Witty, argumentative and emotional: the human side to Thatcher’s political resolve
‘I had the impression she enjoyed the sometimes heated arguments of our negotiating process’
The Margaret Thatcher whom I first met as minister for foreign affairs in the spring of 1975, shortly after her election as leader of the Conservative Party in opposition, was a very different politician from the woman I later came to deal with as prime minister.
The Department of Foreign Affairs note of our first meeting in March 1975 in the House of Commons reveals a woman strongly committed to Europe and highly critical of the attempt by the Labour government to renegotiate Britain’s two-year-old membership of the European Community.
That renegotiation was about to culminate five days after this encounter, at the very first European Council meeting, which was about to be held in Dublin.
On that occasion she went on to express to me the hope that a “one and indivisible” Labour government would emerge from that European Council, ready to campaign in the promised referendum for continued British membership of the community. Referring to the renegotiation, she said “an appalling aspect of the whole affair” was that Britain had “lost respect and support by so blatantly dishonouring an international treaty obligation”.
We met again a few weeks later at a conference in Cesme in Turkey where, my contemporaneous notes show, she spoke of the undesirability of excessive polarisation on economic issues, adding that from the debate she had listened to there she had come to understand that the money supply approach was inadequate because so much had to be done by supportive action in order to make it work.
Moreover, she recognised that if inflation was very high an incomes policy would be necessary which, however, should be operated on a statutory basis for only a very short time. And she went on to add that she favoured a political consensus, so long as it was based on a free society and a mixed economy.
On that occasion I had the opportunity of two conversations with her – one on a trip on which I joined her on a police launch in the nearby bay, and the other over afternoon tea, when we were joined by journalist Andrew Knight, later editor of the Daily Telegraph .
Because her remarks to the conference had not corresponded with the picture Andrew Knight and I had formed of her from press reports, over that afternoon tea we quizzed her vigorously, both expressing some incredulity when she insisted that her aim was to create a centre force in British politics, thus attracting social democrats from Labour. Andrew told me later, however, that earlier in this trip she had expressed similar views to a Labour MP, Dick Mabon.
However, despite the markedly nonideological character of the views she expressed at that conference, it became increasingly clear to me after she became prime minster that many of her ministers and civil servants were concerned about the strength of her views on many subjects.
Indeed, even on the way into our very first meeting in the House of Commons, Willie Whitelaw had intercepted me in order to assure me of his own continued commitment to the principle that there could be no devolution in Northern Ireland without power-sharing in government. He assured me that he would resign if, as he clearly feared might happen – and as indeed there were later indications was at least contemplated by Mrs Thatcher when as Opposition leader she came under the influence of Airey Neave – she went back on that commitment.
Later, just after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, I came across yet another indication of the extent to which the British government system quickly became centred on how to deal with what many clearly had come to see as her tendency to extremes. Within 10 minutes of the start of my first meeting with her new Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Humphrey Atkins, and his equally new permanent secretary, Ken Stowe, the latter was moved to ask me, then leader of the Irish Opposition, “How do you think we can get around the prime minister on this, Dr FitzGerald?”
And so it went on, throughout the long and complex negotiation of the Anglo- Irish Agreement that was eventually signed in November 1985.
My many, often very argumentative, encounters with Margaret Thatcher during the course of that arduous process eventually succeeded in persuading her intellectually to accept my thesis. This was that a switch in British policy from overemphasis on counterproductive security measures to conciliation of the minority nationalist community would create a swing in political support from Sinn Féin/IRA back to the constitutional SDLP, and that such a swing in nationalist opinion would in time force a review of the former party’s “ArmaLite and ballot box” policy that would eventually lead to peace.
But two other points should be made about that negotiation.
First of all, my efforts could not have succeeded but for the quality of the Civil Service negotiating teams on both sides. Moreover, a crucial factor was the skill and persistence with which the British civil servants involved — most notably the cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, and foreign office official Sir David Goodall — strongly backed by the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, worked to convince the prime minister, against her instincts, that this was the right course to pursue.
They also sometimes helped to guide my path as I made my case to her — for instance warning me not to speak of the “alienation” of the Northern Ireland nationalist minority, because she did not like this term, attributing its origin — wrongly — to Karl Marx!
Second, it was clear that while my arguments convinced her intellectually, they never did so emotionally — and her emotions ran deep! Once she had signed the agreement this immediately became evident from her instinctive reversion to fresh pressure for security measures — the very thing the agreement had been designed to minimise. But also, of course, from the belated regrets for having signed the agreement which she expressed some 15 years later — regrets that, most curiously, followed in the wake of the Belfast Agreement that was its belated fruit and its ultimate justification.
Two other comments on all that.
