f i r e b r a n d s pau l j ohn s on
Star-Crossed Allies Reagan & Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship
By Richard Aldous (Hutchinson 384pp £25)
Seen in retrospect, the Reagan– Thatcher relationship does not seem a difficult one. They had natural affinities, and easily developed a warm friendship. But at the time it was not so simple. In many ways it was like Churchill’s encounters with Roosevelt – friendly, even affectionate at times, but masking important differences of interest between the two countries that threatened to come to the surface and had to be covered by skilful diplomacy. As Palmerston used to say, there was no such thing as permanent friendship between countries, merely permanent interests that vary from time to time.
Richard Aldous has taken advantage of the masses of material, on both sides of the Atlantic, which has come into the public domain since the 1980s, to construct a careful history of how the two got on. He has written a detailed and interesting book. It is by no means the last word on the subject, and suffers from not having access to the text of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, which will not be published until after her death. But it will do to be going on with.
The Anglo-American relationship is unbalanced in the sense that it is unequal. America is a much bigger and more powerful country. The disparity had become marked by the end of the Second World War, so that although we still spoke of the Big Three, of the UK, the USA and the USSR, it was in reality the Big Two, with Britain tagging along. In terms of military power, this gap between Britain and the two superpowers widened throughout the Cold War. Britain was easily the most important of America’s allies, as well as the most reliable. But it was not a partner in the full sense, and could not be. Britain wanted, and needed, more from America, especially in access to advanced weapons systems, than America wanted from Britain; Thatcher was always obliged to struggle to get what she felt was necessary. She was extremely good at bargaining, and did very well on the whole, but it was hard going.
Britain also needed to get the most it could from American protective cover, and this applied particularly to the Star Wars anti-missile defence. Here, Thatcher benefited from Reagan’s enormous attachment to the advanced weaponry of the system, which (so it seems to
Double act us now) went beyond the strictly rational. Reagan stood to the left of Thatcher on one important point. He actually believed in eliminating nuclear weapons completely, if he could get Soviet agreement. He believed that, in a non-nuclear world, America would be strong enough in conventional weapons to hold the peace. Thatcher knew that Britain could not do this. For her, nuclear weapons made up for Britain’s inability to afford the cost of conventional forces on a large scale. She therefore opposed nuclear disarmament unless it could take place within a general peace settlement with the Soviets on a scale that was unimaginable in the 1980s, or has been at any time since. There was the possibility that Britain and America might have drifted apart in a fundamental sense over this issue, and she was terrified of this happening. What she did was to appeal above Reagan’s head, in addressing both houses of Congress, where she was assured of right-wing Republican support. Even so, it was a near thing. Gorbachev was prepared to do a nuclear deal with Reagan, but only on one condition: that America would abandon Star Wars, which Gorbachev knew Russia could not afford to duplicate. Reagan could have had a deal, but he was too emotionally attached to Star Wars to clinch it, so the negotiations had to be abandoned at this point, and Thatcher was saved.
The moment has now passed, for global balance has altered radically since the 1980s; America and Russia are no longer powerful enough to impose a ban on nuclear weapons on the rest of the world. Were they ever? Britain certainly, and in all likelihood France, would have insisted on retaining a nuclear capability to keep themselves at the top table. Now there are the Asian nuclear powers, led by China, and there is not much chance of including China in a non-nuclear pact.
This is only one point on which Reagan and Thatcher had profound differences. Reagan was a little scared of her at times, as he privately admitted, and she was terrified of alienating him. In fact, they ended up getting on very well, and not only friendship but a genuine affection began to develop during the eight years that they worked together. Indeed it was a much closer relationship towards the end than anything between Churchill and Roosevelt, who were separated by colonialism, which FDR hated, and to which Churchill was deeply attached. By the time of the Reagan–Thatcher relationship that was all history, and only the Falklands crisis served as a reminder. They both got over this difficulty with aplomb. It was a measure of their friendship that, after Reagan retired, his successor, the elder Bush, found himself much happier with routine British politicians such as John Major. The age of the giants had passed, but it was good while it lasted. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 39
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