Friends and foes in high places

Sat, Apr 14, 2012, 01:00

HISTORY:Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had a special relationship, but it never interfered with their respective national interests

THE SPECIAL relationship between the UK and the US goes back to the aftermath of the 1812 war, when London and Washington agreed that they did not need to protect the Canadian border against each other. It was more or less institutionalised in 1939 by US president Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who developed an intimacy that has continued in varying degrees to this day.

And very intimate it sometimes was. When Churchill was staying in the White House and the president came across him naked in the guest room, the cigar-smoking old warrior is said to have declared: “The prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the president of the United States.”

But the close association of the two English-speaking democracies had its ups and downs. The low point came over Suez in 1956 when Washington refused to support the British in what it saw as a bungled imperialist venture.

In the view of historian Max Beloff, the special relationship became an agreeable myth to help cushion the shock of British national decline. However, it endured, with London the junior partner. In the 1960s British ambassador David Ormsby Gore was almost a cabinet member in JFK’s White House and over time the British embassy became the largest in Washington, with unique military and diplomatic contacts at all levels.

The relationship certainly flowered in the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They were ideological bed-mates, committed to capitalist freedoms and winning the Cold War. Thatcher would declare the relationship “very, very special”. And indeed that is how their interaction was perceived then, and since, with the assumption that, while there were frictions, there was little rancour.

Well, there was quite a lot of rancour, as Richard Aldous shows in this fascinating revisionist study, based on declassified documents and oral histories. Indeed, on one occasion, the president of the United States had something to hide from the first female prime minister of Great Britain.

This was Reagan’s decision to invade the island of Grenada in 1983 after a bloody coup. When Thatcher got word that Reagan was considering military action against a tiny member of the Commonwealth, she rang him in a fury. He was so abashed that he wrote in his diary: “I couldn’t tell her it had started.”

They had also fallen out the previous year over Thatcher’s decision to seize the Falkland Islands back from the Argentinian military. Concerned about maintaining another special relationship, which it was then building with Latin America’s right-wing dictators, the US withheld support. Was it really worth going to war, Reagan asked her, over that “little ice-cold bunch of land down there”?

With hostilities underway, Reagan outraged Thatcher again by appealing to her for a ceasefire. As Aldous notes, the mask of friendliness slipped. She launched a tirade against him over the phone, asking how Americans would like living under a brutal dictatorship.

Reagan was angered and baffled at her resistance to being pulled back from the brink of bloodshed. She exploded once more when Reagan proposed a post-war initiative giving defeated Argentina a role. If Alaska had been invaded and the US had just won it back, he would not agree to negotiations, she snapped.

Reagan could not get a word in edgeways and could hardly get off the phone fast enough. Often he had to hold the receiver away from his ear when he was being verbally handbagged by the Iron Lady. These bitter rows defined the limits of a relationship where the overriding priority of both was the national interest.

Even in dealing with the common enemy, the Soviet Union, there were difficulties between the two free-market zealots. When Thatcher, a staunch proponent of the nuclear deterrent, heard how far Reagan was prepared to go in limiting nuclear arsenals in his talks with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986, she was incandescent (a not uncommon state), saying she felt “as if there had been an earthquake beneath my feet”.

But despite the spats there was seemingly a real personal affection in their association. Their mutual flattery in public was often embarrassing. In the eight years Reagan and Thatcher were both in office they had 20 one-on-one sessions and, like any couple in a close relationship, they tried to keep their acrimonious squabbles out of the public eye.

I enjoyed very much this eminently readable and fascinating book – something of a joint biography – by Richard Aldous. I was puzzled, however, by the lack of any account of the Thatcher-Reagan exchanges over Northern Ireland, especially from an author who acknowledges the assistance of an eclectic group of prominent Irish figures, including Bertie Ahern, Adrian Hardiman, Fintan O’Toole, Eoghan Harris, Hugh Brady, Maurice Bric and Denis O’Brien.

Reagan and Thatcher differed quite fundamentally on Northern Ireland. Encouraged by his pal, the US house leader Tip O’Neill, the president put Northern Ireland on the agenda for every meeting with Thatcher in Washington. He successfully pressed her, against her better judgment, to take the initiative with Dublin when Anglo-Irish relations broke down after the low point of her “out, out, out” dismissal of proposals from the New Ireland Forum in 1984. It was yet another irritant in a “difficult relationship” and merited a place here.


Conor O’Clery reported from Moscow in the 1980s on the role of Reagan and Thatcher in the Cold War. His most recent book, Moscow, December 25, 1991; The Last Day of the Soviet Union, is published by Transworld Ireland