Britain marks the death of a conviction politician

Margaret Thatcher died Monday, and on Wednesday Parliament is recalled for members to pay their respects. The funeral will be next Wednesday, 17th April, and will be a spectacle watched by millions. Thatcher left a lasting legacy that sent ripples way beyond the shores of Britain, not least in her approach to the Cold War at the time. She was what many people have been calling a ‘conviction politician’ – she knew her mind and would have little time for those who disagreed. In fact, she appeared to relish conflict, picking fights at home and abroad in a manner that gave her the title, ‘Iron Lady’. A radical free-market revolutionary nationalist rather than a conservative, she believed that conflict – political and sometimes military – was an unavoidable part of achieving what she saw as essential social and political transition. With the support of the tabloid media, it was also a highly effective political approach; many historians believe that it was her bellicose approach during the Falklands War that won her the second election victory in 1983. It may be this play-book that Kim Jung-un is attempting to follow today as the world continues to hear threats of military strikes and nuclear attacks coming from the Korean peninsula.

Although the early decisions to start the procurement of Trident had already been taken in secret by the time she came to power in 1979, Thatcher had a solid resolve to quickly upgrade the system to use the Trident II D5 missile, and to welcome the stationing of US cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth. When these deployments attracted huge public opposition, and the Labour Party came out solidly against Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons, she turned both political engagements into an asset.

The politics of division suited her well. And while former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev may be commending Thatcher today, he would be amongst the first to point out the obstacles she threw up to reconciliation at an important point in transition out of the Cold War. Her usual ability to influence her close friend President Reagan directly appeared to elude her when he started to lose faith in nuclear weapons and had visions of achieving a world free of them. George Shultz recalls his experience as Reagan’s Secretary of State when Thatcher expressed her horror at the change in approach. When Shultz refused her demands that he convince his boss of the error of his ways, she expressed her outrage. Whatever her claims to promote multilateral nuclear disarmament (as opposed to unilateral disarmament), she would today have opposed such ideas on the basis that it would only open the door to the sort of mass conventional war we experienced in the 1940s.

We are lucky that in terms of British nuclear diplomacy we have moved on considerably from the divisive nuclear politics characterized by the 1980s. Although there may have been an underlying expectation of returning to such an approach on 4th December 2006 when Tony Blair got up in Parliament to introduce his White Paper on the renewal of Trident, we did not see it. Instead, we saw a balanced (perhaps muted) debate in Parliament on 14th March 2007, alongside commitments to invigorate Britain’s disarmament diplomacy. We have since experienced a strong political consensus behind the need for Britain to show leadership in efforts to promote multilateral nuclear disarmament, further cuts to the arsenal and delays in the plans for renewal. And whilst there was little sign of it in the Prime Minister’s Telegraph article last week that cited the growing threat from North Korea and Iran as justifications for Britain’s Trident renewal, we may be emerging from the shadow of Thatcherism and the fear of being drawn into an all-or-nothing nuclear debate, that has dogged the debate over thirty years. Letter-writers published in the Telegraph since appear to have been a great deal more balanced than the Prime Minister. Perhaps we will see a far more mature debate in the British media over our nuclear futures and the real choices we face, as we start to approach the 2015 General Election.


These are the views of the author.

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