Thatcher memoirs

Cold War: The Gorbachevs visit Chequers [memoirs extract]

Document type: Press
Venue: Chequers
Source: Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (1993), pp459-463
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2100
Themes: Defence (arms control), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Famous statements by MT (discussions of)

Visit of the Gorbachevs to Britain

[extract from Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years, pp459-463]

I now had to consider the next step in my strategy of gaining closer relations - on the right terms - with the Soviet Union. Clearly, there must be more personal contact with the Soviet leaders. Geoffrey Howe wanted us to extend an invitation to Mr Chernenko to come to Britain but I said that it was too early to do this. We needed to see more about where the new Soviet leader was heading first. But I was keen to invite others and accordingly invitations went to several senior Soviet figures, including Mr Gorbachev . It quickly appeared that Mr Gorbachev was indeed keen to come on what would be his first visit to a European capitalist country and wanted to do so soon. By now we had learned more about his background and that of his wife, Raisa, who unlike the wives of other leading Soviet politicians, was often seen in public and was an articulate, highly educated and attractive woman. I decided that the Gorbachevs should both come to Chequers, which has just the right country house atmosphere conducive to good conversation. I regarded the meeting as potentially of great significance. Indeed, before their arrival I held a further seminar with Soviet experts to cover the issues and work out the approach I would take.

The Gorbachevs drove down from London on the morning of Sunday 16th December, arriving in time for lunch. Over drinks in the Great Hall Mr Gorbachev told me how interested he had been in to see the farm land on the way to Chequers and we compared notes about our countries' different agricultural systems. This had been his responsibility for a number of years and he had apparently achieved some modest progress in reforming the collective farms, but up to 30% of the crops were lost because of failures of distribution.

Raisa Gorbachev was making her first visit to Western Europe and she knew only a little English - as far as I could tell her husband knew none; but she was dressed in a smart Western style outfit, a well tailored grey suit with a white stripe - just the sort I could have worn myself, I thought. She had a philosophy degree and had indeed been an academic. Our advice at this time was that Mrs Gorbachev was a committed, hard-line Marxist; her obvious interest in Hobbes ' Leviathan, which she took down from the shelf in the library, might possibly have confirmed that. But I later learned from her - after I had left office - that her grandfather had been one of those millions of kulaks killed during the forced collectivisation of agriculture under Stalin . Her family had no good reason for illusions about Communism.

We went into lunch - I was accompanied by a rather large team of Willie Whitelaw , Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine , Michael Jopling, Malcolm Rifkind (Minister of State at the Foreign Office), Paul Channon and advisers; he and Raisa by Mr Zamyatin , the Soviet Ambassador, and the quietly impressive Mr Alexander Yakovlev , the adviser who was to play a large part in the reforms of the "Gorbachev years". It was not long before the conversation turned from trivialities - for which neither Mr Gorbachev nor I had any taste - to a vigorous two way debate. In a sense, the argument has continued ever since and is taken up when ever we meet; and as it goes to the heart of what politics is really about, I never tire of it.

He told me about the economic programmes of the Soviet system, the switch from big industrial plant to smaller projects and "businesses", the ambitious irrigation schemes and the way in which the industrial planners adapted industrial capacity to the labour force to avoid unemployment. I asked whether this might not all be easier if reform were attempted on a free enterprise basis, with the provision of incentives and a free hand for local enterprises to run their own show, rather than everything being directed from the centre. Mr Gorbachev denied indignantly that everything in the USSR was run from the centre. I took another tack. I explained that in the Western system everyone - including the poorest - ultimately received more that they would from a system which depended simply on redistribution. Indeed, in Britain we were attempting to cut taxes in order to increase incentives so that we could create wealth, competing in world markets. I said I had no wish to have the power to direct everyone where he should work and what he or she should receive.

Mr Gorbachev, however, insisted on the superiority of the Soviet system. Not only did it produce higher growth rates, but if I came to the USSR I would see how the Soviet people lived - "joyfully". If this were so, I countered, why did the Soviet authorities not allow people to leave the country as easily as they could leave Britain?

In particular, I criticised the constraints placed on Jewish emigration to Israel. He claimed that 80 per cent of those who had expressed the wish to leave the Soviet Union had been able to do so. I said that this was not my information. But he repeated the Soviet line, which I did not believe either, that those forbidden to leave had been working in areas relating to national security. I knew there was no purpose in persisting now; but the point had been registered. The Soviets had to know that every time we met their treatment of the refuseniks would be thrown back at them.

We now left the dining room and had coffee in the main sitting room. All of my team except Geoffrey Howe, my private secretary Charles Powell , and the interpreter left. Denis showed Mrs Gorbachev around the house.