First, I had the clear impression that she actually enjoyed the sometimes heated arguments that were a part of our negotiating process. She may have had reservations about her ministers arguing with her — and some of them may have paid the price for doing so. But argument with a minister who was not one of her own was, perhaps, a different matter!
Second, while, perhaps like many of her predecessors, she may have had some at least subconscious hang-ups about Irish wartime neutrality, as well as more overt residual Methodist prejudices about Irish Catholicism, she was not in any real sense a unionist.
This became startlingly evident when, as we shared a glass of champagne immediately after signing the agreement at Hillsborough, I reminded her of the arrangement that had been reached, perhaps at foreign minister level, that the British and Irish permanent representatives in Brussels would several days later approach their colleagues in Brussels about European financial aid for Northern Ireland. (I had individually persuaded my fellow heads of government in the EC to contribute to such a fund so as to match contributions that it had been agreed would be made by the United States and some commonwealth countries.)
Her instant reaction was to exclaim “More money for these people!”, waving her hand dismissively at Northern Ireland outside the window. “Look at their schools! Look at their roads! Why should they have more money? I need the money for my people in England, who don’t have anything like this!”
Thus did Northern Ireland lose in 1985 what I had hoped might have been an additional £250 million — for when this initiative was revived several years later a much smaller sum was all that emerged.
Commitment to international law
I should like also to record three other aspects of her character that also deserve mention.
First, her European-type commitment to international law, which sometimes put her at odds with the president of the United States — perhaps a residue of her training as a barrister. Thus she told me once that she had immediately rejected an attempt by Ronald Reagan to persuade her to express approval of an Israeli air raid on the PLO headquarters, which was then in Tunis. “I said to him, ‘What would you say, President, if I bombed the Provos in Dundalk?’”
She was also infuriated by the US invasion of Grenada, (although a major factor in this case was the fact that this territory was part of the commonwealth, with the queen as head of state). “The Americans are worse than the Soviets, Garret,” she said, “taking our governor on board one of their ships and persuading him to give them a retrospective invitation to invade” — an allegation I never heard from any other source.
Of course, she did not really mean what she said on that occasion, but it showed the strength of her feelings on the matter at the time. I know that she facilitated a US air raid on Libya as a pay-off for US help in relation to the Falklands war — but, I suspect, with some reluctance and qualms of conscience.
Second, she also had a human side, as became very clear at the time of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s. For it was she who intervened during an informal discussion among the members of the European Council to tell us of the impact made on her by the powerful BBC television programme on that famine — and she who insisted that we must together act so as to get food to the area.
My third point is that another feature of her character was her quick wit. During the Irish presidency in 1984 I visited her in Downing Street with the Irish minister responsible for EU budget policy, Jim O’Keeffe. An emergency EU budget was needed to fill a gap in resources, and she was strongly resistant to this proposal.
“Now, prime minister,” said Jim O’Keeffe, taking his pipe out of his mouth, “in Ireland we have a saying that when you’re building a house, you put the roof on as soon as possible, so as to keep the rain out. That’s what we’re trying to do with the emergency budget.” He was totally nonplussed when, quick as flash, she responded: “And you say that to me, a Thatcher?”
And at the Downing Street dinner for the last European Council that I attended, she responded to a query from the Italian prime minister about the provenance of the dinner plates, which had “E II” on them — he thought the queen might have lent them to her. “No, these are just public works china. We have nothing good here in Downing Street — no good china, or silver, or glass.”
“Would you accept a gift of Waterford glass, then,” I was emboldened to ask. “No, Garret, Tyrone,” she shot back instantly, naming glassware from Northern Ireland rather than the Republic!
Others are better qualified than I to assess the positives and negatives of her impact upon the country she led for 11 years, but I am sure historians will credit her with having played a key role in halting the decline in Britain’s economy in relation to the rest of Europe that had been such a striking feature of the first eight decades of the 20th century.
By breaking, sometimes quite brutally, what had become the malign power of the British trade union system to slow economic growth in the United Kingdom, she released forces of growth in her country that for far too long had been artificially curbed. They will also have to measure the contribution that she, in conjunction with Ronald Reagan, made to the global ideological shift to the right that, for good or ill, marked the period from 1980 onwards.
At the end of her career she made one mistake — one often made by powerful political leaders: she remained too long in office. Had she resigned shortly after her third election victory in 1987, her premiership would thereafter have been viewed in a much more positive light. By choosing to remain in power for three more years, until her Conservative colleagues were effectively moved to sack her, she did great damage to her image, at least for the period of her lifetime.
It was a sad ending to what had been an astonishing career.
This previously unpublished article was written by the late taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald in 2003