On this day in history, Margaret Thatcher, the so-called “Iron Lady” of Great Britain, tendered her resignation to the Queen after John Major had been elected her successor the day before. She told reporters:
We’re leaving Downing Street for the last time after eleven-and-a-half wonderful years and we’re happy to leave the UK in a very much better state than when we came here.”
She was appointed to lead The Conservative Party in February, 1975. She was the first woman to head a British political party, and went on to become the country’s first female Prime Minister in 1979. Having remained in power for eleven years, she was also the United Kingdom’s longest-serving leader of the 20th century.
Thatcher was a highly controversial figure, whose policies of tax reform, cuts to public spending, and anti-unionism made her quite unpopular among the underclasses.
In the United States, she was perhaps best known for her close alignment with the Cold War policies of United States President Ronald Reagan, based on their shared distrust of Communism. In London in April 1975, as leader of Britain’s opposition, Thatcher had her first one-on-one meeting with Reagan, who was seeking the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. The pair agreed that the West was giving away too much to the Soviets, while Moscow was winning the arms race.
As The Wall Street Journal explained:
Thatcher gained power in 1979, Reagan in January, 1981. Together, against big protest movements, they installed a new class of nuclear weapons in Europe to counter the burgeoning Soviet arsenal. Having achieved this position of strength, Thatcher thought it should be bargained from. In September 1983, she said publicly in Washington, ‘We stand ready…if and when the circumstances are right—to talk to the Soviet leadership.’ Reagan told her, privately, that he agreed.”
It was Thatcher who influenced Reagan to see Mikhail Gorbachev as representing a new direction for the Soviet Union. She had gone on a state visit to the Soviet Union in 1984 and met with Gorbachev, and declared in November 1988 that “We’re not in a Cold War now”, but rather in a “new relationship much wider than the Cold War ever was.”
According to The Wall Street Journal:
The administration, whose lines of information from the Kremlin were not strong, could not help being interested. Colin Powell was then military assistant to Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense and arch-hawk. “Along comes Gorby,” Gen. Powell recalled. “He’s like none we’ve ever seen before—with his beautiful suits and his French ties and a stunning wife…And the first statement he got of acceptability was from Margaret…The feeling was, ‘Jesus, if dear old Margaret thinks there’s something here, we’d better take a look.’
That is what Reagan did, after his discussions at Camp David with Thatcher. Already interested in talking to the Soviets and further encouraged by Secretary of State George Shultz, he did not swing from a “no” to a “yes” because of Thatcher. But she gave the right nudge at the right time.”