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The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"Reagan & Thatcher: The Balance Sheet"
from
Reagan and Thatcher
Geoffrey Smith (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991)
Thatcher and Reagan, 26 February 1981

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher share one quality more important than differences of style and temperament. They are both politicians who paint in primary colours. There has been nothing neutral about them or the reactions they provoke. They are memorable personalities, who arouse feelings of enthusiastic admiration or of biting disapproval. Such leaders usually leave a strong imprint on the countries that they govern. How far is that true in their case? How much have they changed? What is the legacy of their association?

The lasting impact of political leaders can be judged by the effect on their opponents. Are the opposition parties forced to come to terms with the changes they have made? How far have Reagan and Thatcher had that effect?

Both of them cut income tax severely and made it hard for anyone to restore tax rates to their previous levels in either country without a very good excuse. Reagan managed to make low taxes one of the sacred cows of American politics. Even his successor, his own Vice-President, was forced into exaggerated protests of innocence of any impure thought of raising taxes. 'Read my lips,' he demanded. After a year and a half in office his lips began to send a different message, but Reagan had still made it more embarrassing politically for any administration to raise taxes significantly.

Thatcher's programme of privatisation may well be modified by another government, but it is still an historic change of ownership of British industry. Her programme of trade-union reform would be amended by a Labour government, but it is unlikely simply to be swept away as though it had never been.

Both Reagan and Thatcher came to office committed to reducing the power of government, and up to a point both did so. But here there was a strange contrast between them. Thatcher's privatisation and Reagan's deregulation were in line with this strategy. These policies in their different ways transferred economic power from the state into private hands. Yet within government, Reagan handed power from the federal administration to the states, while Thatcher took power away from local authorities to concentrate it at the centre.

'I don't think Reagan is inherently or automatically anti-government nearly as much as he's anti-Washington,' said Congressman Newt Gingrich, the right-wing Republican from Georgia, in a BBC Radio Analysis programme in October 1988, just as the Reagan era was drawing to an end. 'There's a real ferment in the states,' said former Governor Tom Kean, the more liberal Republican from New Jersey, . . . with 'problems that people thought for a long time were insoluble being solved in states and localities."

The trend had begun before Reagan took office, but gathered pace under him. One reason for this, according to Governor Bill Clinton, the Democrat from Arkansas, is that 'by cutting back on the federal role in so many areas,' Reagan 'almost mandated the emergence of the governors as primary policy makers.'

By contrast, Thatcher has taken powers away from local government. That has been evident in education with the establishment of a core curriculum in state schools; in the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, when some of its powers passed to central government; and in the introduction of the hated poll tax, which was devised as a means of making local authorities more accountable to their electorates. Nearly every voter has to pay the flat sum, in contrast to the rates which it replaces.

Neither Reagan nor Thatcher managed to curb total public spending, central and local, as much as their rhetoric would suggest. Yet they changed political attitudes towards public expenditure. No longer is it politically realistic for either the Democrats in the United States or the Labour Party in Britain to put their faith in massive public-spending programmes, trusting that economic growth will pay for everything. Labour's return to moderation is a severe political embarrassment to Thatcher. It deprives her of the greatest boon that any government can have: an unelectable alternative. But it is also a tribute to her.

Reagan and Thatcher represented and encouraged the international movement toward free markets. That both of them were such prominent champions of this policy, and were delivering rising prosperity to most of their peoples for most of the time, may have served as an example to others. They were certainly the most ardent advocates of free markets. They gave practical credibility to increasingly fashionable economic theories. Yet there were deeper forces at work than the example of Reagan and Thatcher. In international terms they symbolized an idea whose time had come.

Above all they brought a greater sense of confidence to their countries. Reagan did it by projecting a radiant optimism and insouciance. Away with the malaise that his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had diagnosed as the American condition. If Reagan felt comfortable governing, then the country should feel comfortable being governed by him. Irangate undermined this achievement, but did not destroy it. The ghosts of Vietnam, Watergate and Tehran were exorcised.

Thatcher did it by an implacable determination. The impossible was not to be acknowledged. It was the Falklands spirit as a way of life. She may have exaggerated the extent of the conversion. Economic Thatcherism may have been accepted by large sections of the British people, though that varied sharply from one part of the country to another. It was when she tried to extend her doctrines to the social field that she ran into political trouble.

