The Iron Lady's Mark on UK Foreign and Security Policy

No one doubted that Margaret Thatcher was a uniquely significant figure in the United Kingdom's foreign and security policies.

Margaret Thatcher was a controversial winner of RUSI's Chesney Medal in 2001. The award dates back to 1899 and is made, only occasionally, to figures who have made exceptional contributions to strategy and strategic thinking during their lifetime.

Some felt the award was overtly political, others that she did not meet these criteria, and others that she was intellectually too divisive a figure to be recognised in this way. But no one doubted that she was a uniquely significant figure in the United Kingdom's foreign and security policies.

Even before she became Prime Minister she took a distinct view on what was happening across the communist world in the mid-1970s. She believed she knew what motivated Soviet leaders in Moscow and eventually decided she could do hard-headed business with them.

She had a view of European integration that shocked many of her contemporaries but which foreshadowed the way the European Union actually evolved as it enlarged in the 1990s. She rekindled a Churchillian sense of US-British solidarity in her relations with President Ronald Reagan, and she stood solidly behind President Bush senior after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and told him  not to 'wobble' at the key moment - ironically just weeks away from her own political demise in November 1990.

Above all, her character and that of her governments, her image and her legacy itself, was - and is - shaped by a curiously fierce war over the Falklands in 1982. She presided over a government that - three times - ducked the issue of the Falkland Islands' future between 1979 and 1982. It drifted into a position that encouraged the military junta in Buenos Aires to believe it could get away with a quick land grab.  To then fight for the islands on a 'non-negotiation' basis was actually something of a U-turn; based on her sense of outrage that such a piece of naked aggression should be attempted against a power like the UK.  Many of her colleagues would have looked for a diplomatic way out; or else a military solution that stopped short of war but then looked for a diplomatic way out.

It was Enoch Powell who put his finger on the matter. Only a woman at the top, he said, would have the shameless effrontery to say exactly what she would do, and then go on to do it. Only the sort of woman she was would stake so much, for herself and for the country, on what she saw as both right and logical.

She will always be remembered as a divisive and controversial leader, but never as an inconsequential one; or one who did not have a strong sense of country, of loyalty and of duty. There is a great spirit gone.

The views expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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