Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, experts say, will best be remembered for the tough free-market economic measures she undertook during her 11 years in office [1979-90] — measures that can only be described as bringing an economic revolution in Britain.
But Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87, also played an important role on the international stage, especially at a time of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the West.
Tim Bale, a British historian of the Conservative Party, said Thatcher was the first Western leader to realize that Mikhail Gorbachev might be a different kind of Soviet politician.
“When she first came in in 1979, she took a very, very strong anti-communist attitude and really didn’t want anything to do with the Soviet leadership,” said Bale. “But she recognized very early on that Mikhail Gorbachev was something different. And to her credit, she pursued the relationship with him, even when some people thought she was perhaps being naively taken in.”
In December 1984 — three months before Gorbachev became the Soviet leader — he was in London as the head of a parliamentary delegation. He was invited to meet Margaret Thatcher, who later said “this is a man we can do business with.”
Stephen Jones, a Russia expert at Mount Holyoke College, says those words were critical.
“I just actually was reviewing an article that Gorbachev wrote, an obituary of Margaret Thatcher, in which he said that phrase actually helped him in terms of getting some greater credibility with Western leaders,” said Bale. “If Margaret Thatcher could deal with him, then the rest of the European leadership, and of course the American leadership, could deal with him too. So that was quite an important step in preparing the world for Mikhail Gorbachev.”
A bond with Reagan
Thatcher also had a very close relationship with President Ronald Reagan. They were, as some experts described them “politically kindred spirits.”
Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took a moment for thought during a press conference in central London, June 10, 1987.
Then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand posed for the media after a meeting about nuclear arms control at the Chateau de Benouville in Normandy, western France, March 23, 1987.
Then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pointed a finger as she answers questions at a news conference in London, June 8, 1987.
Then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met with President Ronald Reagan during a visit to the White House, Feb. 20, 1985
Then President Ronald Reagan chatted with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during State Arrival Ceremonies at the White House, Feb. 26, 1981.
Then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left the Castle lane, Westminster, London polling station with her husband, Dennis, after casting their votes in the general election, June 9, 1983.
Margaret Thatcher made a statement to reporters as Denis Thatcher listens, as she left No. 10 Downing Street, Westminster for Buckingham Palace to resign as prime minister, Nov. 28, 1990.
Britain's Baroness Thatcher read the order of service surrounded by empty seats as she waited for Queen Elizabeth to deliver her speech at the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords, Nov. 13, 2002.
Then Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto met with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 24, 1996.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Falklands veterans took part in a march in London, during a service to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Falkland Islands conflict, June 17, 2007.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gestured to members of the media as she stands on her house doorstep, following her return home from hospital, in central London, June 29, 2009.
Former British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher waits to greet then Pope Benedict at Westminster Hall in London, Sept. 17, 2010.
Richard Allen, former National Security Adviser under President Reagan, met her numerous times.
“I consider her to be one of the most remarkable people of the century. She was a thoroughly dedicated, highly intelligent, principled person whom most Americans admired greatly. She was cordial, serious — always serious. And those were reasons that Ronald Reagan was attracted, across the board, to her domestic thinking as well as her foreign policy thinking.”
“Hand in hand with Ronald Reagan," said historian Bale, "she was very instrumental in upping the spending on arms that eventually bankrupted the Soviet Union and forced it to withdraw from its empire in Central and Eastern Europe and then eventually, of course, implode itself.”
While seeing eye to eye with Reagan on how to deal with the Soviet Union, Thatcher disagreed with President George H.W. Bush on German reunification.
Retired General Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s National Security Adviser, said, “We and [West German Chancellor] Helmut Kohl and most of the Germans were the only ones who really wanted German reunification. The Soviet Union didn’t want it. The French didn’t want it. And the British, Margaret Thatcher said: ‘I like Germany so much I think there ought to be two of them.’ This was a balancing act to manage the process, ending up in German reunification where most of the world’s powers were not in favor of it.”
Robert Legvold of Columbia University says Thatcher had concerns about how powerful Germany could become within Europe.
“The Germans knew that both the British and the French were nervous about the prospect of German reunification, but she wasn’t digging in her heels in on that,” said Legvold. “And when the process moved almost of its own speed and course, she’s not somebody who tried to stick a stick in the spokes of that wheel.”
Experts agree that Thatcher was a towering leader of the 20th century — and, as the Financial Times
said, she “remains the figure against whom all subsequent British politicians should be measured.”