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Charles Powell: The balance sheet of Thatcher's foreign policy was 'overwhelmingly positive'

5 min read

Mrs Thatcher wanted Britain to count in the world. The vigour and determination with which she implemented our foreign policy was impressive, though traditional diplomacy was not her strong suit, writes former adviser Charles Powell 

I don’t recall anyone in Margaret Thatcher’s time querying whether Britain actually had a foreign policy as has often been the case since then. We did and it was pretty clear and simple, if not invariably shared by the Foreign Office.

Margaret Thatcher believed we should win, not just endure, the cold war and that we should promote, not just defend, the superiority of liberal democracy over communism.

She believed passionately in the special relationship with the US and in standing by Britain’s allies when they were in trouble.

She was no great admirer of supranational institutions, believing that freedom could only be successfully defended by strong sovereign states. She made sure we had a strong defence with nuclear weapons at its heart.

She was determined to get our money back in Europe because she thought the financial contribution exacted from us was unfair. She also wanted the European Community to be what it claimed on the label, a proper common market with no internal barriers. She did not want it to take over any more functions from national governments beyond those needed to enforce the single market.

Above all she wanted Britain to count in the world and put behind us the perception of perpetual decline with talk of the “British disease” which had mounted in the 70s. 

Her domestic policy of far-reaching economic and social reform was a core aspect of her foreign policy. It gave her added fire-power internationally by creating an aura of success and of overcoming opponents on the home front as well as dictators abroad.

The vigour and determination with which she implemented our foreign policy was impressive, though traditional diplomacy was not her strong suit. She could be relentless about getting her way to the point of being counterproductive. But she also had a good instinct for when the moment had come to strike a deal or cut her losses. She knew how to make smoke and retire – in the naval metaphor – when she was on the losing end.

Being a woman was an advantage because it made her instantly recognisable anywhere in the world. So was the Iron Lady brand which caught the public’s imagination.

Margaret Thatcher deserves credit for a string of successes for Britain: successfully gambling all on sending an armada to recover the Falklands after the Argentinian occupation, a bold and risky call if ever there was one; ending the Rhodesian civil war and bringing Zimbabwe to independence; getting tens of billions lopped off our financial contribution to Europe and ensuring the rebate lasted for so long as we are members; launching Europe’s single market to give a huge fillip to the City in particular; recognising before anyone else the opportunity offered by Gorbachev’s accession to power in the Soviet Union to end the cold war; successfully negotiating Hong Kong’s return to China’s sovereignty with a full degree of autonomy; and concluding the Anglo-Irish agreement, against her instincts giving the Republic a voice in the affairs of Northern Ireland as the first step on the path to the later Good Friday agreement, bringing peace to the island of Ireland.

She was the first head of government to speak up publicly about climate change and the risk to the global environment – she is not often credited with that but it’s a fact.

Less to the taste of some people, she was the only foreign leader to whom South Africa’s apartheid regime listened and paid attention because of her resistance to imposing sanctions. That gave her a significant role in bringing about Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, for which he graciously thanked her.

The successes were leavened with some misjudgments, not least among them failure to come to terms with the prospect of German reunification. Her alternative vision for Europe’s future set out in her Bruges speech came too late to seize the agenda and set Europe in a direction which would have avoided many of the difficulties we experience now.

She consistently underestimated the attachment of other European countries to the cause of European integration, though that is an unfinished debate given the rise of populism we are now seeing. She irritated enough of her European colleagues to make it harder to realise some of our objectives. She irritated her own foreign secretary to the point of resignation, leading to her own political demise.

There were also missed opportunities. Some would say Britain could have seized the leadership of Europe or at least become an equal partner in a Franco-German-British troika if she had been more cooperative. I don’t believe that was ever a realistic expectation or indeed something she thought practicable.

She neglected the Commonwealth mainly because it spent most of its time and energy attacking her on the issue of South African sanctions. She was not mightily interested in the developing countries, believing trade and investment were more use to them than aid.

But the balance sheet of her foreign policy was overwhelmingly positive. Even her harshest critics cannot deny that Britain’s standing in the world was higher at the end of her time as prime minister than it had been before. You have to go back a long way, at least to Winston Churchill, to find another prime minister who could claim that.

Lord Powell is a crossbench peer and Mrs Thatcher’s former foreign policy adviser

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