Los Angeles Times Interview : Margaret Thatcher : The Lady’s Not Made for Ducking a Tough Question

<i> The former Briti</i> s<i> h prime minister was interviewed by Times editors recently in Los Angeles</i>

Lady Thatcher has a presence.

When she enters a room, one realizes--as one might say in England--that one is in the presence of a formidable personage, the first woman prime minister of Britain whose reputation not only precedes but accompanies her.

She had served as prime minister for 11 1/2 years, one of the longest-serving prime ministers in British history. Margaret Thatcher, the greengrocer’s daughter turned “Iron Lady,” led her Conservative Party to three consecutive general-election victories, only to be brought down, three years ago, not by the ballot box but by her own parliamentary colleagues.

Rising from obscurity, from a relatively minor Cabinet post, she became a power in the land. She displayed no hesitation in tackling the trade unions, fighting a war over the Falklands, attacking high taxation and state ownership, and in vigorously devising and shaping other conservative policies that were pushed through Parliament to transform the political and economic landscape.


She pulled no punches and, in political terms, she threw many more rights than lefts. And she had no peers in parries.

Once to a Labor heckler: “The honorable gentleman suffers from the fact that I understand him perfectly.”

To those who once speculated that she would be forced to make a U-turn and change her economic policies: “I have only one thing to say--U turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.”

Indeed, she isn’t. She is making that clear in her just-published book, “The Downing Street Years,” in interviews and in little chats with the folks she is now meeting along the way. But will historians treat her kindly? Will they think of her when they speak of the Gladstones, Disraelis, Lloyd-Georges and Churchills?

One will just have to wait and see, won’t one?


Question: What adjustment have you had to make in your psyche from powerful prime minister to famous author?

Answer: When you have to make an adjustment like that, the important thing is to accept it, right from the beginning, and I did. (Second), I was never left without any work to do. The correspondence poured in, the requests poured in, to lecture, to speak, to write, whatever. As I go around the world, one makes one’s views known. One has no power, but one has influence, and one is still in the House of Lords, so you can make a speech there from time to time. . . . I think the most difficult of all things is that the structure of the week has gone. I knew--Monday morning--when we had the internal meetings. And there were certainly a number of them. And Tuesday and Thursday were question days. Wednesday I take out in the country. Friday I talk to the constituency. . . .

So you have to make different arrangements. And you must keep in with the intellectual community . . . the writing community, the thinking community, the ideas community, otherwise you die.

Q: Many of us in America are quite puzzled about Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He seems sort of an enigma. Is he a democrat? Is he a fraud?

A: I don’t find anything enigmatic about him. When he first came to see me--before he was elected president of Russia--he said: “First, we have no dispersal of power. Secondly, there’s still too much power in the hands of government. And, no freedom will survive unless you have a market economy.” And, he said, “I’m going to try to become the elected president of Russia to do all these things.”

. . . When he became the elected president . . . he tried to work with the system. The structure was still communist . . . and they weren’t going to change the constitution, they weren’t going to take much notice of the fact that Yeltsin was elected president. So he was stymied . . . He, nevertheless, tried to work with (the system) until he couldn’t any more.

When I was last there, in July, and he asked me what ought to be done, I said: “You have to dissolve your Parliament to get a new constitution and a new Parliament.” And that’s what he’s done. . . . Only when he had no option did he send in the tanks . . .

So I don’t find him a non-democrat. . . . He genuinely wants a true democracy--one he knows could only be backed up by dispersal of power, a limitation of power, private property, the market economy.

Q: What has surprised you about developments in the world since the end of the Cold War? Had you anticipated some of these chaotic events?

A: When any empire breaks up, there are always great problems--more so with an evil empire, because it suppressed so many feelings. It’s hard to suppress all national feelings or identity feelings other than the identity of communism. So I wasn’t the least bit surprised over the problems they’ve had in the (former) Soviet Union. Moreover, Stalin made 100 border changes during his time. They caused great problems. They were meant to cause problems. . . .

What I am critical of is that we should have done more to help on the fundamentals. It’s quite a mistake to think that because communism is at an end, democracy or peace has broken out. It hasn’t. . . . The amount of money that’s gone in hasn’t gone in the right way. It would be far better if we put all our efforts into a request to the (International Monetary Fund) to have a real currency board and a proper central bank, right at the beginning. You can’t build a confident people without a confident currency. . . .

Q: How do you see the future of Eastern Europe?

A: I don’t think, having got this far, that they’re going back to communism.

Q. What is the key to a successful foreign policy? Does the Clinton Administration have it, and if not, what’s needed?

A: Well, there just isn’t any way of isolating yourself or insulating yourself in the world today. It’s no good saying that you’ll serve only your domestic policy, because you’re just a part of (the world).

So, what is your foreign policy? You just have to have leadership in the world. It’s no good relying on the United Nations. It’s no good thinking that resolutions--some of which are ambiguous because they can’t get agreement on them if they’re clear--are an effective substitute for action.

Now, you start to apply that. . . . I would not have gone into Somalia. Somalia had it’s colonial period; it had its structure; it has still got these vast differences. You don’t know the wildness of those territories. . . .

Q: What about Bosnia?

