Commentary (The Times)

MT: “US dismissed Margaret Thatcher as suburban matron who would never win power” (State Department files)

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 28 October 2007
Journalist: Tony Allen-Mills
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 531 words
Themes: Foreign policy (USA)

US dismissed Margaret Thatcher as suburban matron who would never win power

Tony Allen-Mills

SHE is now an idol of conservative America but when Margaret Thatcher first burst onto the international scene in 1975, some US diplomats were unconvinced and were even dismissive about her future political prospects.

In a series of classified briefing papers sent to Henry Kissinger, then US secretary of state, embassy analysts not only doubted that she would ever become prime minister, but also thought Jacques Chirac, then prime minister of France, might be friendlier towards Washington.

In the newly declassified documents, they described Thatcher as “a quintessential suburban matron“ who was “frightfully English to boot”.

It was years before the special relationship that Thatcher went on to establish with Ronald Reagan when he became president. She had just defeated Edward Heath to become the Tories’ first female party leader.

A diplomatic telegram sent to Washington a few days after her victory noted that she was “honest, straightforward . . . and has the courage of her convictions”, but went on to provide a list of her apparent flaws.

In a document entitled “Margaret Thatcher: first impressions”, an embassy analyst identified only as “Spiers” wrote that she possessed “the genuine voice of a beleaguered bourgeoise” but doubted if she could broaden her national appeal. She had “a quick, if not profound mind” but “tends to be crisp and a trifle patronising”.

“Unfortunately for her prospects of becoming a national, as distinct from a party, leader, she has over the years acquired a distinctively upper middle-class personal image,” the telegram said. It went on to describe her “immaculate grooming, her imperious manner, her conventional and somewhat forced charm and above all her plummy voice”.

The documents are among hundreds relating to European foreign policy in 1974-75 that were recently declassified and made available in the online database of the National Archives in Washington.

The Americans were worried that Britain’s interest in the European Community, as it was then called, would weaken transatlantic ties. One cable notes that Thatcher’s “remarks on the importance of the EC suggest . . . that she may, like Heath, favour the European connection over the US”.

The State Department documents reveal that in the mid-1970s Washington was more impressed with Chirac. A briefing from the Paris embassy described him in glowing terms as “a young, sinewy politician with the right credentials . . . a brilliant young technocrat . . . fascinated by the United States and is probably as favourably disposed toward the US as anyone (in the French government)”.

The State Department’s love affair with Chirac ended with the Iraq war and he is now chiefly remembered as the hated “surrender monkey” who failed to support US troops.

Last week Thatcher’s friends and former colleagues were amused to hear of the American analysis. “The standard of perception of the US diplomats in London at that time was pretty poor,” said Lord Tebbit, the former Tory chancellor and party chairman.

“It’s clear she was grossly underestimated and the Americans would be the first to say that now.”