The news that former UK Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher has died has led to a wide ranging series of social debates in the UK over the legacy of the former Prime Minister. It is rare to see the death of a national leader lead to such strident debate, not only at home, but also abroad – normally the death of a PM attracts a short amount of coverage in the UK, perhaps a couple of one paragraph articles in foreign newspapers and a quiet funeral in an obscure part of the nation. The death of Baroness Thatcher has led to a wide ranging and very polarized debate between those who were strongly in support of her, and those who see her legacy as less positive.
Normally Humphrey tries to steer clear of political matters in this blog, but he’s decided to try and put across some very personal views on this subject due to the fact that the life and legacy of Baroness Thatcher was more than just political, and that in many ways she transcended politics in her reputation in order to become something more potent. Whatever her wider political actions, there was one area where she had arguably a long lasting impact and bequeathed a very long term legacy, and this was with the Armed Forces and Defence in general.
From one perspective Lady Thatcher enjoyed an extremely close and very personal relationship with HM Forces that transcended the normal political/military divide. Over the years some politicians have had better relationships with the military than others – speak to any Military Officer or MOD Civil Servant with experience of dealing with Ministers, and after a couple of drinks then they’ll usually be happy to pass observations on who was ‘rated’ and who was not. Generally this had nothing to do with political party or views, but on the ability of the individual and the manner with which they were able to get on with the unique combination of military culture and lifestyle which permeates the department.
Lady Thatcher, despite never having held any office within Defence, seemed to enjoy a tremendous and mutually held respect within the Armed Forces. This was not for her political views, but because in her ethos, attitude and manner of conduct, she seemed to place an emphasis and importance on the sort of values that are at the very heart of military culture. This, coupled with her realisation that in many ways after 1982 her continued hold on the Premiership owed much to the Falklands War victory, meant that she bestowed a great deal of affection on the armed forces. This is perhaps borne out by the reaction on sites such as the Army Rumour service or PPRUNE forums where a genuine sense of loss can be felt.
This closeness has never been seen to be bestowed in any other currently serving politician; while many recent PMs and Ministers have had good working relationships with the military, it is hard to see the same level of affection and mutual respect exist for any other politician of any party. That being said, other than Winston Churchill, it is hard to think of any other 20th Century Prime Minister or politician who enjoyed a similar status.
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A Long Term Legacy?
One of the challenges of managing Defence is that decisions taken now will have to be implemented and supported for decades to come. One only has to look at the CVF project, where initial design work began in the mid 1990s for the replacement CVS studies, for a design that will not enter service till 2018 and which is likely to remain in service until the 2050s or beyond. One example of this long term impact can be found today in some the decisions taken in the 1981 defence review – for instance the structure of the RN is still inherently built around not only the SSBN fleet, but also the Type 23 Frigates. The decision to implement a small, cheap and size limited design as part of the review is a decision which made sense given the operational imperatives at the time (namely ASW in the GIUK gap), but which has hamstrung the modern RN and will lead to major changes to the Type 26 force. One of Lady Thatcher’s legacies to this day is that current Governments are having to work with a force structure which was largely bestowed on them by the Labour and Conservative Governments of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In particular, the decision to commit to the replacement of Polaris with Trident has ensured that the current administration is faced with the challenge of taking tough politicial and financial decisions as a direct result of decisions taken over 30 years ago. This is perhaps a useful reminder in a generation where it is difficult to find people who can think in terms of more than one electoral cycle ahead – namely that some decisions will have ramifications for decades hence, and that your successors are very much tied into the decisions that you make today.
A Global Presence Restored?
One area where Lady Thatcher had perhaps more impact than she is widely given credit for is the re-establishment of the UK as a globally deployed military power. The context of the 1970s was one of retrenchment, withdrawal and an ever deepening focus on supporting the Inner German Border as the central point for all defence planning. Margaret Thatcher was the first Prime Minister to come to power who had not played a role in the previous 15-20 years of Imperial withdrawal and refocusing on NATO. While she had roles in Government, she did not handle any Defence or Foreign portfolio matters. It is perhaps noteworthy that one of her earliest military engagements was not only the deployment of Royal Marines to the New Hebrides, but also the deployment of Royal Navy vessels to Armilla to focus on the increasing security threat in the Gulf. Well over 30 years later and the RN is still deployed in the Gulf, and in ever great numbers (today at any one time over 25% of the RN is deployed East of Suez). The Falklands War naturally marks the most well known of her wider military engagements, but it is telling that throughout her premiership, she was a strident supporter for the deployment of UK forces outside of their traditional operating area (for instance the significant Exercise Saif Sareea in Oman in 1986), bucking the trends of previous years. In the very twilight days of her time in Office, she saw through the Options for Change defence review, which not only heralded the end of the Cold War military structure, but also saw the first steps in the UK military re-establishing itself as a much more globally deployable power, as was seen by the deployment to Saudi Arabia in 1990.
