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.
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.
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.
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.