Margaret Thatcher was both trailblazer and sounding board

Convince the Iron Lady, the Kremlin’s reasoning went, and they could convince anyone

Share

Fittingly, and presciently, Margaret Thatcher’s most famous nickname was coined not by political friend or foe at home, but by a headline in a Soviet newspaper three years before she even entered Downing Street.

The “iron woman”, Krasnaya Svezda, the newspaper of the Red Army, called her in January 1976, a phrase swiftly translated back in Britain as “Iron Lady”. To her enduring delight, the sobriquet stuck.

Over the next dozen years her unrelenting anti-Communism and sheer force of personality would make her a leading actor in the last stages of the Cold War. Not the most important actor of course. That role was shared by Mikhail Gorbachev and two American presidents, first Ronald Reagan and then George H W  Bush.

But she was both trailblazer and sounding board. She was on the same wavelength as Mr Reagan. As for the Soviets, if there was one thing they respected it was strength. Mrs Thatcher projected that quality by the bucketload, and the Soviets respected – indeed admired – her for it. Convince the Iron Lady, their arch ideological critic, the Kremlin’s reasoning went, and they could convince anyone, Americans included.

If the Russians instinctively understood Mrs Thatcher before she became Prime Minister, she similarly “got” Mr Gorbachev when he was not even Soviet leader. In December 1984, when still a Politburo member, he visited London. “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together,” she said. Three months later he was elected General Secretary of the Soviet Communist party, a young and vigorous new leader about to embarking on perestroika, no less than a second Soviet revolution, albeit this time peaceful.

That Downing Street meeting was followed in November 1985 by an even more important ice-breaker, the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva, and a year later by the Reykjavik summit when the US and the Soviet Union came close to a historic agreement to scrap all nuclear weapons.

Mrs Thatcher was ambivalent about that idea because it meant that Britain would have to give up its nuclear deterrent, too. But the deal foundered on Reagan’s insistence on going ahead with his “Star Wars”, his orbiting anti-missile system. Three months later however, she went to Moscow on a visit that would be one of her greatest foreign triumphs.

As with the 1984 meeting with Mr Gorbachev in London, her March 1987 foray into the lion’s den was something of a warm-up act. It produced no breakthrough on the burning East-West issue of the hour, a deal to rid Europe of intermediate range nuclear weapons. That would only be signed at the third Reagan-Gorbachev summit, in Washington in December 1987, while Reagan himself went to Moscow in May 1988 at what in retrospect would be the high-water mark of perestroika.

But Mrs Thatcher’s trip in March 1987 was a tour de force. She held a dozen hours of talks with Mr Gorbachev of an openness and frankness that few Cold War meetings ever attained, not least because they were similar in one important respect – they both loved a good argument.

She had a splendid photo-op visit to the monastery at Sergei Posad (then known as Zagorsk), the spiritual home of Russian orthodox Christianity. She became the first Western leader to meet the dissident Andrei Sakharov, whose recent release from internal exile was one of the first signs that Gorbachev was serious about liberalising the Soviet system. But its high-spot, surely, was a remarkable TV interview in which she answered questions from a panel of critical Soviet journalists, and by common consent took them to the cleaners – above all on nuclear policy, exposing the hypocrisy and double-think that underlay long-standing Soviet doctrine on the issue.

“There are more nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union than any other country in the world,” she lectured. “You have more intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads than the West. You started intermediate weapons; we did not have any. You have more short-range ones than we have. You have more than anyone else and you say there is a risk of a nuclear accident. One moment!”

It quickly emerged that she knew the intricacies of nuclear policy even better than her interlocutors. The demolition job was all the more powerful in that she argued her case not as an abolitionist, but as a deep believer in deterrence, that only the threat of mutual Armageddon had kept the Cold War cold.

The interview was a sensation, watched by millions. Home truths like those were never mentioned by the Soviet press as it promoted the Kremlin’s “peace-loving” policies. The mere fact it was broadcast in full was another sign of the Gorbachev wind of change.

As 1988 wore on, perestroika started to lose its initial lustre, as deep economic problems, stirrings of independence in the non-Russian republics and ever more visible splits in the ruling Communist Party eroded Mr Gorbachev’s authority. 

The Cold War was effectively laid to rest at the storm-tossed Malta summit of December 1989 between presidents Gorbachev and George H W Bush. In fact, even that momentous occasion was overshadowed by the simultaneous unravelling of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. But both events vindicated the gut feeling she shared with Mr Reagan, that Communism would end up “on the ash heap of history”. Not as a result of military defeat, but because of its inherent weakness, as a contradiction of basic human nature.

Her relations with Mr Reagan’s successor were less close, while at home her political position was weakening. She was unconvinced of Bush Sr’s mettle. “Don’t go wobbly, George,” she urged as he searched for a response to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. He didn’t, but well before his coalition routed the Iraqis, she herself had been ousted. In the US, where she was regarded as a reincarnation of Winston Churchill, her star did not dim.  Her foreign policy was what most concerned Americans. And like Churchill and Reagan, she had been on the right side of history.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Product Owner - Business Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Product Owner/Business Analyst is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Technician

£28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

Recruitment Genius: Java Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity for an ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Health workers of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres take part in training  

Are we starting to see the end of Ebola? Not quite, but we're well on our way

Tom Solomon
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea