Encounters with Margaret Thatcher were always daunting affairs. So, as a political correspondent with The Times, it was with some trepidation that I approached her at a drinks party at Conservative Central Office in the autumn of 1988.
Mrs Thatcher was about to embark on a three-day visit to strife-torn communist Poland where the hard-line President General Jaruzelski was locked in combat with Lech Walesa, leader of the banned Solidarity movement, the spearhead of popular resistance to totalitarian rule for nearly a decade.
Seeking a story for later editions that night, I asked her privately if she intended to break with protocol and seek a meeting with Walesa? No advisers were present, no ministers, no aides – and of course no briefing notes.
Speaking with the passion and intensity that was her trademark, she answered instantly. “Absolutely. We must support Walesa. We must support Poland’s quest for freedom.”
I had my story and a few days later the world witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of a British prime minister being mobbed in the market square in Warsaw where old soldiers saluted and the crowd chanted, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie”.
In Gdansk, where the regime had just announced the closure of the Lenin Shipyard, Mrs Thatcher laid a wreath on the memorial commemorating the deaths of workers shot by the police and military in 1970. Over a pheasant and vodka lunch, she gave her support to Walesa and Solidarity while thousands of people gathered at the memorial.
“You have already taken great strides along the road to freedom,” she told the Solidarity leader. “You do it from a moral conviction. You will never give in. That is a sign of true leadership.”
Of course, Mrs Thatcher could have been talking about herself. Under her leadership, Britain made great strides along the road to freedom. Workers were freed from the stultifying control of their union bosses, managers were set free to manage, entrepreneurs were encouraged to set up their own firms, and ordinary people were given the freedom to buy their council houses and, through the privatisation of state industries, to acquire assets.
And she acted out of moral conviction – and never gave in. She was a true leader.
On that same visit to Poland, where she also acted as a go-between for Jaruzelski and Walesa, time and again she came back to the core of her credo – that political and economic freedom go hand in hand.
As she told Jaruzelski over dinner: “Experience teaches you that you will only achieve higher growth, only release enterprise, only spur people to greater effort, only obtain their commitment to full-hearted reform, when people have the dignity and enjoyment of personal and political liberty, when they have freedom or expression, freedom of association, the right to form free and independent trade unions.”
The irony of a British Conservative Prime Minister, who, only a few years before, had destroyed trade union power at home, making common cause with a Polish trade union chief did not go unremarked at the time. But there was a consistent theme to her crusade – workers were not chattels of their union bosses, they had the right to elect their leaders and to decide through the ballot box whether they wanted to strike.
Mrs Thatcher’s achievements on the domestic front were remarkable in themselves. But it was her role in remaking the world she found on taking power in 1979 that will stand as the greatest part of her legacy.
That world was in the grip of the Cold War with a hesitant America, unnerved by its failure in Vietnam, facing a seemingly impregnable totalitarian super-power, the Soviet Union, hell-bent on extending its “evil empire” far beyond its European back-yard to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and, even, South America.
It was laughable then to suppose that in little more than a decade, the Soviet Union would collapse, that the Berlin Wall would fall, and that the satellite communist states of Eastern Europe would embrace democracy. Yet, all that happened on Mrs Thatcher’s watch as she forged a unique alliance with President Reagan. And nor did it happen by accident. Any reading of her memoirs demonstrates that the United States and Britain made a conscious decision to ratchet up the military, economic and political pressure on Moscow to force it to abandon its totalitarian ways and imperial ambitions.
Of course, though they knew it not, the Russians made her. One moment, she was a Home Counties housewife with a penchant forfussy hats, the next she was The Iron Lady. While still in opposition in 1976, she threw down the gauntlet to the USSR in a speech highlighting the West’s weakness in the face of Soviet military might.
The Russians, she said, were bent on world dominance and were pursuing it through arms. The Politburo put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.
Enter the Red Army’s newspaper Red Star which intended to make an insulting comparison with Bismarck, the nineteenth-century “Iron Chancellor” of Germany. The insult backfired. As Mrs Thatcher later responded: “I stand before you in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world. A Cold War warrior.
‘Yes I am an Iron lady.”