By Charles A. Kupchan, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Charles A. Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. He was director for European affairs at the National Security Council during the first Clinton administration. The views expressed are his own.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday, altered the course of post-war Europe. As the leader of the Conservative Party, she liberalized the British economy, ultimately forcing Britain’s Labour Party to the political center and irreversibly remaking the country’s political landscape. Meanwhile, she consolidated in her own party a determined skepticism of European integration, setting the stage for the U.K.’s ongoing efforts to keep its distance from the European Union. Finally, she set a gold standard for Anglo-American relations, forging a close relationship with President Ronald Reagan. Teamwork between London and Washington helped guide the Cold War to a peaceful end.
The economic destruction wrought by World War II ensured the consolidation of a European left with socialist leanings – one strongly committed to the welfare state, labor unions, and economic policies aimed at taming the free market. Thatcher effectively pulled off an economic course correction that fundamentally altered British – and European – politics. By forcing through liberalizing reforms that ultimately produced an impressive economic expansion, she dealt a decisive blow to Britain’s traditional left. Privatizing industries, taking on trade unions, scaling back the welfare state – these and other policies aimed at economic modernization proved uniquely controversial, but also successful in producing results as well as strong electoral support. Thatcher, Britain’s only female prime minister, stayed in office from 1979 until 1990.
By the end of her tenure, Thatcher’s uncompromising ways produced considerable dissent – even within her own party. But the transformation of Britain stuck – made clear when New Labour came to power in 1997. Tony Blair did not undo Thatcher’s reforms. On the contrary, he presided over a remade Labour Party, giving Britain and Europe a new brand of center-left politics much more welcoming of free markets.
While the structural reforms, both economic and political, set in motion during Thatcher’s tenure did not immediately cross the Channel and take root on the Continent, Britain became an engine of liberalizing energy within the European Community. London began to consistently press Brussels to embrace market-opening policies. And Thatcher’s Britain would eventually serve as a model for Germany and other continental economies that have more recently scaled back the welfare state and seen their center-left parties move decisively to the political center. Indeed, the competition introduced by globalization and European integration is pushing EU member states to embrace many of the reforms that Thatcher brought to Britain decades ago.
Despite her support for a single European market, Thatcher was a profound euro-skeptic. She feared that bureaucrats in Brussels would seek to force Britain to back away from the liberalizing reforms she had put in place. She was similarly averse to the construction of a supranational Europe that would compromise Britain’s national sovereignty.
Although some members of her own cabinet found her animosity toward European integration excessive and counterproductive, Thatcher did help make euro-skepticism a signature issue for the Conservative Party. Prime Minister David Cameron is today fighting the ghosts of Thatcher’s legacy on this front, trying to convince his own party that Britain should stay put in the European Union. He is seeking to negotiate a more distant relationship between Britain and the EU in the hope that more breathing room will convince his compatriots to tolerate continued membership in the union. But a British exit from the EU is a plausible outcome, a result that would both isolate the U.K. and weaken the EU.
Thatcher was equally resolute on matters of defense and foreign policy. In 1982, she went to war with Argentina to defend British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. As a staunch anti-communist, she built a strong personal and ideological bond with Reagan. Both took a hard line when it came to containing Soviet expansionism. But both also saw in Mikhail Gorbachev a leader with whom they could do business. This combination of showing resolve while also taking advantage of an opening with Moscow played a central role in bringing the Cold War to an end.
Teamwork between Thatcher and Reagan perhaps marks the high-water mark of the Anglo-American “special relationship.” Britain and the United States still enjoy a unique bond; they have been partners ever since rapprochement between London and Washington in the late 1890s.
But with the Cold War over and America’s strategic interests having shifted from Europe to the Middle East and Asia, Britain and the United States need each other less than they did during the era of Thatcher and Reagan. Nonetheless, Britain will remain one of America’s go-to partners for the foreseeable future, a tradition that honors Thatcher and her political legacy.