Margaret Thatcher remembered
Thatcher once wistfully said she was so grateful to have friends who appreciated her work because “no one ever says thank you to politicians”. Some of us do
Odd as it may seem, I missed most of the rise of Margaret Thatcher and then Thatcherism. By the time she defeated Labour in the 1979 election I had been studying in the United States for two years and it all seemed far away. Then I joined the FCO and was soon off on Serbo-Croat language training and on to communist Yugoslavia. I followed the Falkland Islands crisis from Belgrade via FCO telegrams and belated newspapers via the diplomatic bag.
Returning to London in 1984 a virulent anti-communist, I found myself swept along in the sense of anti-collectivist energy that the Thatcher revolution was unleashing.
My first job back in the Foreign Office was on the UK/US Air Services desk. Freddie Laker’s pioneering low-cost airline had gone bust and he was suing British Airways and other major airlines in the US courts for anti-trust conspiracies against him. This created a threat of a punitive triple damages award against BA, making its privatisation impossible.
Mrs. Thatcher took the problem personally to U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who startled his officials by intervening to stop a parallel criminal prosecution. This opened a way for the eventual out-of-court settlement. Privatisation proceeded.
Gorbachev appeared; the Cold War started to melt. As FCO speechwriter I drafted a powerful speech for Sir Geoffrey Howe to use in communist Budapest. It went far beyond the usual FCO platitudes, urging Hungary to follow the trailblazing Thatcher example: drop socialism and move fast towards free market principles! As luck had it the senior FCO mice were away somewhere. This time most of my draft speech was used; Sir Geoffrey won a rousing ovation.
I still recall the FCO planning staffers (including the most junior clerical staff) chattering excitedly on the morning after the amazing, inspiring interview she gave to Panorama for the 1987 election. It is perhaps the supreme example of Thatcher's philosophy and confident, operational wisdom:
You have stamped your image on the Conservative Party like no previous leader. We never heard of Macmillanism; Heathism; Churchillism. We hear of Thatcherism. What does it mean?
Sir Robin, it is not a name that I created in the sense of calling it an -ism. Let me tell you what it stands for. It stands for sound finance and government running the affairs of the nation in a sound financial way. It stands for honest money – not inflation. It stands for living within your means. It stands for incentives because we know full well that the growth, the economic strength of the nation, comes from the efforts of its people. Its people need incentives to work as hard as they possibly can. All that has produced economic growth.
It stands for something else. It stands for the wider and wider spread of ownership of property, of houses, of shares, of savings. It stands for being strong in defence—a reliable ally and a trusted friend.
People call those things Thatcherism; they are, in fact, fundamental common sense and having faith in the enterprise and abilities of the people. It was my task to try to release those. They were always there; they have always been there in the British people, but they couldn’t flourish under socialism. They have now been released. That’s all that Thatcherism is.
In 1987 I was posted to South Africa as part of a new Embassy team sent to Pretoria after Sir Geoffrey Howe’s ill-fated mission in 1986. Mrs Thatcher was enjoying the international obloquy that came her way as she held firm against mandatory economic sanctions against the apartheid regime.
As communism crumbled in Europe, guileful British/U.S. diplomacy that she grudgingly supported helped achieve Namibia’s independence and then the end of apartheid itself. Mrs. Thatcher had the ambiguous satisfaction of greeting Nelson Mandela at Downing Street and indeed being thanked by him. She fell from power soon thereafter.
Thus it was that I first met her when she paid a private visit to South Africa in 1991. I organised a small seminar with liberal-minded Afrikaner academics at Stellenbosch University. They explained to her that apartheid was a miserable, failing socialist ideology based upon radical state control of the economy and people. She leant across the table at them: “South Africa has the only decent economy in Africa – it must not be ruined!”
Taken aback at the baldness of this view, they persisted in the argument that apartheid was economically damaging their country. She did not budge, shooting back with unnerving intensity: “South Africa has the only decent economy in Africa – it must not be ruined!” Minds did not meet. She swept away to head to Durban to meet her favourite African, Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
I met her next in Moscow in the mid-1990s when she came on another private visit. When John Major and his No. 10 team had come to the Moscow Embassy (a crumbling mansion across the river from the Kremlin) they walked in and stood there, rather goofily admiring the gloomy splendour. When Margaret Thatcher arrived it was an event. She strode through the front door and up the staircase, as if crackling with sheer power of personality. She berated me over lunch for being part of the Foreign Office team that had handed South Africa to the ANC and its communist allies.
My final substantive meeting with her came in 2009 at a small private dinner in London. She was frail but on lively form, making many religious references. There was a cheering consensus that Jesus had been ‘sound’ in his conservative principles. She wistfully said that she was so grateful to have friends who appreciated her work: “No-one ever says thank you to politicians”.
Well, some of us do. Thank you, Lady Thatcher, for your grasp of politics and fundamental principles:
I don’t see how one can be accused of being arrogant when one has, in fact, tried throughout the whole of the eight years I have been in office to give more power back to the people. We have abolished many controls because Government ought not to have had them.
The scale of Margaret Thatcher’s triumph – and failure – lies here: few if any politicians in any position of power or influence in the West are now capable of uttering those words. Or even knowing what they mean.
Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford
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