Niall Ferguson: What would the Iron Lady do?

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His book Always Right: How Margaret Thatcher Saved Britain was published last year by Amazon. This article is adapted from his speech at the Centre for Policy Studies ‘Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty’ and was originally published in The Sunday Times newspaper

The 40th anniversary of the foundation of the Centre for Policy Studies was celebrated last week in a way that its co-founder Margaret Thatcher would have relished. Lord Saatchi, once the master salesman of the Thatcher brand, assembled an illustrious crowd of Thatcherite heroes in the splendid setting of London’s Guildhall. But this was no self-indulgent beanfeast. The “conference on liberty” was a serious debate on the lessons of the Thatcher era for foreign policy today.

It was a treat to hear her former foreign affairs adviser, Lord Powell, elegantly eviscerate the American and European responses to the civil war in Syria and the Russian annexation of Crimea. Perhaps even more impressive, however, were the tributes from currently serving east European politicians such as the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski [interviewed by The Sunday Times today overleaf] and the Estonian prime minister Taavi Roivas.

As they reminded us, not the least of Thatcher’s achievements was the crucial role she played in ending the Soviet Union’s oppressive rule over the peoples of eastern Europe. In Sikorski’s words she was one of the holy trinity of western leaders — along with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II — who won the Cold War and brought liberty to millions.

Having just turned 50, Radek and I were too young back in the 1980s to play more than modest roles in the Thatcher revolution. We met at Oxford in 1982, when he was a refugee from the martial law that had been imposed on Poland in the previous year and I was (a lot less impressively) a refugee from Labour-dominated Strathclyde. Radek was always the most heroic of our little band of Young Thatcherites; after Oxford he went off to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, while the riskiest thing I ever did was to file dispatches to British newspapers from East Berlin without proper accreditation.

Still, in our different ways we were spear carriers in the Cold War. And we owe a common debt to those few academics — great men such as Jeremy Catto, Maurice Cowling, Roger Scruton and Norman Stone — who encouraged us in our revolt against the suffocating social democratic consensus that prevailed in universities in those days.

It was thanks to them that I had a ringside seat for the collapse of communism in 1989 — even if the piece I wrote that summer, accurately predicting that the Berlin Wall was “crumbling”, never saw the light of day. (“You’ve been listening to one too many Reagan speeches,” was the deputy editor’s justification for spiking it.)

Like Reagan, Thatcher is a hero today in eastern Europe because of the help she gave to the dissidents who made the 1989 revolutions. Reagan’s 1987 speech in front of the Berlin Wall is better remembered than Thatcher’s visit the next year to Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity trade union. Yet in many ways it was a much bolder act for the British prime minister to go behind the Iron Curtain and meet Lech Walesa, a man who posed a far more serious threat to communist rule in eastern Europe than any Berliner.

Speaking last year after Thatcher’s death, Walesa acknowledged the significance of that extraordinary visit: “Without Solidarity’s friends in Britain, the changes we wanted to achieve would not have been possible. Because for us it was vital to know that our fight had the support of the democratic world. Margaret Thatcher’s support was crucial. She had always been among our friends and in those dark days she showed it.”

What are the lessons we should learn from those heady days? The facile one is that Thatcher and Reagan won the Cold War by being bold idealists rather than grubby realists. I think that is an oversimplification. It is true that they both shared a principled aversion to communism as an ideology, as an economic theory and as a system of government. But when it came to foreign policy Thatcher was much more of a realist than people today generally remember.

In Britain, of course, she is still best remembered for resisting the Argentine junta’s invasion of the Falklands — and often caricatured by the left as an old-school imperialist. But in other cases she manifested a flexibility that often dismayed her more dogmatic supporters.

No political leader had more reason to detest the IRA than Thatcher. The IRA nearly killed her when it bombed her hotel in Brighton on the eve of the 1984 Conservative party conference. And yet in November 1985 she signed the Hillsborough Anglo-Irish agreement, which for the first time involved the government of the Republic of Ireland in the affairs of Northern Ireland. It was Thatcher, too, who signed the Anglo-Chinese agreement that paved the way for the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. To some of her traditional devotees on the right these were lamentable betrayals.

