Book Review / Wheels within wheels, or a friendly axis: 'A Conservative revolution?' - Ed. Andrew Adonis and Tim Hames; Manchester Univ, 12.99 pounds

Click to follow
'We must remain, as we have always done in the past, different in character from other European nations and fundamentally incapable of wholehearted integration with them.' So Margaret Thatcher decreed in a revolutionary memorandum on the future of the special relationship.

Actually, she didn't. I cheated. This memorandum, quoted in this outstanding series of essays, was circulated 40 years earlier by possibly the greatest Foreign Secretary of the century, Labour's Ernest Bevin. It was far from revolutionary. Tim Hames uses it to demonstrate that Thatcher's 'intuitive pro- American bias' constituted less a revolution than a return to what had been a central theme of British foreign policy for much of the previous half century.

Her bias was enhanced with the election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 because of their ideological kinship and the President's deep romantic attachment to this country. The Maggie and Ronnie Show played for a decade. But Hames insists that it hardly constituted an Axis.

All Thatcher's Foreign Secretaries - Carrington, Pym, Howe, Hurd - were, in the Downing street phraseology, 'Eurofreaks'. She put them in the FO presumably because - at least until those final months and the enforced resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe - she was not out of touch with geopolitical reality, however unappealing.

Moreover, Thatcher came to recognise that America wanted Britain as a powerful player in a strong and united Europe. Reagan did not see the special relationship of over-riding importance, or as something to be set against Europe - and neither did his predecessors.

The authors focus on two issues in which this country's interests did prevail during the decade in question. They were: America's support for the liberation of the Falkland Islands, and the downgrading of the Strategic Defence Initiative, seen by Reagan as a route to the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Relations with Argentina were not essential to the US and so, at the margin, Reagan could let his heart rule his head. But SDI was - and its downgrading, Hames demonstrates, was more a matter of technical difficulties and obstruction on Capitol Hill than of a favour for a friend.

These essays, which spring from a conference held at Nuffield college Oxford in 1991, started from the premise that things really did seem awful for this country and America in the late Eighties. Both were in apparently inexorable economic decline, and both were close to crises of political and institutional competence. Here there was talk of ungovernability and speculation about private armies. In America, the presidency had lurched from Nixon to Carter. Meanwhile, from Vietnam to Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Afghanistan, Communism was on the march.

What Thatcher and Reagan brought to this 'determinstic despondency' was a form of aggressive and upbeat conviction politics build round new constituencies. Joe Sixpacks, blue-collar Reagan Democrats, played much the same role as Essex Man did for Thatcher. And both leaders had to put up with the defection of better educated, often public-sector employed members of the middle classes.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that the two constituencies were identical or that there was one revolution fought out on two fronts. Both leaders saw the need to test Soviet Communism to breaking point. Both believed in market economics.

But, to Reagan, social conservatism was also a powerful force. Victorian values had little resonance under Thatcher, who had dumped the concept, while John Major clings to his confused and unpopular Back To Basics campaign. This is because England is, as Gillian Peele argues convincingly, 'a highly secular society with a declining level of church attendance'. Insofar as organised religion mattered in this country, it was hostile to Thatcherism. America's moral majority did exist, and still does.