One limitation on the lasting influence of both Reagan and Thatcher is that, while both have had an impact on their opponents, neither has provided for a direct political inheritance. Reagan was not succeeded by a Reaganite. Thatcher is unlikely to be succeeded by a Thatcherite.

None the less, they have both made a difference to their countries. How much of a difference has it made that they ruled together?

The relationship between them was warmer personally and closer ideologically than between any previous president and prime minister. Their partnership did not have the same historical impact as the Roosevelt-Churchill connection: they did not have a world war to fight. But the range of their agreement was broader, embracing domestic as well as international affairs. It stood the test of time better. It was stronger at the end than at the beginning, which certainly could not be said of Churchill and Roosevelt.

It is impossible to speak for long to many of Reagan's associates without realising just how important the Thatcher friendship was to him, and how it had developed over their years in power. It mattered to Thatcher, too, but in a different way. Quite apart from liking him personally, she recognized in him political qualities that she does not possess herself. He has the capacity to project his charm across a nation; she has had difficulties in making many of her own ministers like her. He has mastered television, where she often still appears either ill at ease or hectoring. As a public speaker he can captivate an audience in a way that she will never do. He has an acute political instinct and was comfortable in the exercise of power. He also possesses the kind of constancy and courage that she both shares and appreciates in others.

These are not small political virtues, but the unusually sharp contrast between his strengths and his weaknesses explains why he is so easily underestimated. He does not have the intellectual comprehension generally expected of a president, but neither was he simply manipulated by his advisers. He knew the broad direction in which he wished to go; he would indicate the route but leave it to others to work out how to get there. But when his mind was settled on a policy, or when he felt a proposed policy conflicted with his broad objective, he was not easily budged. So when he reached a specific agreement with Thatcher it stuck.

This approach to leadership fitted well with hers, given their respective offices. 'From the minute their eyes met,' according to [Michael] Deaver, 'there was an instant enjoyment on both their parts. They were delighted to see each other. They could hardly wait to sit down and get at it.' But this comradeship did not just happen. Thatcher worked at it. Reagan was more influenced by personal considerations. With Thatcher there was always the element of calculation, sometimes even of manipulation. For her the pleasures of friendship would never have been enough. She wanted to use the friendship to get specific results. That is hardly surprising. For almost every prime minister from Churchill on, it has been a major objective to influence the thinking of the president of the United States. For Britain the special relationship has meant a special opportunity to have an impact on American policy.

Because of the disparity in power between the two countries it is the attitude of the American president that ultimately counts. In the telling expression of McGeorge Bundy, the British prime minister 'always wants the meeting to last longer than announced.' When it runs over time that shows how close they are. It implies that the prime minister carries weight. As a general rule it is the prime minister who is eager to exercise influence over the president rather than the other way round, because American policy matters so much more to Britain than British policy matters to the United States.

In the case of Reagan and Thatcher, she therefore stood to gain more and was the more assertive. That is why the story of their relationship is so much one of her exercising her powers of persuasion upon him. First, when it was an issue of much greater importance to Britain than the United States. The Falklands, Northern Ireland and the Laker case are obvious examples. In these instances Reagan decided that it was more important to help her than to avoid minor embarrassments for his administration.

Second, when the administration was itself divided -- SDI and the ABM Treaty, Mozambique and disarmament policy after Reykjavik are cases in point. A Thatcher intervention with the President was always a powerful instrument in the ceaseless battle over policy in Washington, but it was all the more effective when she could be guided as to the appropriate time for its delivery and when it could be backed by supporting evidence. Washington departments and agencies were well aware of this and would try to bring her into play whenever they thought she was likely to take their side of the debate.

Third, when Reagan could be convinced that a particular course was necessary here and now, even though it conflicted with his long-term aspirations. This occurred most frequently when he was induced to continue the policy of nuclear deterrence because it was not possible to have a nuclear-free world just yet.

Thatcher was never able to talk him out of that dream, try as she might. She was able to get his agreement simply to preserving Western strength in the meantime. Nor did she make any impression when she tried to get him to cut the budget deficit: that required decisions which he was not prepared to make. Where his mind was fixed on a fundamental point she was no more successful than anybody else in getting him to budge. Her sway was not unlimited. She could manouevre him on a number of questions, but he was not to be programmed.