Thatcher’s relationship with the United States was also characterised much more by realism than by the romance imagined by the caricaturists. Thatcher felt “dismayed and let down” by Reagan’s decision to overthrow the Marxist regime in Grenada in 1983. On the other hand, she allowed the Americans to use airbases in Britain to launch retaliatory strikes against Libya in 1986 after terrorist attacks against US personnel in Europe.

With China, Thatcher would have advocated engagement, not appeasementNot without reason had a Soviet magazine nicknamed Thatcher “the Iron Lady” in the late 1970s. She was unhesitating when it came to countering the Soviet deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in eastern Europe, welcoming the arrival of US cruise and Pershing missiles at RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth. Yet as early as December 1984 she had recognised Mikhail Gorbachev as someone with whom she could “do business”.

On the question of Europe, too, Thatcher was a good deal more pragmatic in office than she later became after 1990. The 1984 agreement to give the UK an annual rebate of two-thirds of its net contribution to the European Economic Community was followed two years later by the Single European Act, a British-led initiative to improve the integration of what was then still the Common Market.

As I argued in my short biography of the Iron Lady, the reason so many people on the British left still detest her is that on so many issues she was right when they were wrong. The outcome of the Cold War seems inevitable with the benefit of hindsight. But for most of the 1980s Thatcher had to endure relentless criticism from believers in unilateral disarmament as well as exponents of “convergence theory”, who insisted that the countries of Nato and the Warsaw Pact were growing alike (give or take the odd gulag).

She was right about Europe, too. She was right to push it in the direction of real free trade by backing and signing the Single European Act of 1986. Yet she was equally right to oppose the idea of a single European currency. (How would Britain have fared if, like Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Greece, we had been inside the eurozone when the financial crisis struck? I shudder to think.)

In 1990, shortly before the issue helped to topple her from power, Thatcher tried to persuade John Major to help her talk the continental Europeans out of the monetary union project. We had arguments that might persuade the Germans, who would be worried about the weakening of anti-inflation policies, and also the poorer countries, who must be told that they would not be bailed out of the consequences of a single currency, which would therefore decimate their inefficient economies. That has proved to be uncannily prescient.

THE turn away from Thatcherism came as a welcome relief to most people. Yet in many ways it has been downhill ever since. Twenty-five years ago it seemed — as Francis Fukuyama famously argued in his essay The End of History — that the West had triumphed. Today the western world faces four main challenges that in 1989 few of us foresaw.

The first is economic. The West — in Samuel Huntington’s sense of the Anglosphere, western Europe and a few other democratic offshoots such as Israel — is experiencing rapid economic decline. Not only are we shrinking demographically but our share of global output has also fallen dramatically since 1989. Indeed, by at least one measure, the biggest economy in the world this year will be China’s.

It is bad enough that the United States has been overtaken by a country that is still under the rule of a Communist party. What is perhaps worse is the self-inflicted harm that has been done by the financial crisis, an event that has severely damaged the reputation of free market capitalism.

The second threat to western predominance is a resurgent Russia. Once written off as “Upper Volta with missiles” or “Nigeria with snow”, Russia has made a geopolitical comeback under President Vladimir Putin. Not only has the Kremlin successfully reinserted itself into Middle Eastern power politics with its backing of the bloodstained Assad regime in Syria; in Crimea it has also pulled off an extraordinary coup by annexing with impunity the territory of another sovereign state.

Our third big challenge is a European endgame that could result in Britain’s exit from the European Union. I would like to believe Thatcher’s successor, David Cameron, will be able to wring concessions out of Brussels and Berlin before he has to honour his pledge to hold an “in or out” referendum. But I fear the worst: that a majority of British voters will see the choice as being between membership of a German-led federation or getting out.

I worry that the proponents of exit gravely underestimate the costs of such a step; but I also fear that our partners on the Continent underestimate just as much the risks of creating a “Bundesrepublik Europa”.

The fourth and biggest danger to the West comes from political Islam. In an “arc of instability” that now extends from the deserts of the Maghreb to the mountains of Afghanistan, an ever-evolving network of Islamist organisations is spreading its vision of society reordered on the basis of sharia, often resorting to terrorism to achieve its goal.

Countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya are being torn apart by rival factions in an increasingly bloody region-wide sectarian conflict. Every day brings news of hideous bloodshed: mass murder in Iraq, kidnappings in Nigeria, stonings in Pakistan. Yet this is a threat from within as well as from without for the Islamist networks are growing inside western societies, too — even, as has become clear in Birmingham, inside English schools.

What would Thatcher’s response to these four challenges be if she were still here to lead us? Part of her role was, after all, to prevent American presidents from “going wobbly”. How would she stiffen the resolve of the wobbliest president of modern times?

Niall Ferguson with his wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a vocal critic of Muslim extremistsI believe the answers are clear. In the case of China she would favour engagement, but not to the point of appeasement, least of all at the expense of the West’s reliable ally, Japan. In the case of Russia she would surely have urged President Barack Obama to make more effective use of Nato to resist the annexation of Crimea, rather than relying on financial sanctions alone. As for Europe, she would surely be explaining to Chancellor Angela Merkel — in her inimitably emphatic way — that it would be in neither British nor German interests for the UK to leave the EU.

Yet it seems to me that it is on the issue of Islam that we have the most to learn from Thatcher. Just days after the 9/11 attacks she gave an interview for which she was roundly denounced by her old enemy Michael Heseltine, among others. But what she said was quite right: “The people who brought down those [World Trade Center] towers were Muslims and Muslims must stand up and say that is not the way of Islam. Passengers on those planes were told that they were going to die and there were children on board. They must say that is disgraceful. I have not heard enough condemnation from Muslim priests.”

Note that she was not equating Islam with terrorism, but simply calling on Muslims to dissociate themselves from political violence. Many did, of course, and still do. But there are many other spokesmen for Muslim communities in the West who expend a great deal more of their energy denouncing alleged “Islamophobia” than condemning terrorism.

“The challenge of Islamic terror is unique,” Thatcher wrote in an article a few months later. “The enemy is not, of course, a religion — most Muslims deplore what has occurred. Nor is it a single state, though this form of terrorism needs the support of states to give it succour. Perhaps the best parallel is with early communism. Islamic extremism today, like bolshevism in the past, is an armed doctrine. It is an aggressive ideology promoted by fanatical, well-armed devotees. And, like communism, it requires an all-embracing long-term strategy to defeat it.”

Just so — and this surely is the most important lesson we can learn from the Cold War. For the defeat of communism was not, as Walesa acknowledged, solely the achievement of east European dissidents and patriots like him. Nor was it a military victory: despite all the vast expenditures on nuclear and conventional weapons, the Soviet empire collapsed mainly because it lost a battle of ideas.

We forget too easily just how much western effort went into winning that battle. From an early stage in the Cold War, the United States and its allies poured billions into “psychological warfare”, broadcasting (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and, where possible, directly funding anti-Soviet elements in eastern Europe. (According to the historian Tony Judt, $50m found its way to Solidarity, for example.)

There are many reasons why secular democratic movements have been so unsuccessful in the Middle East and north Africa since the outbreak of the “Arab spring” in 2010. But one reason is surely that there has been a failure to win the psychological war against political Islam.

During Poland’s presidency of the EU in 2011, at the suggestion of Sikorski a European Endowment for Democracy was established on the model of Ronald Reagan’s National Endowment for Democracy. Its total budget is just €27m. Britain has yet to contribute. To be sure, the United States has historically been far more keen on “democracy promotion”. But under Obama there has been a tendency to shy away from the concept of exporting democracy as a neoconservative delusion.

Under Obama the Democracy Directorate at the National Security Council was dismantled. When a democratic revolution broke out in Iran in 2009 the president was silent; when it happened in Egypt he hesitated, then backed the Muslim Brotherhood, then endorsed a military coup.

Thatcher famously said “the lady’s not for turning”. But western policy on freedom in the Muslim world just keeps turning around in circles. If only she were here today — not least as a woman who personified the equality of the sexes — I believe she would cut through the cultural relativism that pervades the contemporary debate.

She would make it clear that political Islam, with its mission to impose sharia, is the 21st century’s communism: an ideology fundamentally hostile to the western conception of liberty. And she would remind us that, as in 1989, freedom will win only if we are prepared to fight for it.

Date Added: Friday 7th November 2014