Were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan inseparable political allies?

History commonly portrays British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan as close friends and inseparable political allies. Many historians assert the leaders shared a common political ideology, moral compass, foreign policy objectives and revulsion towards communism.

The two leaders were undoubtedly friends, Thatcher’s powerful eulogy for Reagan, whom she called the “great man”, leaves no doubt of that fact. As historians reconsider the works of past historians and re-evaluate the material previous historical conclusions and consensuses are based upon, the question lingers, could past historians have got it wrong?

My paper hypothesises that historians and commentators have confused Thatcher and Reagan’s friendship with their political allegiances, essentially papering over the fractures in their relationship. This is understandable because the leaders had a vested political interest in appearing aligned with other international leaders in the eyes of their own electorate and the eyes of their Soviet adversaries.

To determine whether the historical consensus is accurate, I examined a range of social and diplomatic issues, seeking significant differences of opinion.

Social Issues

Reagan and Thatcher are lauded globally as heroes of the conservative movement. However, the two leader’s social policy agendas are vastly contradictory. Reagan was a staunch anti-abortion advocate. Conversely, Thatcher favoured “liberal abortion laws”. In 1967, she voted to allow abortions for all women up to 28 weeks gestation. Similarly, Thatcher’s government response to the AIDS epidemic was very progressive, or at least extremely pragmatic. The Thatcher government’s awareness campaigns and education programs included promoting condom use. Thatcher also approved of a highly controversial needle exchange program in a bid to prevent the spread of HIV amongst intravenous drug users. Thatcher was slammed by conservatives for “scattering free needles and cut-price condoms in her wake” and yielding political capital with her “natural constituency”. Conversely, Reagan was unwilling to disregard his morally conservative supporters in the name of pragmatism. Nevertheless, painting Reagan as a reactionary and Thatcher as a product of the Swinging Sixties would be intellectually dishonest. The issue of divorce saw the leaders adopt counter-intuitive positions. Reagan supported access to simple divorce proceedings. As Governor of California, he signed the Family Law Act 1969 which established the first no-fault divorce provisions anywhere in the United States.Conversely, Thatcher derided divorce law reform as one aspect “of the liberal agenda, [which] seemed to me to go too far”. In summary, contrary to the myth that Thatcher and Reagan are conservative stalwarts, their social agendas are utterly incompatible and both advanced some progressive ideas.

International Relations

Although Thatcher and Reagan often collaborated to pursue common objectives, the Anglo-American alliance never superseded their domestic interests. The leaders faced each other in several, often very public, diplomatic stoushes. When Argentina seized the Falkland Islands, Reagan refused to support Thatcher’s reconquest of the territory. This decision left Thatcher isolated in the international sphere during the most significant diplomatic crisis of her Prime Ministership. Reagan also caused Thatcher significant public embarrassment when the US invaded Grenada, a Commonwealth nation, without notifying Thatcher. Similarly, Thatcher caused Reagan some diplomatic headaches. Thatcher publicly condemned US air-attacks on Syrian military installations in retribution for the bombing of a US barracks in Beirut by a terrorist group, allegedly sponsored by the Syrian government. It also demonstrates that Thatcher was not Reagan’s inseparable ally and was willing to condemn in harsh terms acts she perceived to be inappropriate and illegal.

Thatcher and Reagan disagreed vehemently over nuclear weapons policy and Soviet-West relations.  Thatcher believed that nuclear deterrence was the key to maintaining peace in Europe. Conversely, Reagan found nuclear weapons to be morally abhorrent. He sought to render nuclear weapons obsolete through a combination of disarmament agreements and the development of the Space Defence Initiative Missile Shield. Reagan actively and aggressively sought to cause the downfall of the Soviet Union. He commenced a secret economic war, focussing on the Soviet’s proposed Siberia-West gas pipeline. Thatcher opposed this action because it harmed British economic interests. She publicly encouraged British businesses to ignore the threat of American sanctions. Thatcher and Reagan disagreed emphatically on the most important diplomatic issues of their era, causing Thatcher to pursue an independent foreign policy and maintain her own diplomatic communications with the Soviet Union.

Significance

My research project is significant because it is the first comprehensive attempt to assess the ideological and diplomatic differences between the leaders, the only previous work on this subject, by Richard Aldous, was limited to diplomatic differences. In conclusion, despite the value of the Anglo-American alliance to Reagan and Thatcher, they were not inseparable political allies because domestic issues and their national interest were afforded greater weight in decision making. Although they are lauded as conservative icons, the leaders did not share a uniform moral code or ideology.

