How Thatcher Saved Britain -- And Lost Europe

The Iron Lady's Foreign Policy

The United Kingdom has had its share of remarkable twentieth-century prime ministers. David Lloyd George was in many respects the architect of victory over Germany in the First World War. Winston Churchill led the country to victory in the second. Clement Attlee spearheaded the transformation of British society after 1945 with the creation of the welfare state. None of them, however, lent their names to an “ism”; there would have been something almost un-British about it. All that changed in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. The outlines of Thatcherism on the socio-economic front are well known: rolling back the frontiers of the state, emphasizing individual responsibility, and championing entrepreneurial creativity. Today, the legacy of Thatcherism is ambivalent. On the one hand, Thatcher pulled the country out of the economic tailspin of the 1970s; on the other hand, her war on regulation facilitated the banking extravaganzas that eventually resulted in the ongoing financial crisis. What is less well grasped, however, is Thatcher’s legacy in foreign policy, which is at least as important and equally complex.

After all, the sobriquet “Iron Lady” was bestowed on Thatcher not by British miners or Thatcher’s many other domestic opponents, but by the Soviet press in the mid-1980s. It reflected her reputation for toughness on the military and diplomatic fronts, particularly in the joint effort with U.S. President Ronald Reagan to strengthen the West’s nuclear defenses during the Cold War. Thatcher’s uncompromising struggle against Irish republican terrorism earned her the undying hatred of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which made its first targeted assassination attempt against a British prime minister in the notorious Brighton hotel bombing of 1984. Her most complete victory came in the 1982 Falklands War, when she dispatched a British task force -- at considerable risk -- to expel an Argentinian junta from the Falklands Islands. (The conflict ended in a decisive British victory.) Thatcher’s relations with her partners in the European Economic Community were more pacific, but the leaders of continental Europe nevertheless feared the vigor with which she represented British interests in Brussels. After decades of drift and decline, Thatcher re-established the United Kingdom as a major force on the international scene.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis