Thatcher’s Wars

Jennifer Welsh on the great and costly legacy of Thatcher’s forceful, visionary leadership.

By: /
9 April, 2013
By: Jennifer Welsh
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

The death of Baroness Thatcher, one of Britain’s most influential Prime Ministers of the twentieth century, has re-launched a fierce debate about her impact on her country’s economic, political, and social life. But Margaret Thatcher was more than just a national figure; she also stood out as a key leader of the world’s liberal democracies, which had endured a difficult decade in the 1970s.

It may be hard to remember a time when the United States was a ‘diminished’ power, but so it was after the trauma of the Vietnam War, the economic woes associated with declining wages and price inflation, and the embarrassment of the Iran hostage crisis. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, she combined her forceful nature with vision to offer a style of leadership that had the potential to rehabilitate all liberal democracies – not just her own. The essence of that style, as Henry Kissinger remembers it, was the courage to clearly define a direction for the future and to embed it in the minds of citizens, without succumbing to the temptation to compromise or search for middle ground in order to secure continued victory at the ballot box.

There is a famous episode of the celebrated British satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, in which Prime Minister Thatcher is dining in a restaurant with her cabinet colleagues (all male), who are keen to curry her favour. The waiter arrives to ask Thatcher for her order and she promptly chooses steak for her main dish. The waiter then asks what she might like for the vegetables and she replies dryly: “They’ll have the same as me”.

Prime Minister Thatcher became the epitome of forceful and uncompromising, dominating her political peers and taking on the constituencies in her native Britain that she believed had made her country ungovernable. Her involvement in the various wars that populated her time in government reflected a similar clarity of purpose.

The most significant of these was, of course, the 1982 Falklands War, which by Thatcher’s own admission was the defining period of her prime ministership. She overruled the voices of caution – including many in the Reagan Administration – to pursue a negotiated solution with the Argentinians to the dispute over the islands and sent 38 warships and 11,000 soldiers and marines to the other side of the globe. The 74-day war was Thatcher’s attempt to compensate for the humiliating British defeat at Suez a quarter of a century before and restore the United Kingdom’s image as a world power. But victory also entailed significant costs on both sides, including 400 Argentinian soldiers who lost their lives when Thatcher made the controversial decision to sink the Belgrano (an Argentinian cruiser).

Prime Minister Thatcher was also influential in the decision to confront another perceived act of aggression: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Though this war occurred during the time of her own political unraveling back home, Thatcher pressed then President George H. Bush to heed the lessons of the twentieth century and stand up to aggressors. It was ‘no time to go wobbly’, she reportedly told her American counterpart. Moreover, she was willing to respond to Iraq unilaterally, suggesting to the U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, that United Nations authorization was an unnecessary luxury.

And then there was her own war against terrorism. Prime Minister Thatcher’s uncompromising stance towards the IRA was informed by very personal brushes with acts of terror. Just months before she took office in 1979, her Northern Ireland spokesman, Airey Neave, was murdered by Republicans. She then narrowly escaped assassination herself in the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference (an attack in which five were killed, including two high-profile Conservative party members). Despite this incident, she continued to push for a new ‘deal’ for Ireland, leading in 1985 to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the Irish government in the South direct input into the running of the North. Unfortunately for Thatcher, this overture did not manage to isolate radical Republicans (as she had hoped it would) or to moderate politics in Northern Ireland, and the violence continued. In 1990, her close friend and parliamentary aide Ian Gow – who had worked closely with her on Irish policy – was killed in a car bomb in the driveway of his home.

Thatcher’s experiences with Irish terrorism no doubt affected her more general views on political violence. Her uncompromising disposition sometimes put her on the wrong side of history, as in the case of South Africa. Here, she branded the ANC and an imprisoned Nelson Mandela as ‘terrorists’, offered implicit support for the apartheid state, and resisted international efforts to impose sanctions.

This black and white mentality skewed her reaction to another history-making event: the fall of the Berlin Wall. While other Western leaders had the courage to embrace a new territorial and political reality in the European heartland, and to meet the aspirations of Germans on both sides, Margaret Thatcher was wary about a reunified Germany and actively sought to prevent it. This resistance partially stemmed from her own memories of the Second World War, but also from a fear that a united Germany would somehow forestall Britain’s return to greatness on the world stage.  Thus, while Thatcher is often credited with foresight in her favourable disposition towards Mikhail Gorbachev – seeing him as a man with whom the West could ‘do business’ – she was much less imaginative in seeing how the most visible division caused by the Cold War could be overcome.

Uncompromising. Steadfast. These traits can sometimes be virtuous. But they can also cause leaders to misread the events and trends that will have the longest impact. When I think of the late twentieth century, and its key moments, two images always come to mind: young East and West Berliners in the fall of 1989, hacking holes in the wall that had kept them apart, and Nelson Mandela in February 1990 walking slowly – in the sunshine – in freedom.

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