Full text available here.

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5 comments on “Were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan inseparable political allies?

  1. David Finney says:

    I enjoyed reading Andrew’s essay. He concludes with a measure of regret that the 2 leaders did not always agree on domestic issues and their national interests. Surely this is the first requirement of a leader that his/her own country’s interests are paramount and not to be compromised. As he recounts it they had a remarkable affinity of conservative free enterprise attitudes and independance (rather than uniformity) and this was fundamental to that ideal. Certainly the Western world was fortunate that 2 such strong minded persons were in power simultaneously and agreed on the big issues at a time when the free world was under imagined, if not real, threat.

  2. Andrew, this is a great read which challenges popular conceptions of the relationship between Thatcher and Reagan. Your hypothesis in the introduction clearly outlines to me that whilst the two had a healthy friendship; historians have confused this with their political allegiances.
    I found the section on international relations the most convincing. From this section, it can be clearly seen that Thatcher and Reagan placed their country’s interest above that of their friendship, which aids in Andrew’s hypothesis that they were not inseparable allies, but, were willing to condemn each other’s political actions.
    Andrew, I commend your research topic and the originality. Hopefully, there will be more historians that will now separate the Thatcher/Reagan relationship from their domestic and international policies.

  3. alysecox42120608 says:

    Hey Andrew, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I knew little about Thatcher or Reagan approaching your post and now I feel much more well informed!! I think your thesis is quite clear and it made it very easy for me to follow on in an area I know next to nothing about! It is remarkable how the associations people have can tend to confuse relationships. However, your post clearly shows that their friendship had nothing to do with their political standings. It is interesting that they remained such good friends when they had such stark differences and I understand your comment on my post better after reading this. Especially in terms of the political agendas and national interests.
    Smart idea including a link to your actual paper. I think that in terms of this blog as ‘public history’ available to anyone that by you putting that link you have allowed those who are interested in your post to read your thesis mapped out in full. I think that gives the reader, if they are interested, a great help if they wish to find extra information.
    I also like, in just the current post, the use of sub headings making a clear distinction about the two areas you are making your argument from in terms of their differences in the political arena. I think this is very helpful especially when writing ‘informal’ history for anyone to access.
    Great work!

  4. A really interesting topic and read! I have for a while been interested in these two leaders… probably because I’m more of a left winger. I do have one question, how much do you think these two leaders views and stances were based on their environment? When you say that Thatcher was pro abortion and Reagan wasn’t, could this be due to the Republican party stance?? He can’t really break ranks on such a key issue. Is it then worth looking into this party line and working out what two leaders believed despite their public stance? Would this be found in autobiographies, even that can only be partly trusted I suppose.

    Really got me thinking – it is a well organised paper and I’m sure your research essay is even more interesting. It’s also commendable that you attempted to answer something which there hasn’t been a lot of research into.

    I think in the international relations section of your paper you draw into the nuclear discussion which I suppose is still being discussed today – there are a number of things you mention which are still in contention and debate upon and it’s interesting to see with the presidential elections in America just passing how Reagan and Thatcher’s views still play a role.

    Can I ask … from your research who did you find more appealing to your political views? That’s just out of interest.

    I really like your hypothesis and research into this relationship between two key leaders of the last century.

    Thanks!

  5. aandrewclark says:

    Hey Cameron,

    If I’d had the space within the wordlimit, I definately would have spent some time talking about why Reagan’s position on abortion was what it was. Likewise, I would have spoken about why Thatcher had a lot more flexibility than Reagan did. From my research, I found Margaret Thatcher to be far more appealing – University must be bringing out my libertarian streak – five years ago I suspect I certainly would have been a Reagan accolyte instead.

    Dear Alyse,

    With regard to your comment regarding public history, I have been stunned by the statistics scribd.com has provided me with regard to my paper. It has been accessed literally hundreds of times, mainly from the UK, mainly via people searching for terms relating to “Thatcher” and “Political expediancy” in google. People that have followed a link to my paper have spent an average time of approximately 3:45 on the page, so I guess there must be a few people out there reading the whole thing to drag the average up.

    Dear David and John,

    I agree with both of you – national interest must be priority number one for a national leader. The measure of regret David detected probably stems from my disappointment that neo-liberal ideology is less cohesive than I had imagined – nevertheless, the libertarian in me is overjoyed that neo-liberalism is such a broad and inclusive ideology.

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