British Prime Ministers in search of a friendly welcome usually travel west, to the United States. MT reversed direction in March 1987, choosing to visit Moscow as a springboard for the British election.
Her trip proved a political masterstroke, and one that well symbolised the revolutionary changes which were bringing the Cold War to a close far sooner than anyone supposed, although she possessed a lingering ambivalence about Gorbachev, revealed in the last quarter of the year.
Mar-Apr 1987: STRATEGY
MT's letter to Britain's Ambassador to the USSR,3 Apr 1987, thanking for his help
Foreign policy had a bigger domestic footprint in 1987 than in most years of the Thatcher Governments, for the simple reason that MT’s visit to Moscow in March/April 1987 helped launch her General Election campaign. Yet there is a puzzle in this. Why should the Iron Lady have taken the risk of relying on Soviet assistance in such a thing? And why should the Soviets have played along, finally? Writing the customary Prime Ministerial letter of thanks to the British Ambassador after the visit, MT raised exactly this point. “There are still some unanswered questions in my mind about why Mr Gorbachev was so evidently determined to make the visit a success. And we shall need to think very carefully and thoroughly about the follow-up to it”.
Recent experience was certainly encouraging as to going East. MT’s visit to Hungary in Feb 1984 had shown her that a Communist country could successfully handle a high profile Western visitor to mutual advantage. Her attendance at the Chernenko Funeral the following year had even helped to foster in her a degree of admiration for Soviet ceremonial, uncomfortable as it might be to stand for hours in the bitter cold as she had on that occasion (albeit with handwarmers in her pockets, supplied by Hector Laing). She had been sufficiently moved to write a memoir of the funeral soon after coming home, and coincidentally this year we are releasing some of the jottings she made in preparation for the memoir, the only things of their kind in the whole of her archive. Clearly at the funeral she had a sense of history being made in front of her, history that one day she would write a book about.
And of course the pictures were good on these trips – seven, eight or even nine tenths of the electoral battle. Trailing the visit to the Lobby on 25 March, Ingham put that aspect first. The visit would have “two spectacular days – i.e., days which are likely to be very photogenic”. What she wore would matter very much too and the prospect of planning for such an occasion will have thrilled her. We release some skilful sketches made by Margaret King at Aquascutum of top coats and various ensembles considered for the trip.
Certainly the trip made sense in terms of foreign policy. Since 1983 she had consciously sought a better relationship with the Soviet leadership and when Gorbachev arrived she did everything she could to engage directly and induce others in the West to do the same. Her standing in Washington was sufficient in itself to guarantee serious treatment in Moscow, and success in Moscow would help in Washington too. The likelihood of a benign outcome was high.
Mar-Apr 1987: PREPARATION
We release text of the seminar of Soviet experts MT held at Chequers on 27 Feb 1987, described in Charles Powell’s note of the meeting as divided into sceptics and enthusiasts about Gorbachev. In truth MT herself belonged to both sides. Ministers met afterwards and against to play down expectations from the visit – certainly sound policy, which MT scrupulously followed, although the press tended to lean the other way. Unspoken in the ministerial meeting was the hoped for electoral payoff.
MT made flying visits to Caen and Bonn on 23 March to consult Mitterrand and Kohl before the journey. These were rather more than courtesy trips. They magnified the domestic impact of the initiative, of course, but also allowed her to arrive in Moscow credibly able to claim fresh knowledge of Western thinking in the most important capitals. Mitterrand was more an enthusiast about Gorbachev than Kohl, by a considerable margin. In both meetings she played down expectations of the visit and disclaimed any intention to speak for the West as a whole, and in brief press conferences afterwards all parties proclaimed unshakable common purpose, of course.
