Maggie Digs in Her Heels

Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is an old and valuable friend of America who perhaps has known better days as a clear thinker.

Those were the memorable days when she was kicking government crutches from under British companies to show them that they could stand on their own feet. She was cutting taxes, driving down inflation and acting as Europe's most vocal cheerleader for bigger defense budgets and deployment of American Pershing II missiles to help persuade the Soviet Union that it could not win an arms race. But for all this she was still a clear enough thinker to see that there was something very different about Soviet President Gorbachev. "I like Mr. Gorbachev," Thatcher said the first time she met him. "We can do business with him." That was in 1984, long before other Western leaders noticed.

Always sure of her herself and often set in her ways, she seems even more so now. But postwar Europe is changing, and leaders in the Western alliance need open minds and flexibility. Now Thatcher is in trouble at home: Inflation and interest rates are back up and Britain could tip into a recession. Tuesday she easily rode out a challenge to her job from a little-known Conservative backbencher, but the challenge itself was a message. Through all of this, she is talking more and more like an isolationist.

She has kept the European Community at arm's length on the premise that being too cozy with the continental nations would mean giving up some of Britain's sovereignty. She declines to link the pound to other European currencies, a stand that led to the resignation of Nigel Lawson, who guided her economic policy as chancellor of the exchequer during the better days.

Just this week, while President Bush was outlining in the most delicate language possible his position on a reunited Germany, Thatcher snapped that reunification is out of the question in this century, canceled a press conference and went home. What she said was not so different from what others said, this century having only 10 years left to go. But it was the way she said it.

In her present frame of mind, Thatcher probably would take as an endorsement of isolationism the description of England that Shakespeare wrote in Richard II: "This fortress built by Nature for herself."

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