Blair bridges the divide

Lady Thatcher's invitation to No 10 reveals one big difference between her and the new occupant, says Donald Macintyre
Click to follow
The old bruiser was at it once again yesterday, lambasting his favourite target. It was, Denis Healey said, "a bad choice" of the Prime Minister to invite Margaret Thatcher to Downing Street. She had been a "disaster" who had "destroyed British influence in Europe". While Lord Callaghan and Tony Benn have conspicuously refrained from joining him in criticising Tony Blair's invitation, the Healey remarks will no doubt strike a chord in many a Labour activist breast. He has, nevertheless, missed the point.

The "secret" visit was not quite the carefully engineered publicity coup that in hindsight it has been hailed as. Rather, it was assumed at No 10 that since the former prime minister openly swept in through her famous gates and that the comings and goings to Downing Street have been quite closely observed over the last three weeks, it would be noticed at the time. If it had been, it is possible it would not have been quite such a big story. The pair had a wander round her home of 11 years. Lady Thatcher no doubt did some high-class reminiscing; they had, by all accounts, quite a good gossip. And she gave him, as a still much-travelled elder stateswoman, some thoughts on foreign affairs. Including Hong Kong, a subject on which she can claim both expertise and, from the Government's point of view, street cred. Unlike Sir Edward Heath, she has continued to back, against the line of her own one-time foreign policy adviser Sir Percy Cradock, Governor Chris Patten's painful struggle to maintain some vestiges of internal democracy in the colony. There is a baton to be handed on here. She signed the 1984 joint declaration in Peking. And Blair is now minded to go to Hong Kong for the handover next month, upgrading the earlier plan, originally made by John Major, to leave the job to whoever was Foreign Secretary.

And why not have a chat about foreign affairs? Of course, it is easy to find subjects on which she has little to contribute to her successor's international expertise. She is not, for example, the world's leading expert in how to get on with Chancellor Kohl. Her views on Western Europe are not exactly Blair's (though she will no doubt have found last Thursday that the Prime Minister means what he says about the over-integrationist Franco-German tendencies and the need to resist further labour regulation under the Social Chapter). But while it may still be difficult to admit it after the long years Labour has been in opposition, she was - and is - one of the biggest international figures of her generation. She may have been wrong about much, aspects of foreign policy included. But on some of the most important issues (speak it softly), she was right. And right earlier than many of her contemporaries. The regard in which she is held in Eastern Europe is not an accident: she was the first big-league Western leader to see the true significance in the early 1980s of the nascent economic reforms in Hungary. She was the first to build a close understanding and relationship of trust with Mikhail Gorbachev and to realise the huge and permanent importance glasnost would have. The use she made of her 1987 trip to Moscow, in absorbing hungrily every detail of the changes Gorbachev was seeking, not to mention revealing to the people in a television interview the huge scale of Soviet nuclear weaponry, cannot really be underestimated.

But the Healey salvo misses the target in another, even more important, way. So does the derisive claim that Blair was only sending a reassuring message to a few Eurosceptic newspaper proprietors. Of course, the new Prime Minister does not at all mind some of his qualities being compared with those of Thatcher - qualities so much discussed they hardly need rehearsing again: strong leadership; a sharp-eyed sense of British interests in international, including European, dealings; the clear prospect that with youth and a huge majority on his side he will become a hegemonic figure in the way she did; creative use - rather more creative, it turns out, than most of us who observe politics realised before the election - of time in opposition to plan for government; an ability to mould the party in the leader's image; and so on. But while the mere existence of Thursday's meeting inevitably focuses attention on those similarities, it also underlines a big difference.

Just as it is possible to applaud Margaret Thatcher's achievements in liberating the British economy without forgiving her carelessness of the appalling social damage the liberation brought in its wake, so it is possible to meet her without betraying the values she spent much of her political career ignoring. But you can do this only if your politics are not those of the tribe. And that is true of Blair in a way that it was never true of her. That is why he also issued a scarcely noticed invitation to Paddy Ashdown to drop into Downing Street a fortnight ago. That is why he meritocratically appointed Sir David Simon, of no known political affiliation, to work out how Britain can start taking a lead in making Europe more globally competitive.

It is an instinct that brings with it, for all the difficulties there will be on the way, the potential to be a leader who unites where Thatcher divided. She was, at her peak, as self-confident as he is; but she still talked about "our people" and "their people" in a way that most politicians in the main parties always have done, but he does not ... a contrast illuminated by the very act of meeting her last Thursday.