Lady Thatcher may be an icon to her most devoted fans but, as far as I know, none of them has ever worn a “What would Maggie do?” wristband. That’s not to say that they don’t find themselves asking (or being asked) the question now and then. After all, Thatcher, together with her eponymous –ism, have become lodestone and touchstone to rightwingers the world over. However imperfectly remembered or understood, Thatcher and Thatcherism simultaneously exert a magnetic attraction and provide a litmus test. They also conjure up the Conservative party’s glory days – a state of ideological grace, global respect and seemingly endless electoral success, all of which it could enjoy again if only it were to return to the path of free-economy/strong-state righteousness.
So when the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, addressing London’s hesitation in following Washington’s hard line on Huawei, said: “Ask yourself: would the Iron Lady be silent when China violates the sovereignty of nations through corruption or coercion?” he was touching – and presumably fully intending to touch – one of the most sensitive of all Tory nerves.
Pompeo’s implied answer to his own rhetorical question was, of course, no. How could anyone even imagine Britain’s latter-day Boudicca putting up with Beijing’s attempt to undermine security and sovereignty by force or fraud? Maggie would have told the Chinese where to get off – and sharpish, right?
Wrong. As always, the question “What would Maggie do?” isn’t as easy to answer as it might appear to be. Sure, Thatcher was (like her great ally back in the day, Ronald Reagan) very much a cold warrior – and, given the value of the special relationship and the existential threat posed to western liberal democracy and capitalism by the Soviet Union, some of us would say: quite right, too.
But many of those who worship her but weren’t around at the time forget that she was also, for most of her premiership at least, a pragmatist, particularly when it came to foreign policy. Indeed nowhere, perhaps, was that pragmatism more on display than when it came to China, especially over what was then the biggest potential beef between the two countries: the handover of Hong Kong .
Under no illusion about Britain’s lack of bargaining strength or its consequent inability to enforce any promises made to the population of its former colony, Thatcher signed the Sino-British declaration of 1984. In so doing, she not only recognised the reality of Chinese Communist power but also prioritised the maintenance of market confidence in Hong Kong, as well as the need to dampen fears back home that hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of its citizens might end up fleeing to the UK.
Moreover, China was by no means the only powerful country that Britain’s first female prime minister allowed to do pretty much what it wanted. Corruption and coercion in Middle Eastern monarchies was fine and dandy, as long as they kept up their lucrative orders from the UK’s defence industries. And those less positive than I am about the US will no doubt point to its numerous violations of other countries’ sovereignty, especially those in Latin America. Let’s not forget, when Thatcher herself was prime minister, Washington’s full-scale military invasion of Grenada in 1983 – a country whose head of state was none other than Queen Elizabeth II.
Then, of course, when it comes to allowing Huawei to get involved in building the UK’s 5G network, we need to recall Thatcher’s free-market enthusiasm for “outsourcing” if that meant getting, in one of her favourite phrases, value for money. Yes, she liked to go in to bat for successful British companies abroad. But, as her reaction to the destruction of much of the UK’s manufacturing base in the early 80s clearly showed, she had precious little sympathy – and precious few words – for those firms that failed to compete at home against superior foreign competition.
So the Iron Lady did sometimes choose to remain silent – at least when she felt it was in Britain’s best diplomatic or economic interests to do so. Whether, on this particular issue, then, she would have kept her own counsel or instead come out swinging is ultimately anyone’s guess.