Margaret Thatcher understood that the Special Relationship is special only as long as it's convenient
By Tim StanleyWorldLast updated: December 28th, 2012
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Close but not quite in love – Thatcher understood that ideals and self-interest can conflict
The more you learn about the “real” Margaret Thatcher, the more you have to admire her. As the years pass and the bitter taste of her domestic policies recedes, we’re left with a woman who did her damndest to make Britain great again – whether we liked it or not. The latest slew of documents released by the National Archives reveals her bludgeoning world leaders into backing her effort to liberate the Falkland Islands in 1982. She dashed off letters to them from her desk at Number 10 like the clichéd “angry of Tunbridge Wells.” “No, Mr Mitterand – you will not sell missiles to the Argentine!” “No, Mr Reagan, you will not tell the enemy about our battle plans!” More power to your elbow, Mrs T!
We learn some very interesting things about the realities of foreign relations. In the middle of the revived Cold War, Britain was supposed by at the centre of an alliance between the USA and the Catholic Church – united by their opposition to godless communism. Yet Thatcher quickly discovered that national interest could easily conflict with ideological imperative. America wanted a cease-fire because it was worried that by openly supporting a former colonial power it might alienate its allies in the developing world (message to Mr Reagan: those allies weren’t worth having. The Argentine dictatorship was as bloody as it was incompetent). The Vatican wanted a cease-fire because it always wants a cease-fire – war is a sin. And so Mrs Thatcher, who had done so much to bolster Britain’s alliance with the President and the Pope, found herself having to send out letters explaining why they were both wrong about something so vital to Britain’s interests.
The takeaway is that the Special Relationship between Britain and America remains special only so long as it is convenient. There’s been a tendency on the UK Right in recent years to imagine that our two nations are one country split by a misunderstanding in the 18th century, that we are philosophical twins. In fact, our different histories have left us with different strategic interests that can, and do, conflict. America was often an obtrusive critic in our handling of the former colonies, humiliating us over Suez and irritating us over the Falklands. Sometimes the relationship stretched to breaking point (if only we’d known how much Richard Nixon disliked Edward Heath, the British might have learned to love him). The better Prime Ministers were often forced to send off the kind of letters Mrs Thatcher wrote, explaining why the President is wrong and why he needs to get with the programme. We cannot skip through the haze of the Special Relationship like young lovers, blind to each other’s faults. Alas, whenever David Cameron takes a romantic break in Washington DC, it’s truly love that we see in his eyes as he hangs on Barack’s every word. Some of us will never forgive him for describing the UK as America’s “junior partner” during the Second World War. Given how much an Eton education costs, you’d have imagined that Dave would’ve paid a little more attention in history class.
By contrast, Thatcher was different because she combined a commitment to trans-Atlantic ideals with a commitment to British self-interest. Her relationship with Reagan was anything but a love-in (she was furious about Grenada and described American behaviour as "worse than the Soviets"), and while they shared a vision of the world they often argued over the detail. When Mrs T finally passes away (and I have a feeling that she’ll outlive me), it’s hopefully that kind of non-partisan, level-headed leadership that she’ll be best remembered for. As a figure, she’s often divided. But she remains definitively and deliciously British. After hearing rumours of her death on Twitter, who else would have the wit and grace to say, “I think the corpse would like another gin and tonic”?
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