It would be right to make a correction here: Lady Thatcher’s account of the Mitterrand meeting in the Downing Street Years, published in 1993, seems to me to misread her own notes. In the book she portrays Mitterrand on this occasion as staunch on resisting de-nuclearisation of Europe, and later authors have tended to follow that account, understandably enough. In fact, the impression of staunchness comes from the first four pages of her contemporary notes, which on close study seem to be jottings of what she proposed to say to him, written before the meeting; only the last two pages of her notes, pp5-6, record what was actually said. As the researcher on the Downing Street Years I claim a full share of credit for the original mistake. Moreover, the official record of the meeting by Charles Powell, available to read here, scarcely shows a meeting of minds, even as to the meaning of the phrase “de-nuclearisation of Europe”. From her point of view Mitterrand was not really staunch at all on this question.
Detailed preparations for trip:
- The UK Ambassador reviewed her draft speeches and warned against her saying anything on the lines that she had “spotted a winner” in Gorbachev when she met him in 1984. "Gorbachev actively discourages anything smacking of a personality cult. It is also always a possibilty that he may yet turn out to be a loser".
- Powell’s staffwork was as thorough as ever. Enclosing her draft speech for the monastery at Zagorsk, he was able to assure her that the church would be serving vodka for the toasts at lunch.
- MT read carefully an advance copy of Gorbachev’s speech for the 30 March banquet in the Kremlin. It was a tough speech, almost wholly lacking the grace notes usual on such occasions, well-judged for this particular guest.
- Ingham briefed her for the live interview she was going to do on Soviet TV. He was inclined to think the medium was the message in this case – or at least that the very fact of her speaking unedited would matter more than what she actually said. MT seems to have outperformed all expectations, ours and theirs.
- Michael Alison, MT’s very pious PPS, sent her a prophecy from a pastor in Texas (received on "Sunday 29 June 1986 11:30 Texas time"), “From the enemy I will not turn around / The Great I Am has told me to stand my ground”. The Good Lord surely never wastes His Breath, but if anyone else had offered this thought he would have been accused of it.
Mar-Apr 1987: NASHA MASHA ("OUR MAGGIE")
The British press coverage of the visit was extraordinary, fully reflected in the Ingham Press Digest which noted her new Moscow nickname on 3 April.
We release the text of some of the conversation records, from 30 and 31 March, also notes by MT’s translator Professor Richard Pollock, who showed a profound grasp of the chemistry and atmospherics of the event.
MT made notes on the visit for a discussion she had back home with a Jewish organisation, perhaps the Council of Christians and Jews in her constituency on Sunday 5 April. The human rights aspect of the visit was a difficult one. She did not want to let it slip (nor did it), but equally it should not dominate.
The British Ambassador, Bryan Cartledge, sent home a long despatch on the visit on 7 April. Even allowing for the customary flattery of the head of government, he was impressed. Cartledge had been her Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs when she became PM in 1979, so he knew her well . Cartledge speculated on Gorbachev’s motives in inviting MT, including warm memories of his 1984 trip to Britain, love of a good argument and a desire to explore Western thinking after the failure of Reykjavik – the failure of which he still resented, with the UK very much in his sights. One might add perhaps the importance to Gorbachev of giving the Soviet public a sense of progress in the direction he sought to go. Spectaculars like MT's visit, and especially the live TV interview, dramatically demonstrated his commitment to glasnost.
The unfortunate Soviet TV interviewers whom she bested in her 11pm appearance were not allowed to forget it, as later FCO documents record, sent on to No.10 for MT.
Jul 1987: CHEERING UP THE AMERICANS
MT made a two-day visit to the US 16-17 July 1987, which reached vast numbers of viewers - it was estimated that 75m saw her on 17 July alone. We have Charles Powell’s excellent brief for the visit, summarising her task as being “at least to disguise the weakness of US leadership and to restrain any tendency to erratic and ill-thought out initatives”, the Reagan Administration entering its dog days barely recovered from IranContra, with stories of Preisdential senility and declining comprehension. “The fact that they are not true does not make them any less damaging”, Powell noted.