Reagan affected her in return, but her actions rather than her thinking. It is doubtful if she agreed with him either over Libya or over flouting the International Court on the mining of Nicaraguan ports. She repressed her misgivings on the INF agreement. She recognized that friendship has its obligations. She knew that if she were to be his most reliable friend, she would not only have to back him on some tough issues. She would also have to keep quiet on others. She said little in public on Central America. She maintained a tight-lipped silence on Irangate for nearly a years before the news broke.

'It was a valuable coincidence of history,' she claims, 'that Ron Reagan and I were in power at the same time.' But what would have happened differently if they had not been? Thatcher's premiership might have lasted no longer than three years instead of breaking all records this century. If a different president had been less supportive over the Falklands -- and Reagan himself was not short of contrary advice -- that war might have been lost and she would have been out.

Without Reagan, Thatcher would never have been able to cut the same figure on the world stage. At meetings of EC leaders she was time and again in the minority, frequently of one. At Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conferences she was battling against the rest, most often over South African sanctions. Her lone stand won a fair amount of admiration among the British electorate: 'Battling Maggie Fights for Britain Again.' Yet if it had not been for Reagan, people might well have begun to ask: 'Does anybody outside the United Kingdom have a good word for our Prime Minister?' Certainly, she would not have been seen as a person of international influence, somebody whose word carried weight in the major centres of power on the most momentous issues of our time.

Reagan without Thatcher would have lost something less tangible. It is true that another prime minister would have been most unlikely to allow the bases in Britain to be used in the Libyan raid, but the air strike would still have been made. It would have been rather more difficult, but its success would not have been jeopardised. Reagan's position would not have been undermined.

What he would have missed was the sense of partnership. He would have been a beleaguered figure at economic summits during at least his first term. He would not have enjoyed that role, and he would not have been impressive in it. Although renowned as the great communicator, he was not good in tough debate on substantive issues with his peers. He had a different quality. Reagan has the gift of projecting sincerity from a script he has barely mastered. It is the emotion and humanity of the man that come across. That made him superbly effective on great occasions. It did not help him to deal with the specific criticisms of other heads of government who did not share his doctrinal beliefs. Without Thatcher he would have been much more inclined to think of the allies as unfriendly and the world outside the United States as hostile territory. He would still have received the advice from within his own administration to open the dialogue with the Soviet Union. He would still have hoped for a new relationship with Moscow, because he would still have dreamt of banishing nuclear weapons from the world; but he might have been less responsive to the changes there. That could have meant more than a mere difference in timing and tone.

The 1980s will be seen as the decade of three people: Reagan, Gorbachev and Thatcher. Between them they represented the spirit of the times. The policies they pursued and interaction among them set international affairs on a new and more hopeful course. In their very different ways they combined to extend democracy and to make a market economy the mark of a successful state. Reagan and Thatcher did that by promoting market forces: Gorbachev did it by accepting the bankruptcy of the socialist system.

There were material factors that helped dictate this course, especially the internal failures of the Soviet empire. The personal factors mattered as well. Events would not have developed in quite the way they did had it not been for the burgeoning confidence between Reagan and Gorbachev; Thatcher's role in encouraging the two men to believe that they could do business with each other; and, not least, Thatcher's understanding of Reagan.

Thatcher could not have played her role without that understanding. Her international clout was increased immeasurably by the knowledge that on most issues she and the President of the United States moved along the same lines. That knowledge helped him, as well, politically and psychologically. No matter how powerful, resolute and relaxed a national leader may be, it is reassuring to find others proceeding in the same direction, especially if he particularly respects their judgment. His magnetism was matched by her determination.

So the partnership played no small role in the wider history of the decade. That may be too easily forgotten in the immediate reaction to the Reagan-Thatcher period. It provided the climax to the Anglo-American special relationship: a president who gave precedence to Britain's leader more unreservedly than at any time since the early years of the Second World War matched with a prime minister who gave absolute priority to the American connection. But was it the last hurrah of the special relationship?

It is hard to believe that there will ever again be an American president and a British prime minister who will form quite so close a personal association.