If at this stage I had paid attention only to the content of Mr Gorbachev's remarks - largely the standard Marxist line - I would have to conclude that he was cast in the usual Communist mould. But his personality could not have been more different from the wooden ventriloliquism of the average Soviet apparatchik. He smiled, laughed, used his hands for emphasis, modulated his voice, followed an argument through and was a sharp debater. He was self-confident and though he larded his remarks with respectful references to Mr Chernenko, from whom he brought a not very illuminating written message, he did not seem in the least uneasy about entering into controversial areas of high politics. This was even more so in the hours of discussion which followed. He never read from a prepared brief, but referred to a small note book of manuscript jottings. Only on matters of pronunciation of foreign names did he refer to his colleagues for advice. His line was no different from what I would have expected. His style was. As the day wore on I came to understand that it was the style far more than the Marxist rhetoric which expressed the substance of the personality beneath. I found myself liking him.

The most practical piece of business I had to discuss on this occasion was arms control. It was an important moment. Secretary of State Shultz and Foreign Minister Gromyko were due to meet early in the New Year in Geneva to see whether the stalled arms talks could be revived. I had found in talking to the Hungarians that the best basis on which to discuss arms control in a relatively serene atmosphere was to state that our two opposing systems must live side by side, with less hostility and lower levels of armaments. I did the same again now.

I added that as perhaps the last generation of politicians that remembered the Second World War, we had a bounden duty to ensure that no such conflict would occur again. On this basis our detailed discussions began: two things quickly became clear. The first was just how well briefed Mr Gorbachev was about the West. He commented on my speeches, which he had clearly read. He quoted Lord Palmerston 's dictum that Britain had no eternal friends or enemies but only eternal interests. He had been closely following leaked conversations from the American National Security Council, which had appeared in the American press, to the effect that the US had an interest in not allowing the Soviet economy to emerge from stagnation.

At one point, with a touch of theatre, he pulled out a full page diagram from The New York Times, illustrating the explosive power of the weapons of the two superpowers compared with the explosive power available in the Second World War. He was well versed in the fashionable arguments then raging about the prospect of a "nuclear winter" resulting from a nuclear exchange. I was not much moved by all this. I said that what interested me more than the concept of the nuclear winter was avoiding the incineration, death and destruction which would precede it. But the purpose of nuclear weapons was, in any case, to deter war not to wage it. They had given us a greater degree of protection from war than we had ever known before. Yet this could - and must - now be achieved at a lower level of weaponry. Mr Gorbachev argued that if both sides continued to pile up weapons this could lead to accidents or unforeseen circumstances and with the present generation of weapons the time for decision-making could be counted in minutes. As he put it, in one of the more obscure Russian proverbs, "once a year even an unloaded gun can go off".

The other point which emerged was the Soviets' distrust of the Reagan Administration's intentions in general and of their plans for a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) in particular. I emphasised on more than one occasion that President Reagan could be trusted and that the last thing he would ever want was war. I spoke, as I had in Hungary, about the desire for peace which lay behind his earlier letter to President Brezhnev . In this he was continuing something which was characteristic of America. The United States had never shown any desire for world domination. When, just after the War, they had enjoyed a monopoly of nuclear weapons, they had never used that monopoly to threaten others. The Americans had always used their power sparingly and shown outstanding generosity to other countries. I made it clear that, while I was strongly in favour of the Americans going ahead with SDI, I did not share President Reagan's view that it was a means of ridding the world entirely of nuclear weapons. This seemed to me an unattainable dream - you could not disinvent the knowledge of how to make such weapons. But I also reminded Mr Gorbachev that the Soviet Union had been the first country to develop an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. It was clearly not feasible to think in terms of stopping research into space-based systems. The critical stage came when the results of that research were translated into the production of weapons on a large scale.

As the discussion wore on it was clear that the Soviets were indeed very concerned about SDI. They wanted it stopped at almost any price. I knew that to some degree I was being used as a stalking horse for President Reagan. I was also aware that I was dealing with a wily opponent who would ruthlessly exploit any divisions between me and the Americans. So I bluntly stated - and then repeated at the end of the meeting - that he should understand that there was no question of dividing us: we would remain staunch allies of the United States. My frankness on this was particularly important because of my equal frankness about what I saw as the President's unrealistic dream of a nuclear-free world.

The talks were due to end at 4.30 to allow Mr Gorbachev to be back for an early evening reception at the Soviet Embassy, but he said that he wanted to continue. It was 5.50 when he left, having introduced me to another pearl of Russian popular wisdom to the effect that, "Mountain folk cannot live without guests any more than they can live without air. But if the guests stay longer than necessary, they choke." As he took his leave, I hoped that I had been talking to the next Soviet leader. For, as I subsequently told the press, this was a man with whom I could do business.