Thatcher and Reagan: The Iron Lady Was Tougher Than the Gipper

The two leaders were fast friends, but Thatcher faced a more dire challenge -- and she addressed it without Reagan's aw-shucks charm.


Margaret Thatcher's long twilight has come to an end, and most Americans will view her through the lens of her ties to Ronald Reagan. After all, the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is probably the best-known and most-revered tie between an American president and a foreign leader, outside of the one between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Anglo-American ties have been called "the special relationship," and the personal bond between the Gipper and the Iron Lady was particularly strong, although not entirely in the way that it's remembered and perhaps in ways that offer some insight for our times.

There were obvious parallels and affinities between Reagan and Thatcher. Both were champions of the free market and small government; both favored a more aggressive posture toward the Soviet Union; and both pushed their center-right parties to the right.

But there were differences. Reagan faced an ailing America, Thatcher a dying Britain. It's hard to imagine now the way coal strikes by the nation's powerful miners unions plunged Britain into darkness. It's hard to believe that nationalized industries included gas, electricity, television, and airlines. British newsrooms famously banned computers. Really. The printer's union, the National Typographical Association, had a monopoly on keyboards. Journalists could use typewriters, but computers were the province of printers. The top tax rate was 83 percent, the Telegraph notes, and the tax on unearned income was 98 percent.

Thatcher slashed, but there was no Reaganesque free candy. She lowered the rates, but she also raised other taxes, such as the value added tax. She was about sacrifice, cutting government subsidies and programs in a way that Reagan never matched. Millions of people went on the dole because of her cuts, whereas the recession in the U.S. did not result from Reagan cutting the budget but from Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker slamming the brakes to wring inflation from the economy. (Reagan did reappoint Volcker once.)

Thatcher called Reagan "the second most important man in my life." And both drew strength from the other. It helped at home. It was hard for Americans or Britons to dismiss their leader as a crazy outlier if your most important ally had an elected leader with a similar worldview. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would mutually reinforce each other in the same way as they took on their own party's established interests. When Thatcher and Reagan differed, as on the Falklands war, where the Reagan Administration had coddled the "authoritarian" regime in Buenos Aires, it strained the relationship but never broke it.

In all, though, Thatcher was more about sacrifice than easy victories. Reagan invaded Grenada -- a move that Thatcher's government denounced. Taking on the Falklands was a much bigger challenge. Thatcher was about cuts and upheaval. When she said during one of her most despised periods that "the lady does not turn," she embodied her principled determination. There was no "Aw, shucks" charm like Reagan, just castor oil.

In only one sense did she have it easier than Reagan. The Democratic Party may have been a mess, but it was nothing like Britain's Labor Party, which became more socialist after her victory. Labor's 1983 platform under leader Malcolm Foot was described by one wag as "the world's longest suicide note."

Thatcher famously warned George H.W. Bush before the first Persian Gulf War, "Don't go wobbly on us, George." But Bush and Thatcher's successor, John Major, were seen by conservatives as wobbly short-timers facing revived opponents from the left in the form of Clinton and Blair. Blair finally crushed any hopes of renationalization of industries or a return to pre-Thatcher Britain, not that the embers burned particularly bright. Thatcher was eventually pushed out of office like Churchill, the price of victory one supposes. Being indispensable is a guarantee, it seems, of becoming dispensable when the work is done. Thatcher's legacy, too, is Churchillian -- maybe not bigger than Reagan's because her nation was smaller, but arguably more impressive.