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Interview: Former Thatcher Confidant John O'Sullivan On Her Life And Legacy

A boy stands in front of a statue of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery in London.
A boy stands in front of a statue of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery in London.
British journalist John O’Sullivan worked as a special adviser for then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street from 1986 to 1988, and also served informally as a speechwriter. After Thatcher left office, O’Sullivan was one of two writers who worked with her on her memoirs: 1993’s “The Downing Street Years” and 1995’s "The Path to Power." O’Sullivan, a former executive editor and vice president of RFE/RL, spoke to Washington bureau chief Heather Maher about Thatcher’s life and legacy.

RFE/RL: British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that Margaret Thatcher "didn't just lead our country, she saved our country." How did she save Britain?

O'Sullivan: She saved Britain, principally, economically. When she took over as prime minister it was shortly after the [1979] "winter of discontent." You may remember that at that time there were strikes across Britain. The dead went unburied in Liverpool, rubbish piled up across London -- particularly in Leicester Square -- and heart patients were turned away by striking pickets from hospitals. Those are three examples, but generally speaking, most people felt that Britain was descending into a slough of despond and that really strong action was required to save it.

OBITUARY: Margaret Thatcher, Britain's 'Iron Lady'
John O'Sullivan
John O'Sullivan

She did three things. She first of all altered the law so that the trade unions were brought under control, both of the law and of their own members. Secondly, she put a very sharp brake on monetary expansion; she stabilized the currency and she effectively created a kind of necessary financial stability for businesses to plan. And thirdly, she embarked on a revolution of privatization and economic freedom which was imitated around the world. When people talk about privatization they forget sometimes that it was Mrs. Thatcher in Britain who pioneered it, and in doing so also created a new class of shareholders among people who’ve never owned that kind of property before in their lives.

So it was, all in all, a remarkable change in the kind of society that Britain was and it was reflected in the fact that within 10 years of her coming to power, Britain was the fourth-largest economy in the world.

RFE/RL: She was incredibly sure of herself and her beliefs. She famously said, "I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician." What personal values drove that?

O'Sullivan: She was brought up in provincial England, she was the daughter of a greengrocer, and she always said that influenced her economic views. If you actually worked in a grocer’s store, you knew these goods came from all over the world and you became interested in how that happened. And she would say it was the work behind the counter of her father’s store that gave her the first inklings of liberal economics. Of course, later on she developed her theories in a more academic way.

Secondly, she was a Methodist. That was, in the England of her youth, a slightly austere form of Christianity which stressed good works. And she went into that form of Christianity and she was quite a strong Methodist. She was religious all her life -- she didn’t wear her religion on her sleeve but it mattered to her -- and one of her favorite sayings was a quotation from [18th-century Anglican cleric and Christian theologian] John Wesley: "Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can." And I think she lived up to that kind of Christian injunction.

TAKE THE QUIZ: Margaret Thatcher

RFE/RL: She was admired by many but also loathed by many -- she was an incredibly polarizing figure. Did you ever get a sense that being so disliked, even eventually by some in her own Tory party, took a toll?

O'Sullivan: Well, of course she had to fight a lot of battles. And she knew it and she fought the battles. So it took a toll, but in a very obvious way. It didn’t subvert her personality, it was right on the surface and she was herself very combative -- liked a good debate and a good argument, and was convinced she was right. So while it took a toll, it wasn’t a deep psychological toll, it was the wear and tear of everyday life that [the toll] really represented, and I think she was the better for it.

John O'Sullivan with Margaret Thatcher in London in 2009
John O'Sullivan with Margaret Thatcher in London in 2009
RFE/RL: She was great friends with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. She once called him "the second-most-important man in my life" after her husband, Denis. Do you recall how that friendship began?

O'Sullivan: The friendship began in 1975, basically a week or two after she became the leader of the Conservative Party. Ronald Reagan was actually in London; he went to see her; they were supposed to spend half an hour together. It became, I think, an hour-and-a-half or two hours. She decided at that point that she would stay in touch with him and he did the same. So that was how it began.

But it really became a form of political bonding in 1981 when she was very much under pressure at home and, on her first visit to Washington, most of Reagan’s staff wanted him to distance himself from her. Well, he didn’t. He made a huge fuss [over] her. Not only did he give her a state dinner but he accepted the return invitation, which presidents don’t usually do -- that was against protocol. And not only did he turn up on these occasions, but he more or less put his arm around her to show, "We’re doing the same thing, and we’re right." That was for her the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and I think for him as well.

But they often disagreed, you know. They often came to -- never blows -- but they came to real disagreements; but they, as far as possible, kept them out of the public gaze.

RFE/RL: Historian Richard Aldous says in his book, "Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship," that the famous closeness between the two leaders was in some ways "stage-managed," even when it came to their policies toward freeing Europe from communism. Thatcher wanted to be much more aggressive than Reagan, but they wanted Moscow to see a united front.

O'Sullivan: Well, they did disagree about things, and at times she was more aggressive than he was and vice versa. For example, he was stronger in favor of stopping the oil pipeline being built from the Soviet Union to Germany. She felt she couldn’t [oppose it] because contracts had been signed and it would put a lot of British jobs at risk. So there were differences, and there were differences on the Falklands War, as we know; and there were differences on [the U.S. invasion of] Grenada. But those differences were dealt with internally. They never became real divisions in the Atlantic alliance. And they were overwhelmed anyway by the overwhelming support that she gave [Reagan] in such matters as putting American missiles into Western Europe -- something that really won the Cold War. When you add up the ledger, you see overwhelmingly [the relationship] was a positive thing for both of them.

RFE/RL: You’ve spent the last few years working in Central and Eastern Europe, where many people in the 1980s saw Thatcher as their advocate for freedom. Is that still true?

O'Sullivan: She was a champion of their liberties, and most of the people I’ve spoken to are very happy to acknowledge the fact and -- more than the fact that she was someone who gave strong support to solidarity -- she backed dissidents whenever the opportunity arose. It was at her instruction that the [U.K.] minister of foreign affairs -- the first one to do so -- got off the plane in Poland and made his first visit to the grave of Father [Jerzy] Popieluszko, who had been a martyr to the regime. So, yes, these things happened and she was very much the driving force within the British government for strong criticism of the Soviet Union, a strong defense buildup, and finally, of course, the declaration of strong anticommunist statements.

How Much Do You Know About Margaret Thatcher?

How Much Do You Know About Margaret Thatcher?

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