Margaret Thatcher’s long twilight has come to an end and most Americans will view her through the lens of her ties to Ronald Reagan. After all, the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is probably the best known and most revered tie between an American president and a foreign leader. That’s if you don’t count Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Anglo-American ties have been called “the special relationship” and the personal bond between the Gipper and the Iron Lady were particularly strong although not entirely in the way that they’re remembered and perhaps in ways that offer some insight for our times.
There were obvious parallels and affinities between the two. Both were champions of the free market and small government, both favored a more aggressive posture towards the Soviet Union and both pushed their center-right parties to the right.
But there were differences. Reagan faced a sick America, Thatcher a dying Britain. It’s hard to imagine now the way coal strikes by the nation’s powerful miners unions plunged Britain into darkness. It’s hard to believe that nationalized industries included gas, electricity, television and airlines. Newsrooms famously banned computers. Really The printer’s union, the National Typograhical Association, had a monopoly on keyboards. Journalists c could use typewritiers but computers were the province of printers. The top tax rate was 83 percent, the Telegraph notes today, and the tax on unearned income was 98 percent.
Thatcher slashed but there was no Reaganesque free candy. Thatcher lowered the rates but she also raised other taxes such as the Value Added Tax. She was about sacrifice, slashing government subsidies and programs in a way that Reagan’s rhetoric never matched his relatively modest cuts. Millions went on the dole because of her cuts whereas the recession in the U.S. was not from Reagan cutting the budget but from the recession brought on by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker who slammed on the brakes to wring inflation from the economy. (Reagan did reappoint Volcker once.)
She called Reagan “the second most important man in my life.” And both drew strength from the other. It helped at home. It was hard for Americans or Britons to dismiss their leader as a crazy outlier if your most important ally had a elected a leader with a similar world view. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would mutually reinforce each other in the same way as they took on their own party’s established interests. When they differed, as on the Falklands War, where the Reagan administration had coddled the “authoritarian” regime in Buenos Aires, it strained the relationship but never broke it. There were other differences, too. Reagan never seemed to have his heart in conservative social issues and neither did Thatcher who supported a bill as early as 1966 to permit some abortions. As Governor, Reagan has eased abortion restrictions in California before Roe before becoming a pro-life icon.
In all, though, Thatcher was more about sacrifice than easy victories. Reagan invaded Grenada--a move that Thatcher’s government denounced, by the way. Taking on the Falklands was a much bigger challenge. Thatcher was about cuts and upheaval. When she said during one of her most despised periods--”the lady does not turn”-- she embodied her principled determination. There was no “Aw, shucks” charm like Reagan, just strong medicine.
In only one sense did she have it easier than Reagan. The Democratic party may have been a mess but it was nothing like Britain’s Labor Party which became more socialist after her victory. Labor’s 1983 platform under its leader Malcolm Foot was described by one was as “the world’s longest suicide note.”
Thatcher famously warned George H.W. Bush before the first Gulf War, “Don’t go wobbly on us, George.” But Bush and Thatcher’s successor, John Major, were seen by conservatives as wobbly short timers facing revived opponents from the left in the form of Clinton and Blair. Blair finally crushed any hopes of renationalization of industries or a return to pre Thatcher Britain not that the embers burned particularly bright. Thatcher was eventually pushed out of office as was Churchill, the price of victory one supposes. But her legacy is Churchillian and bigger than Reagan’s.