The ending of the Cold war was a fitting falling curtain on Margaret Thatcher’s decade in office. It accounts for why she was so much more widely respected and loved abroad than at home. To many in Eastern Europe she was the clear voice, the unswerving authority in the west alongside President Reagan, who had forced the communist leadership of the USSR to confront their problems and change their system.
Her actions to do this had sometimes been contentious at home and disliked by some of the European partners. She had backed the US in deploying modern missile systems on European soil, to show the USSR that the west would not be bullied. She had backed and encouraged the US Star Wars development, which offered the opportunity for the west to lift the fear and spectre of possible nuclear assault by offering us all protection. It worked. President Gorbachev concluded that the Soviet system had fallen too far behind the west’s wealth, technology and defensive capability. He decided to change the Soviet system.
I was surprised to hear Malcolm Rifkind in his articulate and generous tribute to Margaret give the Foreign Office the credit for identifying the Gorbachev change . I recall reading a passing reference to a Gorbachev speech that surprised me during my time as Chief Policy Adviser at Number 10. I asked the Foreign Office about it. They thought it of no significance. I asked to see the speech. They sent me over a copy in Russian. Ever persistent, I explained to them that my education had not run to fluency in Russian and I needed a translation. One was eventually sent over.
It was electrifying. There in this speech you could see a Soviet communist leader wrestling with the sad truth for him that the western system was delivering better defence and higher living standards. Some phrases, sentences and arguments echoed the belief in free enterprise that Margaret herself enjoyed. The USSR President was preparing the ground for an embrace of a more capitalist system. I took the speech to her, read out the crucial passages and surprised her as well as myself by the change they represented. It seemed possible, for the first time in the long Cold war, that change could come from the USSR which we could encourage and reinforce. She immediately saw the importance and the implications. She made the first move, which the Foreign Office of course assisted. She wanted to meet and talk to Gorbachev, and was in due course prepared to go to Moscow to do business with him.
Her much later visit to Moscow was a triumph. The welcome of people on the streets was very warm. She stood up well to a tv grilling, which won her more sympathy from many Russians. The world was treading a path to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with Reagan was important, giving him much needed European support for his determined stance against the USSR threat. Her relationship with Gorbachev was pivotal, allowing new exchanges with a changing regime.
Her voice was heard in Eastern Europe. As the subject peoples of communism stumbled out into the warmth of democratic freedom, it was her image they often had in their minds. WhenI travelled to Eastern Europe as a Minister to assist them in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism I was touched by their warmth towards the UK in general and Margaret in partricular. In Romania, travelling in the Ambassador’s car, a lady came up to the vehicle when stopped at traffic lights, and kissed the small Union flag we were flying.