After meeting the president, MT made a highly effective, though controversial, intervention in domestic politics on CBS's Face the Nation, telling "all you media" to drop the downbeat tone and "cheer up". Interviewer Lesley Stahl later told MT that she had received some critical letters afterwards, to which MT replied, plausibly enough, that she customarily received many more than Stahl and just carried on. In fact the British Embassy in Washington noted the many supportive messages they had received after the interview. Some reached her personally too, notably from Vice-President Bush who sent her a letter saying she had cheered him up, and wife Barbara. This was the occasion when the President rang MT during a US cabinet meeting and she heard his colleagues applauding her down the line.
Spt-Dec 1987: FROM BERLIN TO BRIZE NORTON
On 24-25 September MT attended the International Democrat Union in Berlin, a loose gathering of right-wing party leaders, a kind of Conservative version of the Socialist International - although by definition there could be no such thing. It was an odd organisation, whose name people invariably got wrong, uncomfortably straddling the European Christian Democratic right and the "Anglo-Saxon" Conservative tradition. MT treated the IDU with a measure of seriousness, as a useful but limited thing. She was watchful of the federalism of some of its European elements, but used it as an occasional platform. This was one such occasion. She chose to deliver a significant speech, unattended by the press but heavily briefed about in advance by Ingham. It does not figure in the history books, but it should.
The speech was highly sceptical of Gorbachev and his reforms.
The FCO was shown the text and pointed out the problem. It was suggested a draft by Powell "sits a little oddly with overall tone and substance of the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow and the public statements we have made welcoming glasnost, perestroika etc". So it did.
"Change likely to be limited", was headed one section. "There is no prospect that a pluralist society is just around the corner, no likelihood that Communist ideology will change fundamentally. At most we are talking about limited improvements in the efficiency of the Soviet economy and smoothing some rough edges off the totalitarian system". And as for foreign policy, the "prospects for change in the Soviet Union's external policies look even less. Indeed, one purpose of Gorbachev's reforms may be to make it possible to pursue traditional Soviet objectives more efficiently".
Why speak in such terms?
One can explain the speech in several ways. In truth MT was somewhat schizoid about Gorbachev. She liked him personally, was pleased to have spotted him first (Cartledge's warning notwithstanding) and genuinely sought an easing of East/West tension after the nadir of Andropov. But equally she knew that Gorbachev was a product of the system, an out and out believer in the USSR, aiming to make it work not reform it away. She feared what might happen if he failed, but did not truly want him to succeed. And she did not believe he could succeed either.
There is a tactical explanation possible also. In her Moscow visit the Iron Lady had moved a long way towards softening her stance. But she was effective only because she was iron, so there was good sense in veering back. And finally perhaps, lingering under all, are those unanswered questions as to why Gorbachev had been so keen to make her visit to Moscow a success? Was she being taken for a ride by the wily Soviet leader?
On his side, Gorbachev seems to have felt something of the same ambivalence about MT. He warmed to her greatly, but he was also repelled. His private view of her as recorded by acolytes was not always flattering by any means. By 1987 he had established a direct relationship with Reagan and bridled at any hint on the British side that we saw ourselves as brokers. He blamed MT as much as anyone for the failure at Reykjavik, which was rather flattering from her point of view.
Roll forward to December. Gorbachev is going to Washington to sign the INF Treaty. Not greatly remembered now, one can make a strong case for this treaty as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Reykjavik foundered on Soviet refusal to countenance such agreements without the inclusion of SDI. Reagan refused, to MT's enormous relief - and business was done all the same, less than a year later and signed on US soil to boot.
In other words, the Soviets had shown they wanted to come to terms. Thus was vindicated the Western strategy for the whole of MT's term and back further, to Schmidt's initiative to counter the Soviet SS20s. Rather graciously, Gorbachev accepted MT's invitation to stop off in the UK en route to the ceremony, landing at an airbase not far from Greenham Common where Cruise missiles had first been deployed in Britain. And meeting there, the love-in resumed. Once again there were wonderful pictures - smiling leaders of East and West, Gorbachev in his hat, MT in a beautifully tailored suit. The content of their talks barely mattered alongside the symbolism.
Thatcherism saw many high points, and many lows. But possibly this was one of the highest points of all.