No transatlantic alliance since has held a candle to the potent symbolism of Reagan-Thatcher
In America, we didn’t know about the miners’ strike, and I suspect that if we had, we might not have cared. We were mystified by the poll tax riots. We were bemused by the Falklands war – where are the Falklands, anyway? – and lukewarm about Britain’s fights with Europe. We like the idea of Europe, after all; we are in favour of having European allies, as we call them, and we are under the impression that Britain is one of them. So why shouldn’t you all just get along?
I am simplifying here, but only somewhat, because the American view of Margaret Thatcher is simplistic – but, I would argue, in the best possible sense. Without knowing the ins and outs of British politics, without really understanding the dynamic that brought her to power in the first place, without fully comprehending or, frankly, even caring about the nuances of her domestic agenda, many Americans appreciated her value as a symbol.
In American eyes, or at least in the eyes of those on the centre and centre-Right, she represented a set of ideals: freedom, anti-communism and the transatlantic alliance. She stood by Ronald Reagan in his battle against the Evil Empire. She used the same language as he did – free markets, free people – and entered into a unique public partnership with him. There has been nothing like it since: Clinton-Blair, Blair-Bush, Obama-Cameron, none of them endorsed one another with the same mutual enthusiasm. They saw one another’s flaws and they differed on small and large issues – as is normal between politicians of very different countries – and in public, these differences sometimes did (and still do) show.
But Thatcher-Reagan was possible because they both understood the value of political symbolism, and each saw how useful that quality could be in the other. If Reagan wanted to pull away from whatever domestic mistakes and scandals absorbed him, he could appear with Thatcher on a podium. If Thatcher wanted to enhance her status on the world stage and escape Arthur Scargill, she could appear with Reagan at the White House.
And it worked, up to a point. Inside their own countries, many laughed at their relationship. A poster, popular in American college dormitories in the late Eighties, showed Reagan and Thatcher as Rhett and Scarlett in a Gone With the Wind embrace – with a mushroom cloud in the background. “She promised to follow him to the end of the earth,” the slogan said, “and he promised to organise it.” Even their domestic political allies knew that it’s not enough to favour “freedom” if you want to craft a balanced budget or write an intelligent tax law. Some of the language that worked well for both of them on the world stage sounded silly or grandiose at home.
One policy that led to more than 50 companies being sold or privatised 08 Apr 2013
But outside of Britain and America – and outside of Western Europe – their partnership had enormous force. All across communist Europe, and even in the Soviet Union, they came to represent a set of very real and very clear ideals. When Reagan lit candles in the White House windows in honour of the Polish Solidarity movement, eyes rolled in Washington. But in Warsaw, people took heart. When Thatcher arrived in Gdansk in 1988, dressed in Tsarina boots, a full-length fur coat and a fur hat, ready to meet Lech Walesa, everyone thought something important would soon happen – and it did. Not accidentally, the most successful nations in what used to be called Eastern Europe are the ones that most admired the old Thatcher-Reagan agenda: Poland, Czechoslovakia and Estonia have all been led at various times in the past two decades by politicians who would describe themselves as “Thatcherite”.
Can the British appreciate this side of Margaret Thatcher? Probably not fully: you remember her mistakes, her errors and her arrogance all too well. But Americans can, and do, remember what she stood for on the world stage, and that is a part of her legacy too.