the Jameson raid, and the BSA police role in the Boer War, some fifty or so years later. Our own bush war changed all of that, as did the South West Africa and Angolan war for the South Africans, where both groups fought side by side in a life or death struggle, against Zanla and Zipra (in Rhodesia) and the communist ‘freedom fighters’ supported by both Cuba and Russia, in the South African border war.
    Fifty, sixty or even seventy years is nothing when compared to the animosities that remained after the battle of Kosovo, back in 1448. Our memories still live (as do theirs, I gather).
    You nevertheless are well informed about Southern African politics.

  • Warty says:

    My apologies: the comment immediately above was directed towards PT.

  • john.singer says:

    Amazing how the Left’s hate list is still headed by Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and John Kerr. Is this a product of the modern University’s corsetting of scholarship?

  • Warty says:

    The only qualification I might add is that I’d head your list with Donald Trump, and I would also add the once conservative, Greg Sheridan, to those on the left. His virulent attacks on Trump leave me wondering about the company he now keeps (he was once a good friend of Tony Abbott).

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