Living under Margaret Thatcher's rule in the early 1980s could be unsettling, exciting, and sometimes just plain baffling for an American. Britain in many ways was a total mess -- its economy in the doldrums, unemployment high, constant labor strife, terrorist attacks in central London, and people sensing that their best days were behind them. Yet here was this outspoken, unflappable, and supremely self-confident leader determined to take the entire country by the scruff of the neck and set it all right. She never lacked for an answer. Some of her answers may not have been right, but looking back, many of them were. At a time when there is so much bickering and self-doubt on this side of the Atlantic, it's good to remember how much difference a leader can make.
The Falklands War gave me my first taste of Thatcher resolution in the face of popularity polls or the conventional wisdom. It was early May 1982, and I was moving my young family to London while the British invasion fleet was making its way to the South Atlantic. We flew over on a Sunday, and the Washington Post that morning had detailed analyses from retired U.S. flag officers explaining why the British forces simply couldn't mount an amphibious assault to recapture the islands: They didn't have the landing vehicles, the air support, the equipment or the training. No, at best they'd have to blockade the Islands and hope they could force the Argentine forces to surrender.
Apparently no one told Prime Minister Thatcher. Within 45 days, the British neutralized the Argentine naval and air forces, landed their troops, and took back the islands.
The Falklands victory raised the spirits of British subjects enormously, and Thatcher went from being voted the most unpopular prime minister ever to being one of the most popular. But things back in England weren't all going so smoothly.
My first day on the job working at our small branch of my Washington law firm, I found that just getting to work on time was going to be a challenge. The office was in the City, and I got up early to walk to the bus stop looking for the red double-decker that would take me to Cannon Street Station. As I waited, the line grew longer and longer. After no bus of any sort had come for nearly an hour, I asked one of the Brits standing with me about the schedule and was told that unfortunately the union had decided to call a strike that morning. My new British friends seemed to take it all in stride, willing to wait as long as it took until something turned up (or didn't). Being an impatient American, I walked over four miles to work.
The next day, I bought a bicycle and from then on biked back and forth to work, never trusting when the next transit strike might hit. And it was a good thing I did. It seemed like some union or the other was calling a strike just about every day. And this was at a time when unemployment had reached levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s -- 20 percent in Northern Ireland, 16 percent in Scotland and the Northeast, and 10 percent in the relatively affluent Southeast.
Two months later, the Irish Republican Army set off bombs in Hyde Park and Regents Park one morning, killing eleven members of the British military and seven horses, part of the Royal Guards on their way to Buckingham Palace. The Hyde Park bomb exploded a few hours after I'd ridden my bike along the same route the Guards had taken.
In the face of the strikes and terrorism attacks, there was one thing the British people seemed to be united about: their hostility to the United States and our president, Ronald Reagan. This was at the time when the United States was about to deploy Pershing missiles in Europe, introducing tactical nuclear capability into the battle plan for a possible invasion by the overwhelming Soviet forces. Many of the Europeans I talked with were furious with the United States for even contemplating deploying the Pershing missiles. In the face of it all, Margaret Thatcher remained steadfast in her support of the United States.
It didn't stop there. Thatcher ran against Michael Foot the next year after she called an election in the aftermath of her popular victory in the Falklands. It wasn't enough for Foot that Britain oppose the Pershing missiles; he wanted total unilateral nuclear disarmament. And this was at a time when the Soviet Union appeared to the outside to be as powerful as ever. I was used to the partisan battles between Democrats and Republicans back in the United States, but I hadn't expected the candidate for Prime Minister from one of the two main parties to run on a platform that would have the government get out of the defense business and nationalize as much private industry as possible.
Perhaps the most baffling for an American in London back in those days was trying to get a grip on things by reading the press. Most of our news came from the papers, and there we saw the sort of extreme partisanship throughout the newspapers that we've now come to expect here in cable news. You could pick your newspaper according to your views just the way you can now pick your cable channel (or Internet news site).
Looking back on it now, it all seems inevitable. Of course Britain would wake up and break the stranglehold of the trade unions on its economy. Of course it would stand up to the bullies of this world, even if it meant going to war. Of course it would deal with the threat that was the IRA and come to political terms. But back in the early days of Margaret Thatcher's administration, none of it seemed inevitable -- at least not to those of us watching. But maybe it was to her.