This may sound somewhat obvious, but it is worth considering that the current state of UK military capability may well not have existed if a different party had taken power in the 1980s. It is clear that a win by the Labour Party in the 1983 or 1987 General Election would have seen a radically different defence policy implemented, and one which would have seen significantly different force structures imposed on the military – for instance SSBNs, almost certainly SSNs, Carriers and other vessels would have been scrapped as part of wider ranging defence cuts. The political scene in the UK in the early 1980s was perhaps more markedly split between Left and Right than at any other point in recent history. While most elections since then would have had relatively small impacts on the military capability, it is fair to say that history would have turned out tremendously differently had the Labour Party won these elections. Therefore, one direct legacy of Lady Thatcher is that through her actions, she set the conditions for the current military force structure to exist, and to enable current political party leaders to continue have a genuinely global military capability.
This is perhaps a somewhat rose tinted spectacle approach – after all the 1981 Defence Review would have cost the RN its assault ships and reduced the carrier fleet, but the ultimate result though was that despite this initial policy, the legacy of the first leader to not have known withdrawal from East of Suez was to adopt a defence policy which paved the way for a return to Suez and beyond. Her actions directly saw the UK recommitting itself to the Gulf for a generation, and set in train a chain of events which have seen UK forces based there ever since.
A Very Special Relationship?
Of particular importance is the manner in which the strong personal relationship between Lady Thatcher and President Reagan manifested itself in the significant re-invigoration of the Anglo-US alliance. The very genuine bonds of friendship at this level, and the renewed confidence which saw the two leading NATO powers take a far more proactive approach to tackling the challenges of the Soviet Union almost certainly paved the way for the much stronger co-operation of the years that followed. Again, this is a point often forgotten, but by the 1980s, the UK and US were still close, but the relationship perhaps lacked chemistry. Many of those who drove it forward were senior, approaching retirement and perhaps it owed more to their shared wartime experiences than it did about current matters. The series of events, such as the re-engagement on the global stage, success in the Falklands, and the later joint work to tackle the Soviet Union, as well as wider engagement helped restore the UKs reputation and working relationship for a new generation of military and civilian staff. This is not to say that the Anglo-US relationship would have further declined without Lady Thatcher, but it was definitely given a fillip that helped reinvigorate it. The impact of this was the ability for the UK to restore its place at the side of the US as a genuinely credible ally, which has endured to this day. Again, this is not something that should be taken for granted, as the election of the Labour party in 1983 / 1987 would have seen the emergence of a Government committed to the withdrawal of US forces from UK soil, and with it the likely ending of the Anglo-US alliance. It is fair to say that the legacy of Lady Thatcher is that the relationship is far strong now than it could well have been. Of course actions speak louder than words, and much of the strength of the relationship comes from willingness by the UK to offer troops, diplomatic support and other measures to work with the US. But, this can only come about if there is willingness at the top of Government to see this level of commitment. Lady Thatcher set the tone for a reinvigoration of the relationship that all of her successors since have seen fit to continue to support.
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One area for which she will always be remembered, but for which it is challenging to identify specific a legacy is the Falklands War of 1982. While her leadership and position at this time will probably be one of the enduring memories of her premiership, the Falklands remains very much a unique occurrence in British history. If anything perhaps the legacy is the fact that the war came as a timely reminder that the UK continues to have a truly global footprint of interests, which still needed protecting. This came at a point when the UK was seemingly going down the road of having to politically choose between a military entirely optimised for the defence of the Central Front, or one which was essentially a home defence force. The Falklands came as a strong reminder that no matter what the primary threat, the UK needed to retain a broader global intervention capability. Any future defence review will have to be conducted under the ‘Falklands Factor’ – namely that the UK will be expected to be able to do something to intervene in support of its overseas interests, which was not a given even in the 1981 defence review.
Perhaps though the most challenging legacy she left is that of Service pay. In 1979 the armed forces were significantly underpaid compared to the wider population, and morale was low and retention a challenge. Many forces personnel really struggled to get by, and the pay simply wasn’t enough to live a reasonable lifestyle. One of the first acts of the new government was a very substantial pay rise, which in turn started the long road to service pay providing a genuinely competitive salary. This made a real difference to service morale at the time, and it is telling that many of those who served then have remembered this pay rise on their internet forum eulogies. While in the short term this had a positive effect, it could be argued that in fact it set in train the ever increasing challenge of an unaffordable manpower bill. One of the real challenges in Defence today, and often touched on here, is that manpower is now extremely expensive.
One of the reasons the UK could afford large armed forces until the mid-1960s was because the pay was so low by comparison to wider industry that it was possible to have large forces for relatively little cost. By contrast, todays armed forces are phenomenally expensive to pay and employ as their wages bill is out of all proportion compared to the 1960s (even allowing for inflation). By providing the military with a more reasonable salary, the stage was set to see the long running problem of how manage an ever more stretched defence budget – personnel or equipment? This is a problem which has only gotten worse in recent years, and is likely to prove a continued challenge – how do you pay for a military which requires highly specialist skills and experience, and also afford the equipment that goes with this? This is perhaps the most difficult legacy, for in choosing to increase the pay to the armed forces which she supported; the long term reality has been to make them increasingly unaffordable for the nation as a whole.