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Margaret Thatcher: High Principle Joined to Power Politics

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party conference in 1989 (Reuters)
She remains a model for present-day leaders as they respond to threats to national security.

Last week, politicians and journalists from around the world crammed into the Guildhall, London, for a one-day conference on former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The conference sought to assess current national-security concerns through the lens of the Iron Lady’s policies. Convened by the Centre for Policy Studies, it kicked off with a keynote speech by Henry Kissinger.

As I sat waiting for the 94-year-old former U.S. secretary of state to appear on stage, the atmosphere in the hall was electric. With long queues outside and not a spare seat in sight, it was more reminiscent of a rock concert than a conference. It was further proof, if any were needed, of Lady Thatcher’s lasting importance. No other post-war British prime minister would be honored in such a way.

The day’s discussions focused mainly on current affairs, and Thatcher herself received only occasional mention. So it is worth dwelling here in greater detail on her record. As Lord Saatchi said in his opening address, Thatcher’s policies were always informed by her ideals. But she was also a pragmatist, and it was her combination of high principle and power politics that proved so effective.

This was the case with her handling of terrorism, a key issue of her time as it is of ours. In the 1970s and ’80s, the United Kingdom experienced regular bombings by the Irish Republican Army. Contrary to the myth that today’s terrorism is unprecedented, the IRA conducted more attacks, and killed more people, than jihadists have in mainland Britain since 2001.

This violence touched Thatcher personally. The IRA murdered her close advisers Airey Neave and Ian Gow, and almost killed her in 1984 with a massive attack on the Brighton hotel where she and the cabinet were staying. With great courage, she delivered her speech at the Conservative-party conference only hours after the bombing, in which five colleagues died.

In that speech, she condemned the bombing as an attempt to disrupt the conference and cripple Britain’s democratic government. But, she added, “the fact that we are gathered here now — shocked, but composed and determined — is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”

As journalist Simon Jenkins writes in his book Thatcher and Sons, Thatcher understood that the best response to terrorism is not panic but a “studied normalcy.” How things have changed. These days, terror incidents cause significant disruption. Last month’s London attack led to the immediate suspension of election campaigning, for example.

Contrary to the myth that today’s terrorism is unprecedented, the IRA conducted more attacks, and killed more people, than jihadists have in mainland Britain since 2001.

The media are, of course, partly to blame, as Thatcher herself understood. TV channels give nonstop coverage to terror attacks, spreading fear and doing the terrorists’ job for them. In 1985, she criticized news outlets for their sensationalist reporting and famously called on them to cut off the terrorists’ “oxygen of publicity.”

Sticking to her democratic ideals, and her belief that life must go on as normal, Thatcher typically did not respond to terrorism with crackdowns on civil liberties. Compare that with Theresa May’s response to last month’s London attack, when she vowed to rip up human-rights laws. There is no such language in Thatcher’s Brighton-conference speech.

Indeed, it is clear that the post-9/11 world has seen far greater violations of liberty in the name of fighting terrorism than ever existed in the Thatcher era. Keith Ewing, a left-wing academic and strong critic of Thatcher, writes in his book Bonfire of the Liberties that Tony Blair’s assault on liberty was “worse, much worse” and made us pine for “the halcyon days” of Thatcher.

In Ireland, Thatcher did not resuscitate the “war on terror” policies of Edward Heath’s government, such as internment and aggressive interrogation, which had proven utterly counter-productive. Instead, terrorism was to be handled primarily by the civilian justice system. Terrorists were criminals, not warriors, and she despised them for that reason.

This is not to present Lady Thatcher as a diehard civil libertarian. She used the Official Secrets Act repeatedly against leaks and launched an aggressive and sometimes excessive campaign of surveillance against suspected communist spies, including — rather farcically — Britain’s eccentric and bedraggled peace activists, who posed little threat to national security.

Thatcher loved the British spy services and devoured their reporting obsessively. She understood the importance of intelligence in counterterrorism and dispatched her close friend, the former MI6 chief Sir Maurice Oldfield, to reform Britain’s badly disorganized security operations in Northern Ireland. She also strengthened Anglo–American intelligence cooperation.

Thatcher was cautious in using military force, and even objected to U.S. campaigns in Grenada and Lebanon. But, when she acted, she did so decisively and effectively, as in the Falklands.

However, despite the Iron Lady image, she was cautious in using military force, and even objected to U.S. campaigns in Grenada and Lebanon. But, when she acted, she did so decisively and effectively, as in the Falklands. This is in stark contrast to Tony Blair and his successors, who have gone to war with reckless abandon and mismanaged their interventions disastrously.

Thatcher’s pragmatism can also be seen in her devotion to diplomacy. She scored an early diplomatic triumph negotiating the independence of Zimbabwe. She was also the first British prime minister to approve talks with the IRA, a process that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Then there was her close relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

She even strove for a two-state solution to the Israel–Palestine question, and nagged President Reagan to help. This was despite her own instinctive sympathy for Israel and the fact that, as official biographer Charles Moore emphasized in the first panel of the conference, she had a “tremendous admiration for Judaism.”

Thatcher’s dedication to foreign affairs was remarkable. She made long and tiring trips to the Soviet Union and was a key intermediary between Gorbachev and Reagan, helping to end the Cold War. Her forceful role on the international stage made her famous. She was not just Britain’s prime minister but a “world figure,” too, as Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia said at the conference.

Effective statecraft is needed now more than ever. With the rise of India and China, great-power rivalry is once again emerging. The West also faces deteriorating relations with Putin’s Russia. In his keynote, Kissinger warned of the potential for conflict in today’s world, a view reinforced later by General Lord David Richards in the day’s second panel discussion.

Richards bemoaned the lack of statesmanship in the West today, and well he might. The U.S. and its allies seem bereft of a strategy for handling Syria after ISIS is defeated. Likewise in Afghanistan, the war seems to drag on interminably, with no effective plan. This might be rectified by the Trump administration, which is currently reviewing its Afghan policy.

Then there is the challenge of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a vast network of trade routes inaugurated by President Xi in 2013. As Kissinger said, this global vision of China’s future may conflict with America’s own international aspirations. Will the two countries adapt and choose “co-evolution,” as he put it, or resort to confrontation?

These are the sorts of grand strategic issues that Thatcher relished. Of course she made mistakes, such as her opposition to the reunification of Germany — despite strong advice from my father (who worked for her as a speechwriter) and other academics that she should support it. But, in many other areas, she got it right.

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