When Margaret Thatcher met Ronald Reagan in April 1975, neither was in their first flush of youth. She was 50 and he 65. She was the leader of Britain’s opposition; he a former governor of California. It was by no means obvious that either would win power. They bonded instantly.
Although born almost a generation and an ocean and continent apart, they found they were completing each other’s sentences. Both instinctive politicians rather than taught ideologues, they discovered they had both found validation for their convictions in the works of Friedrich Hayek, at that time a long-forgotten theorist even among conservatives.
From that sure beginning began a working partnership, or political marriage, that solidified the alliance between the United States and Britain at a crucial time when the Soviet Union was facing collapse and the democratic forces in Eastern Europe were pressing to be freed. There have been other Anglo-American alliances. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill eventually became friends, though FDR never let the English bulldog forget that America had overtaken Britain as the world’s most powerful nation and that Churchill was a supplicant.
President Bill Clinton, then President George W. Bush, became Tony Blair’s best friend, but the relationships were at best that of elder to younger brother, or in the case of Blair-Bush more like man and spaniel.
In the case of Reagan and Thatcher, however, the friendship was between equals and as a result America was more powerfully and directly influenced by a foreign leader than any since the founding of the republic.
The bond was not merely personal – though that proved to be the glue that allowed the partnership to survive profound disagreements, including America’s initial foot-dragging over helping Britain recover the Falkland Islands from the invading Argentines and the almost comic American invasion of Grenada, a member of the British Commonwealth. The alliance was above all ideological. Both believed conservatives had given too much ground to liberals and socialists and both determined to roll back the frontiers of the state.
In that Thatcher was more successful than Reagan, though she had more ground to cover. By the time she became prime minister, in 1979, Britain had lived for 40 years under the wartime then postwar bipartisan consensus that established a cradle-to-grave welfare state and a mixed economy with a large state sector. It is hard to believe today that until Thatcher arrived in Downing Street, British coal mines, steel mills, railways, road freight transport, telephones and communications, a large stake in British Petroleum (BP), even British Airways were in public ownership.
The Reagan-Thatcher friendship was also strategic. In international summits they worked together as a bulwark against the interventionist ideas of their European partners, who dismissed their free-market notions as “Anglo-Saxon economics.”
But it was in their shared attitude towards the already crumbling Soviet Union that their joint efforts bore most fruit. There have been a lot of extravagant claims about the role Thatcher and Reagan played in the demise of Soviet communism, which downplay the heroic acts of defiance by leaders on the front line such as Lech Walesa in Poland. They also overlook the brave opponents of Russian rule to be found over the years in Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere – as well as the myriad humble refuseniks who risked their lives escaping over barbed wire and booby-trapped borders.
Pope John Paul II, “the Polish pope,” also played a significant part in hastening the collapse of the rotten and corrupt Soviet system. By the time Reagan declared in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the Soviet Union was already defunct.
But Reagan and Thatcher played a prominent role in easing Mikhail Gorbachev’s path in leading the Russian people out of serfdom. The end of 70 years of brutal communism would not have been as easy and obvious as it turned out had it not been for the friendly welcome Reagan and Thatcher, together and separately, offered to a tired and traumatized regime uncertain of which way to proceed. They offered encouraging words to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain and showed by example that state ownership was no substitute for the free market. In privatization, Thatcher offered a means to free-market forces.
They ensured that the awkward transformation out of communism was, for the most part, peaceful and ordered and was achieved without a shot being fired. As Thatcher said in her eulogy for Reagan at Washington Cathedral, “When a man of good will [Gorbachev] did emerge from the ruins, President Reagan stepped forward to shake his hand and offer sincere cooperation.”
The rapport between the two leaders was spontaneous and sincere. This was not the pragmatic, patrician Roosevelt/Churchill alliance, but one based on small courtesies and kind gestures. Both were isolated figures within their own administrations: She because she was a woman who had scaled the male bastion of the still overwhelmingly male dominated Conservative Party, he because he was so much older than everyone else around him.
They clung to each other in moments of crisis. From the earliest days they exchanged birthday and wedding anniversary greetings, jotting personal best wishes in the margins of official documents. They never forgot that there was frail flesh and blood behind the confident public image.
Like all marriages, they were so close they would often take each other for granted. But in moments of high tension or intense political pressure, they offered each other unwavering support. In the midst of the Iran-Contra scandal, Thatcher dropped a reassuring line to Reagan, reminding him “there is important work to be done and that you are going to do it. …If you would like to talk … call me.”
Both endured long and lingering demises that allowed assessments of their achievements to be both premature and hasty. Looking at those who stand on their shoulders, it is hard not to conclude that, for all their faults, they were in a different league. Each has been unfairly judged, dismissed because their policies were bold and seemingly uncompromising.
In fact both were eager to find common ground where it existed. Both were driven by conviction rather than polling. Both served to change the economic and social welfare policies of their opponents, Clinton and Blair.
Both were, despite their extreme positions, above all likeable, at least to their followers, and able to attract not just support but devotion. In her homage to Reagan, delivered on videotape at his funeral in Washington Cathedral, Thatcher offered a testament that could apply to them both. “Ronald Reagan knew his own mind. He had firm principles and I believe right ones. He expounded them clearly. He acted upon them decisively.” It is a lesson that conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to grasp.
Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist.