A very special relationship

Reagan and Thatcher: heavenly twins or Bonnie and Clyde? The presence in government at the same time of two leaders who shared the same instinctive ideological views on the nature of politics was probably more a product of the state of politics in the 1970s than a coincidence of the two personalities happening to appear on the scene simultaneously.

The USA, and more so Great Britain, had seen the steady accumulation of powers by the central state and the increasing exercise of industrial and political power by the trade unions. Edward Heath's government had fallen in 1974 as a consequence of the miners' ability to influence the operation of key public services - notably electricity - and the trade unions' actions in the "winter of discontent" in the later years of the Callaghan government played a significant role in putting Margaret Thatcher into office in 1979.

In the United States, mainly as a consequence of its size and its federal structure, there was rarely the same national focus of union activity, but early in his presidency, in August 1981, Reagan faced a strike by the Air Traffic Controllers which threatened to bring air transport to a halt throughout the country. Without hesitation, and to the amazement of most observers, Reagan simply sacked the strikers and replaced them with military personnel. In Britain, with Heath's bitter experience in mind, Mrs Thatcher prepared carefully to take on the miners, which she successfully did in 1984. There followed a legislative programme of piece by piece curtailment of trade union rights which went beyond the need to restore balance.

The governments of both countries displayed an anti-union style which chimed with the public mood and they used it to remove more and more restrictions on trade at the expense of the protection of working conditions. They both believed that the pain of increasing unemployment in the pursuit of lowering inflation through control of the money was worth the eventual result.

It was well known that Reagan admired Thatcher's privatisation programme. Here again she was able to play on the public's feeling that nationalised industries were neither sufficiently sensitive to public needs nor efficiently run. Never mind the fact that some, such as electricity and gas, were natural monopolies, that putting telecommunications into private hands raised important questions of national security, and that the concept of private gain from the supply of water was abhorrent to many people, it was ideologically led and pushed through parliament to the personal benefit of the relatively few who could afford to buy shares, and to a one-off benefit to the Exchequer. Similarly, the sale of council houses, enticing tenants with huge discounts, enabled those with some resources to profit from a municipal asset and to feel personally, financially and, no doubt electorally grateful to the Conservative government.

In these areas of policy Reagan and Thatcher were able to take fundamental action because there was always a grain of truth in what they said. The unions were unpopular; the nationalised industries were unresponsive; and inflation was devastatingly high, but there was no apparent awareness that to destroy, rather than to reform institutions that for good reason had been brought into public ownership over more than a century, was both unnecessary and, in the longer term, counterproductive. In addition, in its impact on society, it fostered selfishness and acquisitiveness and was socially divisive. Increasingly the verdict on Reaganomics and on Thatcherism has to be that it grossly overemphasised individualism at the expense of the interdependence of the wider society, and accelerated the breakdown of communities and diminished their ability to inhibit antisocial behaviour. It was a paradox that they were also able to take action in the name of financial prudence when the very institutions that were privatised were often unattractive as a direct consequence of a lack of investment.

In international affairs the meeting of minds between the two leaders was particularly marked. They shared a visceral determination to confront the Soviet bloc and to protect their concept of the "free world". This led to huge, and as yet unfulfilled, expenditure on the Strategic Defence Initiative - "star wars" to you and me - and to intervention wherever they saw communist influence raising its head. In the case of Reagan and the USA this led to American backing of a number of deeply unpleasant and vicious regimes around the world, including Pinochet in Chile, Somoza in Nicaragua and, of course, Saddam Hussein.

In November 1983 the American myopic obsession with communism produced the one major fall out between the two leaders, when American troops invaded Grenada to force a change of regime. The Bishop government was believed to be too sympathetic to Fidel Castro for American comfort. Mrs Thatcher's anger at this action against a Commonwealth country was forthrightly expressed, to the astonishment of the American administration which had blithely assumed that Britain would support its initiative.

When, as an MP, I was on a US government sponsored visit to the States in the middle of the Reagan presidency, I was puzzled by the electoral appeal of the man. He was clearly an excellent communicator and had gut conservative instincts that were no doubt attractive to some American voters, but he came across as somewhat naive and unintellectual. I asked the late Dick Scammon, the doyen of American political commentators for an explanation. "It's simple", he replied. "For years at the top of the news we had successive Presidents wringing their hands over some intractable problem. Now at the bottom of the news we have a President smiling and handing out candy to kids." So, farewell to the feelgood president!

8 June 2004