Skip to content

A political marriage

Totally random one for those of you who are regular readers and have for some days been expecting something new on gambling… But I was asked recently to write a piece on the extent to which the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan might be described as a political marriage, and I thought I might as well post it for those who might be interested.


They say that marriage is like a game of cards. It starts off with the Ace of Hearts and a diamond, and finishes with a club and a spade.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s relationship doesn’t quite fit into that category. It started well, and it ended well. In the middle, it was a lot worse in private than it was in public. She supported him staunchly to the outside world and chewed his ear off when no-one else could hear. Not that I want to give anyone ideas about my own marriage, but that sounds like a political marriage to me.

They met in 1975, when he was not quite making it as a Presidential candidate and she was leader of the Opposition. She remembered him for the free-market economics he had espoused as Governor of California; he had been advised to see her by a wealthy backer of his who happened to know Denis. By the end of a meeting that far exceeded its scheduled 45 minutes, they were finishing each other’s sentences. Again, I wouldn’t like to cast aspersions on my wife.

After he became President, she wasn’t the first official visitor to see him, but the myth swiftly took hold that she was.  She spoke fondly on the White House lawn about the extent to which they faced similar challenges, how he was a trusted friend, and how Britain stood with his country. “America’s successes,” she said, “will be our successes”.

Eight years later, that prediction appeared to have come true. She told him he had been a great President – “one of the greatest”. “We have accomplished much,” he told her on leaving the Oval Office. “We, together, have been the driving force for change over the last eight years.”

Before Thatcher became the only non-family member to accompany Reagan’s two real wives to his internment, the eulogies the two leaders paid each other as he left the political stage seemed to reflect a close relationship that critics would characterize as her pandering to his every request. She had kissed him (and no other leader) at the G-7 summit in 1981; and let him use British bases to fly bombing raids over Libya in 1986. She defended him to the American public when he struggled over arms to Iran; and she had played a useful role between him and Mikhail Gorbachev – what Geoffrey Howe would call her ‘greatest achievement in Foreign Affairs’.

But the reality of their relationship was much more complicated than all that suggests. During the period where they were both in power, they disagreed and fought about most things: his team was critical of her handling of the British economy in the early 80s; she felt let down by him over the Falklands, and betrayed over Grenada. She believed his stance on nuclear weapons – which he wanted to abolish – was crazy, because it would lead to the massive build-up of conventional forces at enormous expense. Consequently, she was suspicious of Star Wars; and she felt he brought the western alliance close to disaster with his summit talks at Reykjavik.

In all that, though, she very rarely opposed him in public – with the notable exception of his plans in 1982 to impose an embargo on the Siberian gas pipeline. A response to the imposition of martial law in Poland, Reagan’s ban on the sale of American oil and gas equipment to the Soviets was seen by all Western European governments as at least equally as damaging to their interests as it was to the Russians’; and Thatcher, who saw Reagan’s stance as hypocritical in light of his country’s continuing to export grain, was overt in her opposition.

Just as her public stance on that issue showed that she was prepared to stand up to him – a fact that subsequently has become abundantly clear with the publication of both their papers – so too was his stance indicative of the fact that he was prepared to ignore the concerns of all his allies, including Britain, if it suited his policy. Thus, over the Falklands, his hesitation to give Thatcher his full and unequivocal backing reflected the extent to which his administration set great store by the relationships it was building in South America, and he repeatedly urged the British Prime Minister to compromise – both before and after the war.

In Grenada, meanwhile, he failed even to brief his British counterpart until the invasion of the island was underway: a betrayal which left her politically wounded in public – accused by Denis Healey of being walked all over – and personally incandescent in private. “After all I have done for him,” she exclaimed to an intelligence adviser, “he didn’t even consult me!” He later admitted that he hadn’t done for the simple reason that he didn’t want her to say no.

Thatcher and Reagan shared a lot of ideology; they faced similar economic problems, and both could claim to have presided over watershed periods domestically.  Both are credited with similar achievements, and both recognised the role that the other had played. They enjoyed each other’s company because they were political soul-mates (despite the fact that he had started life as a Democrat and Trade Unionist) and came from similarly humble backgrounds – he the son of a shoe salesman, she the daughter of a grocer. Thatcher noted in her memoirs how both had had to fight for their beliefs at a time when they were deeply unfashionable, in a way that Reagan’s successor in the White House never did; and the importance of their personal chemistry is underlined by the breakdown in Anglo-American relations that followed that transition to Bush.

But while each demonstrated a degree of loyalty in public; and although the New York Times would claim that, “when the chips were down, she [was] prepared to stand with us, and vice-versa,” in reality they actually both stood up for their own countries’ interests before they did anything else – which means that behind the scenes, they argued like billy-o. Some marriages are like that. Not mine, obviously.

Posted in Politics.

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment.