Thatcher, Reagan and the Battle for Britain
January 24 - March 26, 2000
David Filderman Gallery, 9th floor, Axinn Library
Introduction by Guest Curator
Simon R. Doubleday
Assistant Professor of History, Hofstra University
Personified in the larger-than-life characters of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the "special relationship" between the governments of Britain and the U.S. was never stronger than in the 1980s. Thatcher and Reagan were no carbon copies: the Prime Minister was a woman of considerably more guile than the President, and less cinematic sweep. But linked by personal chemistry, as well as in ideology, the two leaders forged a connection which dominated the international scene for a decade. The two had first met in 1975, an event which Thatcher remembers with fondness:
I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did; not just about policies but about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature, all the high ideals and values which lie - or ought to lie - beneath any politician's ambition to lead his country. (The Downing Street Years (1993) p. 157).
In the mid-70s, the ideals and values of which she spoke were radical, particularly in Great Britain. A grocer's daughter and a businessman's wife, Thatcher was steeped in an entrepreneurial spirit which had found little place in postwar British governments. Since 1945, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party alike had thrown their weight behind the welfare state; a National Health service had been established in 1947, and major industries like coal, gas, rail and steel had been nationalized.
But the consensus had begun to break down. Economic growth had been slower in Britain than in other western European countries, and against a backdrop of spiraling inflation and industrial strikes (culminating in the notorious "Winter of Discontent" in 1978-79), the old certainties of political life were unraveling fast. The conservative intellectual Keith Joseph, nurtured on the theories of U.S. economist Milton Friedman, exerted an increasingly important influence on his young, up-and-coming colleague, Margaret Thatcher, and stimulated her conviction that only tight control of the money supply and limited government spending could rescue the country from the demon of inflation. After Thatcher's surprising victory in the Conservative leadership race of 1975, her impatience with the status quo became gradually more and more obvious.
Thatcher believed in a certain type of freedom: not the social freedom provided by job security and the guarantee of a reasonable wage, but the harsher, more unpredictable, economic freedom of the marketplace. At the core of her philosophy lay a faith in private enterprise, and a commitment to limit all obstacles to such enterprise: big government, powerful unions, and a culture of dependency. It was this set of attitudes, vigorously expressed after her rise to power in the 1979 election, which drew her towards Reagan's America. To a degree, she represented the spirit of the age: in the late 70s, important segments of the Labour and Conservative parties were becoming radicalized. But in the impassioned fervor of her rhetoric, in her unflinching iron will, and in her high-handed conduct of the business of government, she was unsurpassed; indeed, her style would ultimately make her an electoral liability to her own party.
To some American observers, Mrs. Thatcher seems to represent a peculiarly British brand of self-confidence, born of past imperial grandeur. What is less widely recognized is the degree to which public opinion in Britain was polarized. Thatcher never won more than 43% of the popular vote in a general election, and many in the anti-Thatcherite majority detested her with a vengeance. The Labour Party which opposed her at the beginning of the 80s was dominated by bona fide socialists. As the decade progressed, its policies became markedly more moderate, but the Welsh party leader, Neil Kinnock, would still assail her policies with a fire which is almost unimaginable in the centrist world of American politics or, indeed, Tony Blair's New Britain.
Meanwhile, there was violence on the picket lines of coal mines and print works, a bloody sequence of IRA attacks in England, and almost permanent protest at the U.S. air base at Greenham Common where Thatcher had agreed to station Cruise Missiles. Her government was seriously challenged by public fury at the introduction of a poll tax (the first, it was said, since the Peasant Revolt of 1381) which had culminated in violent riots in Trafalgar Square. Even her alma mater, Oxford University, denied her an honorary degree. In the end, in 1990, she was toppled by bitter divisions within her own party concerning Britain's rightful role in Europe. Mrs. Thatcher was involved in a new Battle of Britain: an ideological conflict, inspired by old-fashioned patriotism as well as new-fangled monetarism.
While her success in reclaiming the Falkland Islands in 1982 meant the death of 250 Britons and 2,000 Argentineans, the ideological conflict brought economic casualties in their hundreds of thousands. In 1979, the Conservatives had come to power on the crest of an advertising campaign featuring a poster which showed a long, snaking line of people at the unemployment office under the slogan Labour Isn't Working. (This was recently voted Poster of the Century, narrowly edging out Lord Kitchener's famous World War I recruitment poster, Your Country Needs You). But under the pressure of anti-inflationary economic measures, unemployment continued to rise even after the recession had ended in 1982, rising to the exceptional heights of over three million. And casualties were not purely economic. During the Thatcher Years, the National Health Service increasingly felt the pinch of new financial constraints as local health authorities were encouraged to look for savings; overworked doctors and long-suffering patients became the norm.
The impact of Thatcherism remains hotly debated. One eminently sober historian has recently written: "Despite, or perhaps because of, the extraordinary political triumphs of Margaret Thatcher, Britain by the late 1980s had become a more grasping, greedy and mean-spirited society. Hers is a legacy to be lived down" (Eric J. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism, (1997) p. 124). The Labour Party landslide in 1997, ending almost twenty years of Conservative rule, was effectively a popular vote on the need to defend the welfare state from further encroachment. Yet Thatcher has clearly altered the political agenda. No leading politician, of either main party, now talks of reversing privatization or restoring the old power of the trade unions. Britain is now ruled by a pro-market, pro-business Labour Prime Minister, who uses language reminiscent of the Iron Lady herself: "When Britain and America work together on the international scene, there is very little we cannot do" (quoted by William Wallace, Guardian, 18 November 1999). Mrs. Thatcher appears to have won the Battle for Britain, as surely as a Reagan-inspired NATO has won the battle for Eastern Europe; it remains to be seen whether they will win the war.