A: I was appalled at the lack of action on Bosnia. I thought that (the Bush Administration) was entitled to think that Europe would deal with it. Europe goes to consensus, and consensus is the negation of leadership. They’re now congratulating themselves that they haven’t got involved, which, to me, is horrific.

We should have sorted things out in Bosnia, and Britain and France would have done it. You didn’t need to have Germany in. You didn’t need the whole big community thing.

It is quite wrong to say, “I must get the approval of a whole lot of people before I can exercise leadership.” In that way, the world is going to descend into one crisis after another. . . .

Has the West the weapons? Yes. All of them. The latest. Any surgical strike, anywhere in Yugoslavia, and in Serbia. Can they get them there? Yes. Good heavens! There were three aircraft carriers bouncing about in the Adriatic. So, yes, we had all the weapons. Yes, we have them there. Would we use them? No.

For us to have failed on resolve, under those circumstances, is the disgrace of the latter half of the 20th Century. . . .

Q: But there does not appear to be any great public consensus on using Western forces in Bosnia as peacekeepers.

A: I never suggested that we put forces in on the ground. . . . They don’t know the terrain. . . . Effective weapons would soon have dealt with some of the things the Serbs had. And training. (The Muslims) would have done the fighting. But they can’t do it without weaponry. That was one thing.

And then I said: “You give the Serbs an ultimatum: They get out of the territories they’ve taken, or you use your aircraft.” We’ve got the right aircraft, we’ve got the right missiles, and you bomb every military installation in the possession of the Serbs, whether in Serbia or in Bosnia. You’d had it ended very quickly. And it would have been quite clear that the West had learned a lesson: Do not appease an aggressor. Now the aggressor’s been appeased. It’s clear to other aggressors.

Q: On the subject of leadership, what kind of job do you think Clinton is performing as leader at home and abroad?

A: Before you get into power, you really want to have your own set of principles which would guide you, in any event. Each prime minister and President has to have his own style. Obviously, (Clinton’s) views and mine are very different, and I don’t think it’s fair, therefore, for me to comment, except, let me say this: He did want to do something about Bosnia. . . . And I was one of the many people who dropped him a letter and said, “I’ve noticed that it will give very great comfort to the Muslims in Bosnia.” . . . Unfortunately, he hadn’t enough confidence in his own view to drive it through.

Q: A lot of people thought that the United States pulled out of the Gulf War too soon. Do you think we ended it too quickly?

A: I wasn’t there at the end, but I knew Saddam Hussein had to be defeated. I knew his army had to be defeated, and I knew the army had to surrender--every person and every single item of equipment. And that is the only way to see that your dictator is humiliated. Also, had you done that, I think you could probably have asked for him to be handed over. After all, there are United Nation’s resolutions about war-crimes trials. . . . So I think that it was not a job that was well and truly finished.

Q: If you had been in power, rather than John Major, your successor, would you have been able to persuade President Bush of your view?

A: I don’t know, but there would have been some pretty powerful advocacy.

Q: Are you concerned that the United States is withdrawing into itself--is becoming , perhaps , isolationist?

A: I don’t believe it’s going to happen. It would be such a catastrophe. But what I am worried about is Europe becoming isolated. . . . We’ve piled such high costs onto our industry--the prices are too high, we’re non-competitive. We have our agriculture at enormously high subsidized rates. But the (European) Commission are protectionists. And some countries in Europe are protectionist. . . . It’s absolutely absurd. (Francois) Mitterrand has tried to have a rule to restrict American films to a percentage coming into Europe. I said, “What are you doing? I thought France made good films. What are you afraid of?” . . .

Q: We read and we write about many dangers lurking ahead in the post - Cold War world , but do you see any we’re missing, any threats to Western security that we’re not paying enough attention to?

A: Well, I have a theory about politics, which has been borne out in practice many times: The unexpected happens, and you must be prepared for it. Whatever is going to happen, you’ve got to keep strong defenses.

Q: Where do you think the next threat is going to come from?

A: I don’t know . . . It could come from the Balkans, of course. And there has been unrest in Africa for some time, and I’m a bit concerned about South Africa. They have not made proper provision for the Zulus. . . . (Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha) Buthelezi would never negotiate while (ANC leader Nelson) Mandela was in prison. Never. He survived the entire time and, equally, he was never first to cause violence. Never. And I just think he’s been very badly treated. And it’s no good anyone thinking you can have a settlement in South Africa unless the Zulus are properly treated . . .

Q: What’s your thinking about the British media? Should they be left alone or should there be new curbs put on them?

A: I really think they’ve gone too far. The demand (for new curbs) is becoming enormous. I think I would consider things now that I wouldn’t have considered, had they been better. Are you to have, every single place you go, some kind of right to put in a camera and the right to publish photographs? Would you like it? No.

Q: What would you like the Thatcher legacy to be when the historians sit down and assess it?

A: I think that I tried to restore the economics of a free society to Britain. When I went in, we were a socialist state, dominated by socialism and trade unions. We were highly regulated. We were in decline. People were beginning to look to the state to look after everyone, and not to their own efforts. . . . It was becoming an “unfree” society.

Q: Is that legacy being carried out by (Major)?

A: Yes. The fundamental restructuring that I did is still there. They’ve kept the regulations down. But I’m afraid they’re coming in by the back door through Europe, and we should be fighting them.